MLSE Off the Market and the Friday Mail Bag
As it turns out, a buyer couldn't be found for MLSE.
Not at $1.5 billion or more. Not under current economic conditions.
So the nameless, faceless, championship-less mandarins of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, those people who have sponsored the wholly unsuccessful current era in Toronto hockey, basketball and soccer, will keep their stake in the sports conglomerate.
And nobody applauded.
The news, and a passionate-less statement, came from the Teachers this morning. No appreciative note to fans, or promises of increased efforts to win. Nothing, other than complimenting themselves on torontomapleleafs.com as "great owners." The fund calls MLSE a "very successful investment" but promised no other comment.
These suits just don't get it. Never have.
The pension fund has made lots of money owning MLSE, but despite hiring big names like Bryan Colangelo and Brian Burke, hasn't figured out ways to move its basketball and hockey properties into the elite of either the NBA and NHL. It can develop and open a good sports bar; winning games has never been something it has done well.
With more than $100 billion in assets, MLSE is but a small part of the pension fund's holdings, and Leaf fans need to understand that. Even under MLSE, the Leafs are only a part of the puzzle. In a generation, the hockey franchise has gone from being owned by a man who's sole interest was being the proprietor of the team to being owned by a corporate entity with only a passing interest in the needs of the hockey club.
And there's no end in sight. Now on to this week's mail bag;
Q: Damien, how goes it? Wondering should the Leafs continue to play .500 hockey for the next while, as in win one, lose one, do you think they will make a trade, fire Wilson, or keep the status quo?
Terry Halloran, Boissevain, Man.
A: Plan seems to be hold with the status quo. I believe Brian Burke is kicking tires everywhere, but until James Reimer returns, holding the line seems to be the game plan. And probably the right one.
Q: One of the faults of the Brian Burke regime is its poor track record with assessing and projecting its talent.
They tend to lean towards optimism (Pegging draft picks in the Kessel trade, Bozak as a No. 1 centre). Obviously no one could have predicted James Reimer's injury, the absolute worst case. But with a second-year goalie, how many times have we seen them take a step back or completely fall off (Steve Mason)?
As a fan I hoped Reimer could continue his quality of play, I didn’t expect him to be a whole lot better or a whole lot worse.
But as a GM, you need some contingency plans, especially when a second-year goalie is your starter.
When the contingency plan is Jonas Gustavsson, given his playing and health track record, then it seems poorly thought out. (I have to wonder how much better the Monster would be if he played a full season in the AHL before joining the Leafs? The adjustment from Swedish elite league to NHL is a big deal for a goalie)
Now With James Reimer seemingly closer to returning; what are the chances he returns to form and can finish the season playing like he did last year? I don’t seem him starting an NHL game until January. (A couple more weeks healing, then conditioning in the AHL…)
Can the Monster hold the fort for another month?
Matt Ferraro, Guelph
A: That's a long intro to a short question. Gustavsson has been somewhat better, but getting massive offensive support has been a big key to that. Ben Scrivens will be the odd man out when Reimer returns. So the evidence seems to be that Gustavsson can hold the fort, particularly as long as Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul remain as hot as they have been.
Q: On Wednesday, the Leafs sat in second place (in the conference). Everyone in the playoff race (8th place and up), including Washington in 8th, can catch the Leafs because they have games in hand. This just might be a "House of Cards". The Leafs will be fighting for a playoff spot until the end of the year. What da ya think?
Andy Pizans, Longford Mills
A: Sounds like your assessment is bang on. The only change to this, in my mind, would be if Reimer returns and starts playing like an all-star. Otherwise, they'll be part of a pack grinding it out, hoping to get a playoff berth, to the end.
Q: Is it possible that MLSE will never panic about the Leafs as long as they continue to sell out the seats - boxes - condos – etc., etc.?
An unhealthy balance sheet may be the only thing that actually forces the Leafs to do something radical —- i.e.: fire Wilson -- or (God forbid)fire Burke.
Pete Geraghty, Whitby
A: Well, based on the decision of the pension fund to keep the team, it looks like an unhealthy balance sheet isn't in the cards. This has been the theory about the Leafs for years, and there's no question that it means little or nothing to ownership from a financial perspective whether the hockey club finished first or last. That said, they've hired some expensive, qualified people to run the Leafs and Raptors and otherwise stood back and watched. To some, that would be ideal ownership.
Q: Hey Damien,
Love your columns and hearing your opinions on the Fan. I was wondering if you've heard anything about the status of the improvements to NHL rinks that were shown in the pre-season and R&D camp? The curved glass at the ends of benches, the goal verification line and the thinner mesh at the top of the net. The NHL was saying during the pre-season they wanted these changes for the start of the season, but I haven't heard anything about them since. Have you heard anything about the holdup?
Dan Thompson, Toronto
A: All logistical. I would have thought the the verification line, in particular, would have been instituted by now. But apparently there's still bugs needed to be sorted out. The hockey world awaits.
Q: Hi Damien,
Love your column. Best substance per word ratio among hockey commentators.
My question is more of a beginning of the season question, but here goes: What is with Brian Burke and "truculence"? Every year, the Leafs miss the playoffs, and every offseason, the thing Burke always thinks is missing is the ever-elusive "truculence." As if the Leafs suffer from a dearth of 3rd-line forwards and no. 4 defencemen.
If he was bringing in Corey Perrys, Ryan Getzlafs and Milan Lucics, fine, but on a team that has (1) no reliable starting or backup goaltender, (2) no No. 1 centre, and (3) only one first-line player, his obsession with role players is kind of myopic. Role players can certainly enhance a team on the cusp, but the Leafs are not on the cusp.
Richard Blanco, New York
A: Well, it's a lot easier to get role players than stars. To me, there's no question the Leafs aren't nearly as physical (or truculent) as team as they need to be, that is, if you understand physical to be the need to be an aggressive, hitting team that pushes the play and dictates the game. Boston proved last spring how having a strong, physical club can pay off. That's the kind of team Burke would like to develop. In three years on the job, it's still a work in progress.
Q: While certainly not a Wilson fan, Damien, I do not think Burke will hang the pink slip on Wilson. Because if Reimer wasn't hurt, things would be a lot different as you know. Yes, there are other team deficiencies which the coach is responsible for but had Reimer been playing all the time, his goaltending would have covered up many of those deficiencies. Plus they have a ton of injuries to boot right now. It's kind of a tough spot for Burke because he made the terrible mistake in the offseason, not getting a proper talented backup goalie in the event Reimer got hurt. Doug McLean at the start of the season said that Leafs would go a lot farther this year PROVIDED REIMER DIDN'T GET HURT. Boy was he ever right on that one.
Paul McNamara, Midland
A: I don't think anybody believed Wilson would get fired this season unless the team got off to a horrible start. The issue has been whether, and when, he'll get an extension. Look, you cannot criticize a GM who stubbornly stands by his coach. You and I may or may not think Wilson is the right man to coach the Leafs, but you have to admit it's refreshing in this day and age to see a GM not use firing the coach as the first and easiest option when things don't go well.