TORONTO – Richard Peddie is a much easier marker than Brian Burke.
The Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO offered some “high, high marks” Wednesday for all that his employee has already accomplished, while the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said he deserved “a poor grade” for his work so far.
The team’s long suffering fans, in the midst of a five-season playoff drought, can only hope the easy A is much more accurate than the very tough D.
“I absolutely love the job Brian Burke has done,” Peddie said moments before a grand opening ceremony for Maple Leaf Square, his company’s gleaming property development project.
“What he’s done, first off, is he’s built a really deep (management) team, with succession. Dave Nonis is a GM all by himself, Dave Poulin is a GM in waiting, Claude Loiselle has been an assistant GM, we’ve got the greybeard and wise man in Cliff Fletcher, really, really a deep, deep team.
“Then he set about changing the culture of the team. I’ve never seen a GM that had a really clear vision of what kind of team he wanted. I’ve worked with seven of them, which might say something about the longevity of GMs at our place, but he’s got this clear, clear vision—goalies, defence, four lines, all that. I’ve never heard it, basketball, soccer, hockey, as clear as him. …
“Did we finish 29th? Was that not good? Absolutely, but I love where he’s at now, what he’s done, so high, high marks to Brian Burke from my perspective.”
Burke, on the other hand, wasn’t having any of it.
The Maple Leafs were 30-38-14 last season en route to the second-worst record in the NHL, and weren’t even rewarded with a high draft pick after trading it and a second-rounder plus another first-rounder next June to Boston for forward Phil Kessel.
Making it particularly painful was that Burke had already begun his massive overhaul of the roster with an eye on making the playoffs. That’s why he can’t see himself on the honour roll right now.
“We finished 29th, I don’t know how I can give myself anything other than a poor grade,” he said. “You’re dealing with sophisticated sports fans in Toronto—you better be honest. We haven’t had any success, hopefully it starts (Thursday) night.”
The Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens in their season opener Thursday with Burke again setting the team’s goal at making the playoffs. That would require a points improvement in the neighbourhood of 16-20 points, at minimum.
From a board perspective, Peddie said: “Our expectation is to make the playoffs this year.”
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has taken some shots in recent months, with the Maple Leafs, NBA’s Raptors (no playoffs in two years) and MLS’s Toronto FC (yet to make the playoffs in its four-year history) all mired in down cycles.
Many say the company knows how to make money, not build winning teams, and that its only priority is the former, not the latter. The problem with that theory is that by continually missing the playoffs, MLSE is missing out on that annual windfall, something that became obvious when post-season revenue was removed from their budgetary process.
“We have really reduced our dependency on playoffs,” Peddie said with a smirk. “In the pre-cap era we averaged almost six playoff games a year, and you just do the math on that, that’s a healthy dollar amount. We took that out.”
Wednesday’s unveiling of Maple Leaf Square—a $500 million project that features two condo towers, a hotel, office space, a team apparel store and an acclaimed sports bar—underlined MLSE’s business savvy.
The towers are already fully sold, office space completely leased and the area adjacent to the Air Canada Centre transformed from parking lot to money-making locale.
Can the dual focuses distract the company from its primary businesses, the sports teams?
Not a chance, says Ian Clarke, MLSE’s executive vice-president and chief financial officer, business development.
“We take a very disciplined approach to growth and to opportunities,” he said. “We try to things we’re good at, have strengths at and where we don’t have our strengths, we go out and find partners who do. And that’s what we did at Maple Leaf Square and one thing in business, you’ve got to know what you don’t know, and build partnerships to overcome your weaknesses.”