Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun talk about how the new ownership in Toronto will affect the team this season.
Burnside: Hello, my friend. Well, never a shortage of stories in your town away from the actual rink. The big news of the day, of course, is that a majority share of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the parent company that owns them (and just about everything else in Toronto it seems) is on the move. The teachers' pension fund group that owned 79.5 percent of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has sold its controlling interest in MLSE to a communications conglomerate that includes competing sports entities Rogers and Bell. Rogers owns, among other things, the Toronto Blue Jays and the stadium in which they play, while Bell owns, among other things, sports network TSN, for whom you also toil.
The price tag of the deal formalized Friday is $1.32 billion CDN ($1.29 billion U.S.). Big news, of course, but from the outside this all seems like trading one group of faceless suits for another. This is a monster deal, much different than most NHL team sales that have featured one lead individual along with assorted minority investors. That's how it'll shake down when Matt Hulsizer buys the St. Louis Blues in the coming weeks. It was so with Tom Galglardi in Dallas. Recent sales in Tampa and Buffalo have been tied to one flesh-and-blood human being. Does it matter? Does a group of well-heeled businessmen have a better or worse chance at producing a winning product than one well-heeled businessman?
One of the knocks on the Leafs, who have failed to make the playoffs since the lockout and not won a Cup or advanced to a Cup final even since 1967, is that the drive to win at the highest level has been blunted by the corporate environment at the top. The Leafs make a ton of money, the theory goes, so that's the bottom line -- not being a champion. Myth? Reality? All we know is that until the Leafs actually change the end result on the ice, there will always be doubts about the guys in the suits, regardless of which big company is pulling the strings. What say you, my friend?
LeBrun: Well now that I own part of the Leafs through my TSN work … OK, not really. But it’s a massive transaction on all kinds of levels.
Just a few weeks ago, on Nov. 25, Teachers’ released a statement saying it was taking its ownership share off the market.
"Teachers' has concluded this eight-month process with the decision to maintain its stake in MLSE, which has been and continues to be a very successful investment," the pension fund said that day.
But money talks.
So what changed?
One source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com Friday that talks had completely broken down between Teachers’ and Bell/Rogers “for about two weeks.’’ Hence the statement late last month saying the team was off the market.
MLSE owns the NHL Leafs, the NBA Raptors and the MLS Toronto FC, plus more assets. The new arrangement has Bell owning 37.5 percent, Rogers owning 37.5 percent and current minority owner Larry Tanenbaum increasing his share to 25 percent.
(Of interest, by the way, is that Bell owns 18 percent of the Montreal Canadiens, but I was told this morning that it doesn’t necessarily have to divest itself of that share since it’s a minority share, as long as safeguards are in place that ensure no “operating influence’’ in two different franchises.)
From smart phones to cable/satellite TV, Bell and Rogers have all kinds of platforms now to integrate their new sports property. They need content for all the technology they’re developing. Well, now they have the No. 1-rated hockey content -- at least TV ratings-wise -- in the NHL.
Will it mean more wins on the ice for the Leafs? That’s up to GM Brian Burke, not the new owners who pay him. Money never has been an issue with the Leafs. Hockey decisions have been. Now Burke finally has this team on the right track.
Burnside: Well, I guess the Leafs stunk when Harold Ballard was a single-entity owner, and they’ve stunk under giant corporate groups, so maybe it’s not the ownership group after all. Still, I think it’s easier to have a disconnect between the ownership vision and the on-ice product when you have a situation like the one the Leafs have been involved with in recent years. Maybe this is the year Burke’s Leafs break through with at least a playoff visit.