In Toronto, fans dominate the hockey landscape

Front-office turmoil could come to a head any day.

19.01.2008
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Captain Mats Sundin worries about his Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo: HHoF/Dave Sandford

TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs are headed toward massive change in their front office, but at this stage of the season it appears little can prevent the team from being entitled to a draft choice very high up in the 2008 selection.

To say that the last weeks have been difficult for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs is somewhat of an understatement, but at the same time, the last 40 years have also been difficult since the last Stanley Cup, so a few weeks is hardly unendurable. As Leafs Nation observes the possible final days of general manager John Ferguson Jr., they once again show their resilience with unmatchable resolve.

The 2007-08 season has been one of almost perpetual agony for Leafs watchers. Bryan McCabe has put the puck into his own net in overtime one game and coughed up a breakaway pass to lose another game in overtime; the goalie tandem of Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft rank at the very bottom end in rather vital statistics such as goals-against average and save percentage; free agent Jason Blake has been a bust; their best young defenceman, Carlo Colaiacovo, has returned and then been sidelined again by yet another injury; the team had the worst record in the league when leading after two periods; and, Ferguson has failed to add any significant talent to his roster during his five years as GM during an era, when dozens of superstars across the NHL have swapped teams and been available for the taking. Furthermore, the drafting has been unimpressive, the injuries frustrating, the team's performance a major disappointment.

Incredibly, amid all the chaos and gossip the year has produced, captain Mats Sundin, at age 36, is having a superb year, among the leaders in goals and total points through the first half of the season. Now in his 13th year with the Blue and White, he has seen it all and is probably inure to the frenzy that is the team dressing room on game nights. As the team slides further and further away form the playoffs, the stoic captain has maintained his loyalty to the team and made it clear that he does not want to be traded at the deadline in late February. He understands what hockey means to the fans of the team, and he is prepared to give his career to those fans.

Yet no other NHL team runs its business operations and hockey operations in the same way that MLSE does. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment is not just the ownership group of the hockey team, it is the umbrella organization that includes the farm team Toronto Marlies (AHL), Toronto Raptors (NBA basketball), Toronto FC (MLS soccer), and the Air Canada Centre (not to mention a massive condominium development on adjacent property). It is a billion-dollar empire. The hockey team is valued the richest in the world. Every game is sold out and tickets are the most expensive on the planet.

The media blame the fans for the problem, suggesting that if they stopped attending games the team would be forced to improve. But why put the onus on the fans? Why should they stop doing what they love to do - go to watch hockey? The onus should be on management to improve regardless of the attendance figure or the profit margin. That's what teams are supposed to do - improve or try to improve until they win the Stanley Cup, and then improve again as soon as the parade route has been swept clean.

Indeed, as Ferguson has admitted time and again, the management is accountable for the desperate state of the team today. But once former owner Steve Stavro made the team a private business instead of a public one, that accountability diminished.

Just as Foster Hewitt had been the voice of the Leafs and made the team famous not only in Toronto and Ontario but right across the country, the fact that any person in the country could buy shares in the team was equally important. Citizens, after all, were the ones who built the Gardens in a record six months during the height of the Depression in 1931, and many of the workers-electricians, plumbers, contractors - were paid by owner Conn Smythe in shares. Those shares represented a critical, symbolic bond between the players on the ice and the people of Canada.

Despite not winning the Cup in the modern era, the Leafs remain the most valuable franchise for one reason and one reason only - the fans. They pay whatever it takes to watch the team play, whether through the highest ticket prices or through cable subscriptions to Leafs-TV, the station devoted solely to the team which has broadcast more and more games every year. The fans hold a mini-parade after every home victory in the playoffs, and the fans keep several local radio stations alive through talk shows which discuss little else except the most recent trade or loss or morsel of juicy gossip concerning their beloved team. At seasons' end, subscription renewal rates at the Air Canada Centre are, at worst, 99.9 per cent.

And so, the 2007-08 season has been a miserable one so far and shows no signs of getting better. In the previous off-season, the team made only two moves after missing the playoffs - the free agent signings of Jason Blake and goalie Vesa Toskala. Compare the reaction in Philadelphia, the worst team in the league in 2006-07. In the summer of 2007, it made sweeping changes to its roster, including several key free agent signings led by Daniel Brière. While Blake is now the subject of trade talks and Toskala has been mediocre at best in goal for the Leafs, the Flyers have become one of the league's premier teams again. Philadelphia has proved that radical, swift, and successful change can be accomplished.

The Leafs won't be winning the Stanley Cup this year. In fact, they will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Nonetheless, the fans continue to flock to the games because they love the sport and they are devoted to their team, but for the immediate future there is little hope for a brighter tomorrow, and they will have to endure another year in which one of 29 other teams will host that most cherished of events - a Stanley Cup parade. They cannot be blamed for this, only praised to the hilt for their unmatched loyalty.

Notebook:
  • Injured Leafs defenceman Bryan McCabe is still a long way from returning to the team.
  • Rumour has it Cliff Fletcher will decide in the next day or two if he is interested in replacing Ferguson.
  • The Leafs proved resilient in their return home on Tuesday night after a disastrous three-loss road trip to California, beating Carolina 5-4 after holding leads of 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 before pulling away in the third period of a 3-3 game.
  • Scotty Bowman confirmed earlier this week that he was interested in a position with the Leafs last summer, but only if he were given total control of the team's on-ice operations.

ANDREW PODNIEKS


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