November 18, 2011
So someone asked Wayne Gretzky if he'd like to be part of a massive conglomerate of 1-Percenters trying to buy the Toronto Maple Leafs (and the rest of the MLSE empire.) We can only imagine how this news has affected your daily routine, from nutrition to bathroom habits to potential sleep deprivation from over-exuberance.
Or, perhaps, this is your classic Centre of the Hockey Universe-driven narrative in which the Toronto media climaxes in its own fishbowl.
This isn't Mario buying the Penguins; this would be Kenny Rogers lending his name and likeness to a fast food chicken chain. It's not like the Gambler was working the deep fryer, and it's not like The Great One's going to be toiling in Board of Governors meetings. Unless they're held in Vegas.
But you knew that he's just window dressing, as the Globe & Mail pointed out in debunking the notion that anything serious between Gretzky and Providence Equity Partners, a U.S. equity firm, had developed:
Prospective owners would likely be interested in bringing Gretzky on board as a front man rather than an active chief executive officer. He does not have enough personal wealth to purchase a significant position in what is expected to be a $1.8-billion stake, so potential buyers are more interested in his value as a Canadian hockey icon.
"Wayne is often approached about becoming involved in various hockey opportunities," said Darren Blake, Gretzky's agent. "At this point in time there is nothing happening involving the purchase of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wayne has always said that whoever purchases the Maple Leafs is getting a great franchise in a great city."
It all tracks back to public relations, which is why the Gretzky thing never really passed the sniff test to begin with. When news leaked about Providence, the backlash against American interests opening their wallets around the Leafs was instant, as a member of the Occupy Toronto movement said, "Hockey is a big part of Canadian identity and if we can't hang on to the Leafs, there's something seriously wrong."
Ta-da! Gretzky's involvement is leaked, Damien Cox writes "the timing for Gretzky to finally join forces with the historic Original Six franchise may finally be perfect," and the Toronto media spends more time figuring out if Mark Messier will be the next GM than if the Yanks are going to own the team.
In dismissing this thing as an ill-conceived lark, Michael Grange of Sportsnet wrote:
Well, it's seems like the obvious move by some distant American money. A more inspired choice might be Darryl Sittler or Wendel Clark, actual Leaf icons who work for MLSE now and have never stepped a foot wrong as ambassadors for the brand, but hey, if you're running a private equity fund out of New York, there's no reason you would know who Wendel or Darryl is, or the depth of affection Leaf fans have for them.
At the heart of this Gretzky flirtation is something a bit melancholy.
There's a palpable desire to see Gretzky ascend back to being Canada's Greatest Son, after spending the better part of 15 years in the American desert and with (gasp!) an NHL franchise that had the nerve to leave Canadian soil. (An insult so resounding that their legacy as been co-opted by another team in their former city … a team stolen from the United States. Suck it, Uncle Sam!)
There's also a desire to see Gretzky finally have a measure of post-playing success in the NHL, because his legacy as an owner, executive and a coach was one of celebrity distraction and ineffective stewardship.
The notion that Wayne Gretzky could be terrible at anything hockey related … well, the human brain refuses to process it. He must be redeemed!
For the Leafs, a Gretzky part-ownership would be a needless distraction: a convenient figurehead to blame, and fodder for columnists who inevitably will ask why he's watching his son at Wrigley Field during a 7-game losing streak in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Mike Barnett replaces Brian Burke and Rick Tocchet's the new head coach ...
(In all this Gretzky talk, we also can't help but recall Ken Campbell's screed against Mats Sundin's Hall of Fame candidacy, in which he wrote the Leafs are "a franchise that you could argue has never had a true superstar in its lineup." Well, why not make the most famous hockey player in the history of frozen water the face of the team!)
Who own da Leafs? Who knows. But the speculation should focus more on how that affects the team's power structure and the media landscape in Canada than if the Toronto Maple Leafs will be Wayne Gretzky's Planet Hollywood.