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Toronto Maple Leafs attract summer spotlight for odd reasons

Photo: Graig Abe/Getty Images

Eternally optimistic Leafs fans are having their hopes inflated by the team's upper management.

With the smoke and dust settling after their sudden playoff collapse against Boston, the Maple Leafs have made news during the past week for some unusual things. First, Tim Leiweke, the president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, proclaimed to Bloomberg News about 10 days ago that he's already had the team's Stanley Cup parade route planned out and that he wanted photos of the franchise's past greats taken down in Air Canada Center. On Thursday, he extended the contract of Dave Nonis to five years, this after Nonis had served all of six months as GM and worked for Leiweke for only two.

In one sense, none of these things, nor the attention they've gotten, is surprising. No team in hockey commands more notice than the Maple Leafs for accomplishing little or nothing.

Photo gallery: Toronto's Maple Laughs

Put this same team with the same record of missteps and mediocrity during the last decade in, oh, let's say, Atlanta, and so few people would care that there would be little sense in keeping the franchise in Georgia.

But, to its everlasting good fortune, this organization is situated in the biggest town in the heart of hockey country and, as such, enjoys perpetual adulation and constantly rising revenues. (Forbes magazine has determined that the Maple Leafs are the NHL's first franchise worth $1 billion.) Furthermore, the town is blessed with numerous hockey-mad media bloodhounds who are eternally sniffing for the smallest morsel of news to transform into headline material. (Not coincidentally, the team's ownership partners are also parents of two major competing media conglomerates: Rogers Communications and Bell Canada.)

As a business, the Leafs are as failure-proof as a franchise can be. Most other NHL clubs can only fantasize about being this charmed.

Still, the Leafs would like to be a consistent winner again, if only because it would mean more millions on the bottom line. Having not captured the Stanley Cup since 1967, the team has seemingly floated in limbo for decades, its former controlling ownership group, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Fund, overseeing executives who could never quite figure out the right formula for on-ice success. Now, there is renewed hope in Toronto because of the more aggressive entrepreneurial spirit brought by the Rogers-Bell cabal.

Among its first acts was to fire President GM/Brian Burke after four-and-a-half seasons on the job, replacing him with Nonis, the former Canucks GM and Burke's second in command at nearly every NHL job he's held. The firing may have been less of a hockey decision than a style choice. Burke's sometimes bombastic personality was not in keeping with the new corporate image.

You can't say Burke was an absolute failure. He inherited a mess and the team he built finally earned a postseason berth last spring after seven years of not qualifying -- an all-time low in the history of this once-dominant franchise. Of course, after returning to the playoffs, Toronto promptly, shockingly and historically melted down late in the third period of Game 7 against Boston and was eliminated in the opening round.

In June, Leiweke called it "a breakthrough season," which struck some people as a hyperbolic statement. Previously the President and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, Leiweke oversaw the Los Angeles Kings' first-ever Stanley Cup. Now, that was a breakthrough.

Of course, the eternal optimists in Leafs Nation are always overly heartened by the smallest of victories, which leads the rest of the hockey world to joke that the Leafs are already planning their parade. So when Leiweke actually told Hugo Miller and Eric Lam of Bloomberg in all seriousness, "I have it planned out and it's going to be fantastic," you could hear the guffaws coming from the NHL's 29 other clubs.

And there had to be gasps in Toronto, especially when Leiweke elaborated on not wanting his current Maple Leafs stuck in the past, but creating their own place in the club's annals. "I don't want the players walking in the hallways of the Air Canada Centre and seeing pictures from 1962," Leiweke said. "Get rid of those pictures and tell them, this is your legacy."

Oops.

"You can't erase history, just because the new CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment thinks he can," wrote Steve Simmons in The Toronto Sun. "You can't change what people feel, what's inside of them, what they've grown up with, their sensibilities. These aren't blackboards of people's lives: You can't just brush them aside easily.

"As a kid, I walked into Maple Leaf Gardens and was instantly fascinated by the photos on the wall: The black and white pictures of Whipper Billy Watson, Johnny Bower, George Chuvalo and Frank Mahovlich. It was part of what made the place special....

"Now Leiweke talks loudly and oddly about removing pictures from the Air Canada Centre, about eliminating the photos that match our memories. He wants to make it about now and about him. He displays a disrespect and disregard for all of us who value history, who cherish and protect our memories, who want to remember the good with the bad."

To his credit, Leiweke apologized and clarified: "It was just a simple concept, which is at some point or another this team in its current form and fashion has to create its own legacy," he said. "And we need not to hide behind other things ... I understand our history and I honor our history and I'm proud to be a part of it now. But I also understand that at some point or another, we've got to go win another Cup. And I think the way we're going to do that is build an organization that dreams about that each and every day."

The key individual in realizing those dreams is Nonis, who heads a hockey department that is largely the same one that Burke built. Nonis made some tweaks after he took over, although he couldn't secure a top goaltender before the trade deadline. The Leafs braintrust was apparently not sold on James Reimer and, like many clubs, wanted to have a stronger group playing the center ice position.

This offseason, Nonis has made some interesting moves in an attempt to strengthen the club. He traded for a goalie, 24-year-old Jonathan Bernier, who many contend is on his way to a stellar NHL career, although he couldn't supplant Jonathan Quick as the Number 1 guy in Los Angeles. Nonis also traded for a very good two-way center in Dave Bolland, a Toronto boy who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Blackhawks in June, although he had recently slipped on the Chicago depth chart. Nonis inked big David Clarkson, the Devils' tough, goal scoring winger, as a free agent, although most believe that seven years and $36.75 million is too long and too much for the decent production and annual minus ratings on Clarkson's stats panel. (Nonis said Clarkson left money on the table in order to sign with his hometown Leafs.) And Nonis re-signed Tyler Bozak, who could have walked as a UFA, for five years and $21 million, penciling him in again as the top center with winger Phil Kessel, although Bozak has never been a consistent offensive force and does little without Kessel on his line.

There are lots of "althoughs" attached to these moves, and some people are even more skeptical. However, these acquisitions could all pan out and represent upgrades for the Leafs. Still, is "could" the basis on which Leiweke believes Nonis is deserving of an extension?

Leiweke's point of view is different. He believes Nonis is the right guy to make the decisions for this club going forward and wants him to have the security of knowing that. For Leiweke, it's part of the new corporate culture he wants for all the properties of MLSE.

But some suspect that the new boss is making decisions and pronouncements designed more to generate quick headlines, creating a big splash to show that there's a new sheriff in town and that he's firmly back in the executive saddle after his departure last March from the Anschutz empire. They worry that perhaps he saw some of those "Offseason Winners and Losers" stories that gave the Leafs high marks for their moves and translated them as wins on the ice.

Real wins in the real schedule are the only metric by which a team can make realistic judgments about itself -- not whether it has a route for its Stanley Cup parade, does or doesn't hang pictures of former players in its arena, or makes a few intriguing moves months before the puck is dropped.

One imagines that Leiweke and the Leafs will figure that out eventually.

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