Peddie was never the problem in Leaf-land

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

Log on to the website of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Click on the tab that says “Vision & Values.” You’ll find a thick red bar at the top with a big word in all caps. The word is “WIN.”

But what does that word mean?

To fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it no doubt means the goal is to win the Stanley Cup – something the Leafs haven’t done since 1967, forcing the great hockey capital of Toronto to suffer through the longest championship drought in the NHL.

On MLSE’s web page, though, there is no mention of the Stanley Cup or of championships or of anything like that. It simply begins by saying that “winning is everything” and continues with more bland mission-statement stuff.

“It’s in our DNA,” it says.

Keep that in mind upon Tuesday’s news that Richard Peddie will retire as president and chief executive officer of MLSE at the end of 2011.

It’s true that Peddie is an outstanding businessman with little feel for sports, who has boosted his company’s bottom line while his teams have sunk in the standings, who has been criticized for putting profits before glory.

But how is Peddie’s departure going to change the Leafs’ plight, having missed the playoffs five straight years now, sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference? When the executive search committee formed by MLSE’s board of directors identifies Peddie’s successor, what kind of executive do you think it will be? Probably someone like Peddie.

Peddie isn’t the problem. The problem is the structure of Leafs ownership or at least in the philosophy that comes from that structure. It’s in the DNA of MLSE – and when it comes to ownership in sports, acronyms are bad.

There is no one way to win. But the best way starts with a singular owner who has the resources to spend, the intelligence to hire good people and the patience to take time to execute a plan.

The most shining example in the NHL might be Mike Ilitch, whose Detroit Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups since 1997 – when they ended a 42-year drought, then the longest in the league – and have made the playoffs for 19 straight seasons.

To a singular owner, winning can become personal. The pursuit of a championship can take precedence over the day-to-day, year-to-year balance sheets. Ilitch let his payroll balloon to close to $80 million before the salary cap came to the NHL, risking that a long playoff run would make up the money, and still he said last month: “I hate the cap.” But stability has been as important as spending with the Wings.

Ilitch suffered through several lean years as the Wings rebuilt their roster and fan base, but he stayed the course. He still employs the first man he hired when he bought the team in 1982 – Jimmy Devellano, then the general manager, now the senior vice president – and turnover has been relatively slow from the front office to the coaches’ office to the dressing room.

The Leafs do not have a singular owner. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (66 percent), Larry Tanenbaum (20.5) and TD Capital Group (13.5) own MLSE, and MLSE owns the Leafs and much more.

MLSE also owns three other teams: the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, MLS’s Toronto FC and the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. It owns Air Canada Centre and is invested in four other sports facilities. It owns three TV channels and Maple Leaf Square, a development that includes condos, offices and a sports bar.

Leafs general manager Brian Burke has fired back at criticism of MLSE. “This notion MLSE doesn’t want to win is bull,” Burke told the Globe and Mail in October. “They gave me complete support and independence and have given me the resources to fix it. If we can’t turn this thing around, you can blame me. It’s the best-run company I’ve ever worked for. I’m proud to work for MLSE. I’m proud to work for Richard Peddie.”

MLSE does want to win, of course. No one wants to lose, and imagine the revenues if the Leafs ever won the Cup.

The Leafs do have plenty of resources, too. They have the ability to spend essentially beyond the NHL’s $59.4-million salary cap, as they showed when they sent defenseman Jeff Finger(notes) to the minors early this season, removing his $3.5-million cap hit.

But do the Leafs hire the best people? Do they have the patience to execute a plan? Those are big questions.

And here’s a bigger one: Is it in even MLSE’s best interest to take the time to build a champion? Someone like Ilitch might be able to stomach some down seasons, hoping they will lead to big rewards in the future. But only his wealth is at stake, not teachers’ pensions.

MLSE has emphasized the short term, not the long term. It has been about making the playoffs now – and raking in the extra revenue – more than sacrificing now to win the Cup someday. The result? The way they have run things, they haven’t been making the playoffs.

Former general manager John Ferguson Jr. felt the pressure to make the playoffs. Burke has made the playoffs his stated goal this season, even though the Leafs finished second-worst in the NHL last season.

If anyone could have taken his time and built the Leafs slowly, it should have been Burke. He has the security of the six-year, $17 million contract he landed two years ago. He has such a strong personality and speaks so well that he could have told the media to buzz off and convinced the fans to wait, even in a hockey-crazy market like Toronto.

Burke even has set out to eradicate what he has called “blue and white disease” – a sense of entitlement among players celebrated whether they win or lose, simply because they wear the Leafs’ colors, a symptom of the larger market forces. If the stands are always full in Toronto, that gives MLSE no motivation to change its philosophy. You also could argue, though, that it gives the Leafs the latitude to take their time.

But fresh off winning the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, Burke was bold. His biggest move was acquiring forward Phil Kessel(notes) from the Boston Bruins on Sept. 18, 2009, for first- and second-round picks in the 2010 draft and a first-round pick in 2011.

Kessel is 23 now. He scores goals. The Leafs need youth and offense. But the trade was controversial from the start and has become only more so. Why give up so much for Kessel when you’re far from one player away? Kessel is the Leafs’ only legitimate top-six forward. He needs help, and it won’t be coming from these drafts.

That 2010 first-round pick became the No. 2 overall pick, which the Bruins turned into center Tyler Seguin(notes). That will be a juicy storyline when the center-starved Leafs host Boston for the first time this season Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada. And who knows what that 2011 first-rounder will turn into?

Burke has backed himself into a corner. Without those picks, he has even more reason to try to build the team through trades – at a time when the salary cap makes trades so hard to make – and hope youngsters like 20-year-old center Nazem Kadri(notes) can develop quickly.

A lot of people haven’t been patient with Burke. But it’s hard to be patient when the general manager isn’t patient himself, the ownership structure doesn’t encourage anyone to be patient, and MLSE’s revenues keep growing along with that Stanley Cup drought – 43 years and counting.