In our recent issue ranking the Top 100 People of Power and Influence in hockey, we had George Cope at No. 26 and Brian Burke at 22. Oops.
Burke is, of course, larger than life. You might not be able to pick Cope out in a lineup of captains of industry. But make no mistake, with Burke being fired as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, Cope has established himself as the alpha dog with the richest, most high-profile franchise in the NHL.
So much so that Larry Tanenbaum, who currently occupies the chairman’s seat on the Leafs board of directors, has to be thinking of freshening up his resume at the moment. These guys don’t do public humiliation real well and Tanenbaum, who at one time controlled the levers of power with the Maple Leafs, endured the mother of all come-uppances when Burke was dismissed by the organization. With things unfolding the way they did, it’s very clear Cope has established himself as the undisputed boss of the franchise, leaving the once-powerful Tanenbaum with basically one of two choices. He can either learn to play with the others and live with being a figurehead or he can get out. Bet on the latter.
I was speaking with someone who was a chairman of a publicly traded company the other day and he told me it’s impossible to minimize what happened to Tanenbaum. He said that if something similar had ever happened to him when he was a chairman, “they’d have my resignation on their desk by nine the next morning.”
According to one insider who has a close relationship with members of the Leafs’ Board of Directors, Cope had intended to fire Burke all along, but had no intention of doing it just before training camp opened. In fact, according to this source, there was nothing Burke did recently that would lead him to be fired and it was, in fact, the result of a boardroom battle between Cope and Tanenbaum that led to his early dismissal.
According to our source, the board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment recently held a meeting, at which Tanenbaum suggested the company hire current president and chief operating officer, Tom Anselmi, to be the chief executive officer, which would mean he would effectively be the man permanently running the day-to-day operations of the company and would report directly to the chairman.
Cope refused, which led to a heated exchange between him and Tanenbaum. It was then that Cope apparently decided to accelerate the process to fire Burke and called a vote of all six members. Board members Cope and Mary Ann Turcke of Bell Canada Enterprises, Nadir Mohamed and Edward Rogers of Rogers Communications voted in favor and Tanenbaum and Dale Lastman voted against. When that happened, Tanenbaum had no choice but to relieve Burke of his duties.
And after Cope flexed his corporate muscles, there was absolutely no doubt as to who was in charge. Even though Cope’s Bell Canada and Rogers each own an equal split of their 75 percent stake in the franchise, it’s believed Mohamed is more than willing to let Cope take the lead. In fact, both companies have apparently already decided to vote in lock-step on everything, rendering Tanenbaum virtually impotent.
So now it will be the 51-year-old Cope who will be calling the shots. And since his company still owns an 18 percent stake in the Montreal Canadiens, you could argue there aren’t too many people with more power in the game than Cope currently has. With those kinds of credentials, a spot on the executive committee of the board of governors surely can’t be that far behind.
Which leads everyone to the following question: Will the Maple Leafs be any better off being owned by two media conglomerations than it was by a teachers’ pension plan? The early results aren’t exactly encouraging, are they? But then again, perhaps this kind of chaos can be expected in a change of ownership. One observer had an interesting point about all of this. He said that under the previous ownership, the Leafs were concerned with winning only news conferences. Judging by their recent performance, you can be assured that certainly isn’t the case. And maybe that’s a good thing. It proves the company can be decisive and do what it thinks is the right thing, regardless of the backlash.
Or it could mean the Leafs are as dysfunctional as ever. In fact, despite the status and pay that would come from being CEO of the Leafs, it’s not as though qualified candidates are banging down the door to take the job. According to one source, the position has been offered to former Montreal Canadiens chairman Pierre Boivin, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson and CTV president and CEO Phil King and all three have turned it down.
Clearly, there’s a new sheriff in town and his name is George Cope. Whether that results in any tangible on-ice improvement of a franchise that has done so little to gain such a devoted following remains to be seen. But it sure is going to be interesting to watch over the next little while.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.