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No easy job running Leaf Nation: Peddie says Dream Job came with nightmares

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

TORONTO - During his time as president of Hostess Potato Chips from 1983 to '85, Richard Peddie recalls monthly tastings of different chip flavours.

The best of the lot would be sold for one month. And if it did really well, it would become a regular flavour.

Dill pickle survived the cut and went on to flourish. A beer-flavoured chip didn't, much to Peddie's disappointment.

The story helps shed some light on the former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Few probably know of the role he played in the rise of the humble dill pickle chip, but chances are it helped sweeten the company's bottom line considerably.

Now some two years into being "actively retired," the 66-year-old Peddie looks back at his career in "Dream Job," co-written with Lawrence Scanlan. The book was released Tuesday.

It's an easy read, detailing his career in the corporate and sports world before ending with a dollop of his own business beliefs.

Peddie spilled some of the beans in interviews when he announced he would retire from MLSE in December 2011.

Hiring John Ferguson Jr. as Leafs GM was a mistake, as was giving Vince Carter's mother a prized parking space under the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs' lease with the City of Toronto for the Ricoh Centre, home of the AHL Marlies, was a poor deal although it help pave the way for better agreements on BMO Field and the Leafs' practice facility.

Peddie opens up a little more in the book, although his assertion that former Raptors star Vince Carter was a "mama's boy" is hardly a revelation.

He wonders what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will think of his statement that the league needs more financial transparency.

While acknowledging it's better if the suits stay away from the players, Peddie admits to a soft spot to former Raptor Charles Oakley ("quirky, smart, street smart") and former Leafs captain Mats Sundin ("a solid, quiet, authentic man").

Interestingly, he also has plenty of time for current Leafs sniper Phil Kessel.

"Phil is a bit of a cynic, but he's smart and extremely interested in the business side of things."

Who knew?

A self-described blue-collar boy from Windsor, Ont., Peddie is a lifelong basketball fan who had always wanted to run an NBA team. Having achieved his goal, he found himself at constant loggerheads with Isiah Thomas, the former all-star who was the early front-office face of the NBA franchise.

Peddie credits Thomas for designing a good dressing room—the Raptors room is round so everyone can see each other—but that's about it. And he details Thomas' future career missteps with seeming relish.

Peddie's 19 years in the packaged goods industry made him an easy target himself in some quarters.

His corporate journey took him from Colgate-Palmolive to General Foods and Pillsbury Canada, running SkyDome and serving at Labatt Communications Inc. (later known as NetStar) before taking over at MLSE.

He saw the move as just taking control of an even bigger brand—"the most powerful brand I will ever work on."

One wonders if the book might be a chance to earn some long-awaited appreciation.

But while Peddie details past tangles with the media, he says it's not the sports media's job to cover business—he also makes the point that not many sports scribes understand a balance sheet. And the business section has plenty of other stories to cover.

Still he clearly has a long memory, with problem reporters mentioned by name in the book.

MLSE's sporting track record on Peddie's watch clearly rankled. Losing is hard when you're running a company whose mantra is "Winning is Everything."

"There's no doubt that my performance on the playing field was under .500," he said in an interview Tuesday.

On the other hand, Peddie argues he helped bring about MLS soccer, BMO Field, the Air Canada Center and Maple Leaf Square.

"So I did leave a little bit of legacy in this sports town," he said.

Peddie was ahead of the curve on realizing live sports is leverage, helping create MLSE's in-house TV channels, following the lead of Manchester United and the Yes Channel (Yankees&Nets). The Real Sports Bar&Grill has proved to be another money-maker.

Toronto FC, while a failure on the field, was a financial success right out of the box.

The Air Canada Centre clearly remains a pride and joy—a building he believes still glitters today thanks to the $6 million to $7 million spent annually on improvements.

"There's no reason that can't stay really viable for years and years," he says.

Peddie also likes the opportunities afforded by the size of Orlando's Amway Center and says Indiana's Bankers Life Fieldhouse offers a great basketball experience.

Peddie hired Ferguson and (Raptors GM) Rob Babcock. When they failed, he eventually brought in Brian Burke and Bryan Colangelo, who both exited after he left.

A big booster of Burke, Peddie clearly still feels the pain of having seen his friend fired.

"I was convinced he was going to win us a championship," he said.

Peddie was not as close to the Raptors' Colangelo.

"We had a really good relationship," he said. "But Bryan, I think, had a fair chance. He had a four-year contract. I got him re-upped for another three and he had his chance.

"He didn't accomplish what he wanted, what we wanted, what the fans wanted. And it was time for him to leave. I think Burkie should have been given more time."

Peddie clearly has mixed emotions about his dream job.

He was at the helm of a sports empire for some 15 years, but admits the view from his ninth-row seats was coloured by losing and often overtaken by concerns over the national anthem or the list of people he had to take care of during the game.

"There's so much to worry about," he said.

Peddie recalls having served on boards of companies whose factories he might see once a year.

"I had my owners in my plant, which is the Air Canada Centre, every night."

Literally he had the best seats in the house—"and I'm not enjoying it."

"I would have enjoyed it more if we were winning," he added.

Peddie said he stepped down because he was reaching 65, was growing tied of the losing—and believed "a new person could take it to the next level."

He did negotiate into his retirement agreement that he would get a championship ring if a title came in the three years after he left.

"This is the year they've got to win," he said, after doing the mental arithmetic.

"I'm still counting on (Leafs GM) Dave Nonis," he added with a laugh.

He embraced succession planning, with Tom Anselmi his choice.

"I recommended Tom. He had done a really good job as COO," he said.

Toronto FC's woes may have undone Anselmi, who exited MLSE himself recently.

Brilliant branding and healthy profits were undone by "a disaster on the pitch."

"Never imagined that," said Peddie. "And Tom wore that."

Peddie doesn't get back to the ACC much, although he had season tickets for the first years of his retirement. He was at the Leafs' last home playoff game last season and has been invited to a Jan. 1 game.

"So I have the opportunity, but you know I saw a lot of games," he said. "It's nice to step away.

"It's tough going back."

Life moves on.

Peddie knows that all too well, the third ever president of Hostess Potato Chips, recalls phoning the switchboard a year after he left to speak to the new president. Told it was Richard Peddie on the line, the Hostess operator asked him how he spelled his name.

Plus he is "a little burned out" on sports entertainment.

As new MLSE boss Tim Leiweke has quickly learned, Leaf Nation is a hard taskmaster.

Today Peddie serves on the board of Canadian Interuniversity Sports and lectures a little. Retirement seems to suit him well, with the former marathon runner looking a few years short of 60 rather than 70. He turns 67 at the end of January.

He and his wife Colleen have homes in Toronto and Bob-Lo Island, in the Detroit River on the Canadian side of the border near Amherstburg, Ont., as well as Miami.

Peddie, who clearly combined being good at what he did with knowing when it was time to move on, takes pride in the fact he has never been fired from a job.

"It's so rare," he said.


"Dream Job" by Richard Peddie. HarperCollins, 298 pages, $32.99


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