TORONTO (Jan. 21) -- The most eventful day in the recent history of the Toronto Maple Leafs has every chance of being remembered as an orgy of hot air. That's because the man at the apex of the company that operates the team apparently has no intention of taking on a diminished role. Richard Peddie is one of the shrewdest businessmen I've come across in my years as a reporter. He is a decent, cooperative fellow that I personally hold in high regard. But, he is an unmitigated catastrophe as a hockey administrator. And, there is no plausible reason -- beyond selfish yearning -- for any of his fingers to remain in the Maple Leafs' pie. Not after the harm he has caused this franchise.
In a functional operation -- with caring, responsible leadership -- Peddie would have long ago been removed from anything to do with sports management. His record over half a decade is every bit as lamentable as the Leafs' performance in the past 40 years. Amid the weak-kneed environment of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, however, he is allowed to flourish as the top dog, regardless of achievement. That's his mandate from the nebulous Ontario Teachers Pension Plan -- perhaps the most inept consortium of owners in the NHL since Harold Ballard ran the Leafs as his personal fifedom. And that mandate is nothing short of a recipe for continued disaster. The Teachers have never had even the vaguest idea of what it takes to put a winning product on the ice, nor have they seemed to care. Allowing Peddie to continue his damaging reign provides all the evidence we need that substantial change at the Air Canada Centre is highly unlikely.
Cliff Fletcher will do a good job -- with the means he's been provided -- to try and right the ship during the next season-and-a-half. His 19-month contract as senior caretaker for the hockey club coincides with the conclusion of the 2008-09 NHL campaign. If left to his own volition, I believe Cliff would be fully capable of coercing the most desireable candidate to be the Leafs' next GM. Unfortunately for Fletcher -- and all of Leafs Nation -- Peddie has once again imposed himself on the process, and has oddly summoned noted sports attorney Gord Kirke as his partner in crime. The question all of us should ask is, why?
Kirke has been around the sports world for a million years and is one of the most likeable and respected people in the industry. But, Fletcher has forgotten more about hockey than both he and Peddie will ever know. What advice could the Peddie-Kirke combo possibly offer a 50-year NHL veteran in his quest for a new manager? And, why on earth is there the need for an executive tandem to "oversee" the hiring process? Really, folks, this is nothing short of corporate nonsense. Though Peddie would never admit this, he is a raging control freak who abhors the notion of "letting go", and is probably still under the illusion that he has a crumb of sporting acumen. That myth has been annihilated.
When asked during today's news conference why he refuses to step away from the hockey operation, Richard spewed forth some bafflegab about MLSE's propensity to do business in such a manner. That as CEO of the company, he must be reported to, even in matters that are virtually foreign to him. Members of the MLSE board that represent the Teachers sat in a row behind reporters today with approving grins on their faces. That's all you need to know about this operation. Richard is their man, even though he completely botched his last two sports hirings -- Rob Babcock on the basketball side, and John Ferguson with the Leafs. Peddie might argue that Mo Johnston was a prudent choice for MLSE's pro soccer enterprise -- Toronto F.C. -- but the jury is out on an embarrassingly-inept expansion club that did capture the imagination of the soccer public.
I was asked numerous times today who I would go after as the next president/GM of the Leafs. It's a no-brainer. Brian Burke. You start at the very top and work your way down. Burke is currently the most aggressive, daring and accomplished executive in the NHL. He has sworn on a stack of bibles that he'd never leave the Anaheim Ducks, but I've been around this business too long to be swayed by public utterance. Of course, Burke will say that today. And, there is no particular reason for him to flee the comforts of Duck-land. He has another year after this on his contract with Henry and Susan Samueli, and he could easily sail into the sunset in a tepid hockey market.
But, what about the challenge of taking over a staggering operation in the sport's hottest locale? What if the Leafs tossed $30 million at Burke for five years, starting this summer? Gave him the keys to the franchise and began pouring the mold for the bronze likeness that would adorn the steps of City Hall if he were to end the club's Stanley Cup drought? It is, beyond question, the most arduous task in the NHL today, and it's one that Burke -- more than anyone else -- might be equal to.
Brian could easily shy away from the challenge and live happily ever after in southern California. But, he knows that he'll never be able to boost the Ducks any further than he got them last spring. At best, he could only repeat the accomplishment of winning the NHL title, and he may well do so this year. It will once again provide him the attention and recognition he deserves... for about 36 hours. Then, the sporting public in the L.A./Anaheim region will again turn its attention to the Angels... and the Dodgers... and USC... and UCLA... and the Lakers. Heck, maybe even the Godforsaken Clippers. Hockey will fall back to its posture as the niche sport that everyone gets excited about for two or three months in the spring, and then quickly forgets.
In this town, Burke would have the chance to become a divine figure.
Why shouldn't the Leafs go after him, with every ounce of their economic might?
Sadly, there's a reason: The man who chaired today's press gathering and told everyone of his continued authority over hockey matters. Burke would jab his own eyes with flaming embers before he'd come to work for Richard Peddie. So, I assume, would any other formidable candidate in the GM search. Until Richard completely steps away from any meaningful involvement in the hockey operation, the Leafs are doomed to mediocrity.
We said the same thing about Ballard 20 years ago. And, we were dead on.
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