Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs were rocked Wednesday by reports that controlling interest in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the corporate colossus that owns the franchise (as well as other sports properties), could be sold to Canadian cable giant Rogers Communications for $1.3 billion.
Hearing that the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Fund (MLSE’s primary stakeholder), would be getting out of the hockey business undoubtedly qualifies as welcome news for most Leafs fans. Under the team’s current ownership structure (and longtime president Richard Peddie), the Leafs have more often than not been the epitome of mediocrity: just bad enough to consistently miss the playoffs, just good enough to avoid the bottom of the NHL standings (and thus miss out on the best draft prospects).
But what has really changed about Toronto’s situation? Nothing I can see.
Thanks to the NHL’s salary cap, the Leafs can’t spend much more on their roster than they’re spending already. More importantly, the transfer of ownership from one mega-corporation to another means the key issue plaguing the Leafs won’t be addressed.
The fact of the matter is this: corporations do not win Stanley Cup championships.
Look at the teams that have won a Stanley Cup over the course of the past decade-and-a-half. All but two (the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and the Rangers in 1994) were owned by a group of no more than one or two key people making decisions at the top.
The Detroit Red Wings – the class of the NHL and arguably of all sports – are owned by Mike and Marian Ilitch. They’ve won four Cups since 1997. The Ilitches made their first fortune via the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain, but have treated the Wings as an extension of their own family.
Now, the Ilitches don’t interfere in hockey choices made by GM Ken Holland. But they do set the tone for winning and make small, but crucial choices that have a direct effect on their on-ice product (such as paying assistant GM Jim Nill as if he were a GM).
The Colorado Avalanche were (and still are) owned by the Kroenke family when they won their last Cup in 2001. The Pittsburgh Penguins had their bills paid (and still do) by Mario Lemieux and business partner Ron Burkle when they won in 2009. The Anaheim Ducks were owned (and still are) by another husband and wife team (Henry and Susan Samueli) when they won it all in 2007.
The Carolina Hurricanes (owned by Peter Karmanos), Tampa Bay Lightning (owned by William Davidson), New Jersey Devils (owned by John McMullen in 1995 and 2000 and Raymond Chambers and Lewis Catz in 2003) and Dallas Stars (owned by Tom Hicks) all were owned and operated by a single person or partners when they won their Cups.
Even last season’s champions, the Chicago Blackhawks – a team criminally mismanaged and owned by the late Bill Wirtz – figured out a way to reverse their fortunes when Wirtz’s son, Rocky, took over in 2007 and made the team’s turnaround his singular passion.
The Rangers, who won under a corporate umbrella in’94, are owned by Madison Square Garden Inc. But after that success, the franchise has been allowed to stagnate under the alleged direction of GM Glen Sather.
Do you think Sather, whose Rangers teams have yet to make it out of the second round in the past nine seasons (and missed the playoffs in five of those seasons), would have been allowed to retain his position if Mike Ilitch owned that team? Not a chance.
But back to the Leafs, a team that hasn’t had a sniff of playoff hockey since the 2003-04 campaign. Unfortunately for their fans, the organization is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) monetary generators in the league. That’s what makes them so attractive to bottom-line businesses like Rogers.
What the Leafs really need and what would catapult them into bona fide, consistent Cup contention, is a billionaire like Ottawa’s Eugene Melnyk, or Edmonton’s Darryl Katz signing all checks. They need an owner who sees his team as his toy – or better yet, as one of his children: an entity to be adored, supported and pushed to be the best.
Corporations don’t do that. For the most part, corporations are rigid, impersonal, business-first structures. They’re adept at business concepts such as “synergy” and “content management” and “soaking the customer to the maximum degree.”
They almost always have employees fighting for power within the corporate environment. They can think up catchy slogans like “The Passion That Unites Us All,” but rarely can inspire the kind of true passion that someone like George Steinbrenner was able to enliven.
And that’s why corps don’t win Cups. Sorry, Leafs fans.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Wednesdays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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