Leafs AbomiNation: The Review and Interview

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These two won't be smiling when I'm done with them

MF37's review basically sums up all that I felt about the book but that won't stop me from putting some of my own thoughts on the book here before letting you get to the best part: a long interview with Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange. They were both pretty accomodating in allowing for some follow up questions which I feel contributed to providing you guys with a much deeper understanding of how they view MLSE, the OTPP, and the Maple Leafs as well as the process behind writing the book.

On a purely narcissitic note, the five pages that make up the PPP profile were fun to read. They basically cover the mythology behind my father's entrance to Leafs Na...I mean, his transformation into a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the curse and blessing that is being born into a family of Leafs fans. I think the best part about being interviewed by Grange is that I managed to get the argument about Habs fans causing a resurrection by their apathy through the combined efforts of MF37, myself, and the Canadian Tax Code. At least, that's how the story will go. 

When I was approached about this book it was presented as a book about MLSE. Being the idealistic young man that I am I imagined a wide-ranging look at the inner-workings of the organisation, the decision making process, and a look at the principal players and their effect on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Raptors. That is a book I would spend an afternoon reading in the Starbucks at my local Chapters.

Head over the jump to read my review as well as an interview with Mssrs. Feschuk and Grange. Brace yourselves, it's kind of long.

 

Unfortunately, that part of the book only comprises a third of the book. As MF37 noted, the profiles of Larry Tanenbaum, Richard Peddie, and John Ferguson Jr. are must reads for any Leafs fan. The chapter on JFJ just highlights what we already knew: he was a weak executive that was hired because of a boardroom power struggle and was unable to sell his vision for the club to MLSE. He gets in a few potshots that probably made him feel really good but he manages to show why he'll likely never get another crack at being GM. Larry Tanenbaum is initially chastised for his past as a bit of a jock-sniffing executive. The authors discuss the chastening learning experience he has undergone which lead to the authors holding him up as the great white ownership hope for Leafs fans which, when compared to Richard Peddie, actually makes a tonne of sense.

The chapter that will hurt the most chronicles Peddie's rise to power in MLSE is charted and highlights his lack of a hockey background. His career to date makes him perfect to run the business operations of the massive conglomerate but as a self-professed basketball guy he leaves at lot to be desired in terms of hockey expertise. I don't think that I can understate how poorly Richard Peddie comes across by virtue of only his own words. His favourite saying is 'what can be measured can be improved' yet when asked how much the Leafs' spend on the team's management and scouting staff he can't benchmark it against the rest of the league. His main regret about hiring John Ferguson Jr.? That he wasn't media-savvy enough to handle the city's mittenstringers. It's mind-boggling taken on its own but in light of the rest of the chapter just makes absolute sense.

There are some other good anecdotes about the '93 Leafs and how they bonded, Pat Quinn, and some great quotations from Ron Wilson, However, on the whole what you are left feeling after having read the book isn't that you just read a definitive history of the team's problems (the authors discuss their shortcomings and constraints in this regard in the interview) but that you are cannot understand why the kind of reporting that lead to the best parts of the book can't be repeated on a day-to-day basis.

Question One

First off, the one that's been on everyone's mind: How do two NBA beat writers end up writing a book about the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs?


Michael Grange: A point of clarification - Dave is a general columnist at the Star who often writes about basketball, but I've always enjoyed his Leaf columns when he wades in and I know first-hand his broad knowledge of hockey. But yes, I've been the Raptors beat writer in some shape or form at the Globe for a while now, so it might seem like a departure to write about the Leafs. We've known each other for a long time - covering sports you end up spending most of your time with people who cover what you cover rather than people from your own outlet. 

The idea for a Leafs book was originally Dave's but I've covered MLSE for a long time and had some expertise to offer there and logistically splitting the work made sense too, since we both have jobs and families and the rest, and time was tight. Also, this is not so much a hockey book as a Leafs book, and thus a book about a part of the cultural fabric of the city I live and work in, so I'm qualified that way too. Speaking for myself the partnership has worked out great. If you compare writing a book to training for some athletic feat - running a marathon or something - having someone doing it alongside you made the pain go down a little easier.

