Thursday Mail Bag
Waiting for Mats Sundin. Waiting for Brian Burke. Now waiting for Ron Wilson.
To be a member of the Leaf Nation, or even a bemused Leaf watcher, is to be patient these days as the MLSE board, Richard Peddie, Gord Kirke and Cliff Fletcher sort through the decisions that need to be made.
But who, pray tell, is making the decisions, exactly?
That remains the question, and one many people in the hockey world would like to have the answer to. For most teams, it’s the owner, or the majority owner, but in the case of the Leafs, the majority owner is the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. The pension fund appoints people to sit on the Leaf board, so they aren’t exactly owners in a conventional sense, and they don’t try to act that way.
Chairman Larry Tanenbaum is sitting in on meetings with prospective president/GM candidates these days, but he owns just 13 per cent of the operation. Peddie doesn’t have a stake, and it certainly seems clear he’s as influential now as he was before despite all of his terrible decisions with the Raptors and Leafs.
All these people don’t want to lead, but they sure want to meddle and make their opinions known. Just ask John Ferguson Jr. about that.
So anybody still interested in running the hockey club tells you these days they’re only interested if they can get an iron clad contract that allows them to walk away with a platinum handshake if the board, or Peddie, tries to interfere.
It still remains to be seen if the board will actually ever sign off on such a deal. Meanwhile, Fletcher, who require no such conditions to be interim GM, seems happily prepared to continue indefinitely.
Clearly, he doesn’t mind waiting.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Hi Damien,
'Tis the season for GM/coaching casualties and interviews. With all the speculation about prospects at either position, what exactly is involved in the interview processes for each? I know this varies from team to team, but what sorts of questions are they asked, how long do the interviews last (let's not use the Leafs' situation as our measuring stick, since they seem to be doing out of the ordinary in their search for a coach and GM), who do they provide for references, etc. In other words, how far removed is the interview process for these guys from that for the rest of us?
A: Generally speaking, its not a traditional-type of process, because those doing the hiring usually know the candidates and their experience well beforehand. Often, they’ve known each other for years, or have worked together previously. It’s not like they’re accepting applications, in most cases. Most of the “interview” is usually the president deciding whether he can work with the GM, or the GM deciding if he can work with the coach and likes his general philosophies. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis recently decided to stretch the process out to about a week with coach Alain Vigneault before deciding to keep Vigneault and let his assistants go. So, for the most part, its not really like the real world at all.
Q: Mr. Cox,
Richard Peddie is making a mockery of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hiring a management team "for the ages", mouthing Fletcher's words at a press conference and on and on.
As an ardent life long Leaf fan I am continually shocked at how low the organization has sunk. I expect the only way Peddie will go is if pressure is brought to bear on the suits who own the Leafs. Could you publish an address that Leaf fans could use to write or email their disgust; an address that would reach the MLSE Directors who ultimately bear responsibility for this ongoing fiasco? The fans would need the names of the directors published as well.
Rather than sit back and complain I believe it is time fans took a proactive approach to achieving change. How do you feel about being the coordinator of this effort?
If 71% of Leaf fans think their best player should play elsewhere for his own self respect (Eds note: recent Star Internet poll on Mats Sundin) you have to think the fan motivation is there to do something.
If I lived in TorontoI would be picketing MLSE headquarters.
Budd Stewart, Victoria
A: Well, The Star has published the names of the MLSE board before, and certainly Peddie gets lots of emails and communications from disgruntled fans. Problem is, and you probably already know this, the negative reviews are generally drowned out by those who willingly support the team, buy tickets etc., so for the public, it seems nearly impossible to bring real pressure to bear on the corporation that is the Leafs. They’re certainly not publicly elected officials, so their only real responsibility is to their stockholders, not the fans of the team, and that is made crystal clear every year with the way in which the team is run.
These people have taken a team that used to be regarded as a public trust, of sorts, and turned it into a cash cow that helps fund their other ventures. They’re not even slightly interested in what their customers think if only because they have trouble keeping up with the demand for tickets, merchandise, etc. It’s all very legal and very profitable, but for true blue Leaf fans, maddening and just kind of sad.
Q: With all the talk of Mats potentially moving to another club where does it leave his popularity and legacy with the club? Holding many records and being a very loyal team captain for many years should leave him as revered as some of the greatest to ever don the Blue and White.
If he were to sign with another team now my thoughts are that he jumps to the top of the list (well maybe right behind the long list of bad ownership) of those that have screwed this franchise. Not for his deciding to leave but for his selfish decision to not accept a trade at the deadline that would have gone a long way in helping the Leafs to rebuild and then to leave in the off-season anyway.
