TORONTO – More than seven weeks have passed since the Toronto Maple Leafs last played a hockey game, but there’s barely been a day when the team hasn’t found itself in the news in Canada’s largest media market.
Almost everything has been fair game when it comes to talk about the team’s search for a new general manager and president – rumours about potential hires, outright speculation, even stories about hockey people who are not interested in a job with the Leafs.
While the attention itself is nothing new, the intensity of it has been something of a surprise to one of the men tasked with overseeing the hiring process.
“I don’t think you’re ever totally prepared, even living in Toronto, for the media scrutiny that happens on something like this,” lawyer Gord Kirke said Tuesday in an interview.
He was quick to stress that he’s not complaining. Instead, Kirke was simply identifying one of the unexpected things he’s encountered since joining a two-man search committee with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Richard Peddie in January.
Kirke sought out experienced recruitment experts shortly after accepting the role to get some advice on what to expect from the process. At least one of the tips he was given has been impossible to implement: “The more quiet you can keep it, the better chance you have for success.”
“That’s probably very meaningful in industries other than sports, but in sports the ability to keep things quiet is strained,” explained Kirke. “Particularly in Toronto, particularly with hockey.
“Nobody’s at fault – it’s a very pleasant thing in many ways that we have such great interest in the product.”
That interest has in part fuelled rumours about several potential candidates even though only a handful have progressed beyond an exploratory stage. The Maple Leafs have already interviewed former Vancouver GM Dave Nonis and acknowledged that they will soon do the same with former Dallas GM Doug Armstrong.
Efforts to talk with some executives currently under contract to other NHL teams have been blocked – including Joe Nieuwendyk, who is an assistant to Florida Panthers GM Jacques Martin. Nieuwendyk has already said he won’t return to Florida and will be free to speak with other teams when his contract expires on July 1.
Dealing with people under contract has been something else that has surprised Kirke because tampering rules are a lot tighter in sports than in the general business world.
For obvious reasons, he was unable to get into details about the specific individuals the search committee is considering. However, Kirke was able to confirm that the team is looking at hiring a few different individuals to fill various roles because he believes that’s the best pathway to success in the “age of specialization.”
“There are people who are better at various aspects of being an executive in sports,” said Kirke. “So if you put together people with various talents and pool them as a team, I think you get a great result.
“I think the Detroit model is a very exciting and good one of that concept.”
The Red Wings, of course, are currently two wins away from capturing the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup in a little more than a decade.
GM Ken Holland has built that dynasty in concert with an executive team that now includes Jim Devellano, Jim Nill and Steve Yzerman – not to mention consultant Scotty Bowman.
“They have four or five people, all of whom could be a top-notch general manager with another team,” said Kirke.
Even though the longtime sports and entertainment lawyer still has other duties on his plate, he estimates that his job with the Leafs takes up several hours per day.
Ultimately, he believes the task would be easier if there wasn’t so much attention given to the search.
“There are probably people that would be more willing to open up and talk and be engaged in the process if they weren’t so confident that it would be out in the public momentarily,” said Kirke.
There is a flip side to that, too.
The men that end up filling top-level positions with the Maple Leafs will have to deal with intense pressure from the very first day they’re hired.
“It is the ultimate in living your life in a fishbowl,” said Kirke. “You’re constantly being monitored. There is no such thing as an off-season from the point of view of scrutiny and being watched.
“I think it takes a very special person to realize that and face up to that and be able to deal with it in a very positive way.”
He’s been treated to a first-hand taste of it through his work on the search committee.
Kirke freely admits to encountering some frustration over the past few months but has also found it “rewarding” to have a chance to form new relationships with many different people in the hockey industry.
Like most fans of the Maple Leafs, he looks forward to a day when a new executive structure is in place.
“I’ll probably look back on it very fondly when it’s over,” he said.