Editor's Note: Fair enough. The MLSE angle crosses sporting boundaries. More of a comparison between how the Leafs and the Raptors are managed would have perhaps helped highlight the organisations' approach to the different fan bases. 

Question Two 

How much of the marketing aspect of the book (the paperbag princess, the $19.67 price tag, the upside down Leaf, the title) did you guys have control over and how much came from Random House? And who would you say is the target market for this book? Is it the people that forward this picture to their friends at the beginning and end of each season?

Dave Feschuk: There was some back and forth between us and the publisher on everything from the cover design to marketing, but ultimately most of the decisions are in their hands. Writing is what we do, and they left it to us (although we were helped greatly by the editing of Craig Pyette and his team). Publishing, marketing and selling books is what Random House does, and, as tough as the book business is, they seem to do it awfully well judging from what we've heard from our mentors in the business and Random House's great track record. As for the target market, that's a good question. I'm not an authority, but I would think part of the appeal of publishing a Leafs book is that they are both loved and hated in considerable measure in a lot of different corners of this country.

Grange: Dave should take credit for the title, which I loved the minute I heard it. Also I might be naïve, but I’m not sure you have to love or hate the Leafs to ‘get’ this book. The marketing and packaging are obviously designed to evoke a response but the contents stand on their own. The Leafs are the most recognizable sports brand in the country yet before this no one’s done a book that looks into Teachers or profiles Peddie or Tanenbaum, and the stuff about some of the inner workings of the hockey club during the Ferguson years is also fresh and new. The history we do and all the little Harper’s Index stuff add value as well, and of course we introduce Pension Plan Puppets to people who didn't got to school with you.

Editor's Note: Touché Mr. Grange but I get you back in question # 3.

Follow-up: The profiles of Richard Peddie and Larry Tanenbaum as well as Teachers' were the best parts of the the book. One thing I would have liked to see a bit more on the Teachers' side was a lot of how much more profit the team could possibly make with a winning team compared to the JFJ years. Not to mention maybe having someone tell Peddie that while you can benchmark financial returns there are actually new fangled ways of tracking performance on the ice. What would you say was that most revealing thing that Peddie said for you two?

Grange: I actually get along very well with Richard Peddie. I’ve never been under any illusion about his purpose in life and he’s pretty clear on mine and we’ve co-existed under these terms for a decade or more. But my favourite comment from the chapter was when he segued from stumbling into a spontaneous celebration in Times Square when Obama took Ohio on election night to what the scene might be at Maple Leaf Square when it was finished and the Raptors, I don’t know, won a playoff game. It was inappropriate and perfectly appropriate at the same time. Say what you want, but he’s dedicated.

Feschuk: Peddie, for all the shots he has taken – and I can’t think of one that hasn’t been justified – is a stand-up guy. He answers his phone. He listens to your questions and replies to them. But he is completely disingenuous when he denies that he has meddled in the affairs of his GMs. He is saying, essentially, that he had nothing to do with the (horrendous) decisions his employees made. But as the CEO and as a key member of the board, he was essentially setting the tone for the entire organization while they made those decisions.

As Ferguson points out in Leafs AbomiNation, it wasn’t that Peddie micro-managed decisions or nixed trades – it was more over-arching than that.  To hear Ferguson tell it, Peddie and the board made it very clear about the direction they wanted to go – which was, specifically, to the playoffs at all costs, an assertion that lines up with everything Larry Tanenbaum said at the time – and that severely limited Ferguson’s options for rebuilding the team.  And yet, I remember standing next to Peddie on the day of Burke’s introductory press conference, essentially taunting reporters: "Tell me where I meddled? Tell me where I meddled," he was saying. And I’m thinking, "No, Peddie, you didn’t meddle. You were just in charge."

Editor's Note: The passage with JFJ is especially illuminating and not just for the fact that he actually displays some personality. He not only once again confirms that the board was stunned to see a lack of playoff revenue but he admits that he failed in selling them on his plan. And how did that work out for us?

Follow-up: Finding out what a mess the JFJ years were does it make you want to write a book about the Babcock years just to see how much more of a mess it was since Peddie considers himself a 'basketball' guy?