Neal McColvin, Toronto
A: I think we’ve been over this, but for what its worth, it was up to Cliff Fletcher and the Leaf hockey department to persuade Sundin to accept a trade in his own best interest. Sundin signed a contract with the Leafs and lived up to the terms of that contract. He never asked to be traded – how would Leaf fans have reacted to that? – and declined to waive the no-trade clause that the team chose to give him. Fletcher seemed far more worried about making sure Sundin was happy than doing whatever was necessary in the interests of the team. In the end, a major opportunity was lost. But it wasn’t Sundin’s fault. He’ll go down as one of the top 10 players to ever wear a Leaf uniform, whether he comes back next season or doesn’t.
Q: Hi Damien,
I have always been a Leaf fan and do remember the last Cup they won. I have also always been a Sundin fan as a player and captain.
All we have seen in the press over the past few weeks concerning Mats’ future focuses on whether he will re-sign, go to the open market as a UFA or retire. If a reasonable deal in Toronto does not exist how about the possibility that he throws the Leafs (and the "Nation") a bone and allow Toronto to shop his signing rights. As we saw this year this arrangement worked out very well for Philly with Upshall and Timmonen.
Eric Robertson, Kingston, Ont.
A: Why would he? He wants to choose the next step of his career, and where he’ll play or if he’ll play at all. He threw the Leafs a “bone” a year ago when he restructured his contract to help create more cap room, and the results of that decision are obvious to everyone.
Q: Hi Damien,
With the Leafs trying to restock the team with young players, is there any chance they could sign Blake Wheeler or Justin Azevedo, two great young free agents?
Matthew Wilks, Markham
A: Don’t know if Wheeler or Azevedo can reasonably be regarded as “great” prospects. The Leafs did chase hard after Fabian Brunnstrom, and right now they’re concentrating on doing well at the June 20-21 entry draft before looking to sign a boatload of unproven free agents.
Q: Gord Kirke has talked about how much he likes the Detroit Red Wings management model and the Leafs have been sniffing around at hiring a myriad of Assistant-GMs who all share a strong hocky pedigree. Wouldn't it make sense though, for the new President/GM to be able to build his own team, instead of having Richard Peddie and Gord Kirke put that team in place? (Okay - there's the softball question - knock it out of the park).
K. Flint, Ottawa
A: Well, yes. Of course it would make sense. But somebody has to hire the president first, and as usual, there are lots of different people trying to influence the process. As mentioned in the prelude to this mail bag, this is one of the problems that comes with having such a vague ownership structure, not to mention one focused primarily on profit margins.
Q: A couple of questions that have nothing to do with the GM job or the draft:
Just wondering, with all the talk about who's won what percentage of faceoffs, do teams practice face-offs? If so, how? With all the coaches they have these days, do teams ever bring in a face-off specialist to work with their centres, someone who excelled in taking face-offs throughout his career? If not, why not, if winning face-offs is so crucial?
And apropos of absolutely nothing, but once players retire, how often do they ever go for a skate (excluding players who become coaches)? When they've skated 300-plus days a year since they were little kids, how often do they skate once they've retired?
Nick Martin, Winnipeg
A: All teams work on faceoffs, and some teams have coaches who excelled at that part of the game. Montreal, for instance, has Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller and Doug Jarvis as part of their coaching staff, and all three men excelled at faceoffs during their career. Go to a Montreal practice and you’ll see them working at it with their players. But I’ve never heard of a team bringing in a faceoff specialist from outside of the organization.
In terms of what ex-players do, it varies. Brett Hull doesn’t look like he’s stepped on the ice since he quit. Wendel Clark dons the blades often to skate with his kids. Many players get involved with oldtimer teams. Ken Dryden stayed active playing after he retired, but as a skater, never a goalie. Rick Vaive got involved playing for a senior team in Dundas, Ontario. There’s no set pattern, but few stay anywhere as active on blades as they were when they played.
Q: How do, Damien?
What are the chances of success for this new Continental Hockey League being formed by these Russian billionaires. Should the NHL be worried about this potential rival?
Chris A., London, Ont.
A: It’s really hard to say. I had the opportunity to have a long discussion at the world championships a couple of weeks ago with former NHL defenceman Slava Fetisov, who is now the Russian sport minister, and he spoke with great confidence of a new dawn for hockey and professional hockey in his country. There seems to be lots of public and private money available, but for the most part, the arenas aren’t NHL-sized and Russian fans aren’t used to paying the kinds of prices North American fans are accustomed to, so it’s unclear where the revenues will come from to structure a league that could truly compete with the NHL.
What you’re likely to see – and you’re seeing it already – is that some Russian players may choose to stay home and play, and some fringe NHLers from other countries might grab at a chance to make decent money for a year or two in Russia. When Russian teams start putting together payrolls of $25 million and upwards, then there might be reason for the NHL to start worrying about real competition.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.