Grange: Wow. Can’t see a big market for that one. The funny thing is if you were going explain how MLSE got Babcock and JFJ at the SAME TIME, you could probably draw a line to Paul Godfrey hiring J.P. Ricciardi. At the time, you remember, cheap, nerdy GM’s were in style, and Moneyball was every sports executive’s favourite book. 
 
Feschuk: I wish there was a market for a Babcock-era book, because even though I lived through it, it’s still hard to believe it actually occurred, and it would be fun to relive it in detail. Like, I still can’t believe that on the very night an NBA GM drafted Rafael Araujo with the 8th-overall pick, an NBA GM actually spoke the words, "He’s not a stiff." I mean, you can’t make that stuff up!

Editor's Note: Jesus, what a murderer's row of incompetent general managers. I always knew that it was a sabotage job by the Blue Jays.

Follow-up: "and of course we introduce Pension Plan Puppets to people who didn't got to school with you."
Good to see that you can dish it outas well as take it. One thing that's come up is that a lot of those Harper's Index facts lack context. How did you guys come up with the length of the book and did you find it at all constraining?

Grange: Well, I wish we could say we had a formula. We came up with a list of topics we thought we could do and would be interesting and it ended up being 10. As for adding context to the index stuff, we thought long and hard about going all David Foster Wallace and doing footnotes on the footnotes, but our publisher over-ruled us, otherwise we’d still be happily writing away. It’s tough being part of the machine sometimes, but getting paid for finishing stuff helps make up for it.
 
Feschuk: This is true. We did have visions of making the book far longer, and with a lot more contextual asides and footnotes and explanatory digressions, but for various reasons, it didn’t fly. We knew Pension Plan Puppets and friends would be there to fill in the gaps for the diamond-hard-core set.

Editor's Note: You're damn right we're going to dive into the nitty gritty and flesh out what Random House Canada wouldn't allow. Parts one, two, and three are done and a couple of more are on the way. And that's just on the first chapter.

Question Three

3. Obviously when the book came out the reaction among at least the literate portion of the fans was visceral to say the least. However, there are a couple of very illuminating passages in the book, specifically, the interview with Richard Peddie, the stories about Illitch's desire to win, and the look into JFJ's thoughts on his tenure. If you could only recommend one chapter to Leaf fans to read in Chapters which would it be?

Grange: The book can only be properly appreciated in its entirety, curled up with a fluffy pillow and a chilled glass of chardonnay. If you’re too cheap to got to Chapters, it’s $12 at Costco. If you email us at leafsAbomination@gmail.com we’ll hand-deliver a personalized copy in 30 minutes or it’s free.

Feschuk: Actually, we won't do that ... yet. And I know this sounds old-fashioned, but there's always the public library.

Question Four

It's pretty well know that Damien Cox is a huge tennis fan which always give us a chuckle since he seems so unhappy to have to cover the Leafs 95% of the time. But what is your favourite sport and who is your team?


Feschuk: If you're laughing at Cox for being a huge tennis fan, I hesitate to tell you about the depth of my feelings for squash and fencing! I mostly played hockey, baseball and basketball (all very poorly) as a kid, but I've always been interested in a variety of sports. I wouldn't want to have to pick a favourite, and I'm not a fan of any particular team. Hockey has always been central, though.  I'll always be in debt to my dad for taking me to a bunch of games at the Buffalo Aud and Maple Leaf Gardens as a kid. In Toronto we'd spend time roaming the halls, looking at the beautiful old photographs, thinking about hockey. It was hard not to fall in love with the game in that building. It felt like you were somewhere important, even if the teams that played there around that time -- and I first went there in the early 80s -- were some of the worst in the franchise's history.

Grange: Dave’s being modest, as he’s a very good basketball player, though modesty does not prevents me from mentioning who led their team to victory in the media hoops showdown a couple of years back!!! Yeah!! There’s no point in me hiding my basketball jones. I once calculated that from age 14 to 24 I played an average of 300 days a year. I loved football too. Coaching my kids’ teams has kind of got me intrigued by soccer lately; it’s fun to find the common ground between sports. My hockey background is kind of interesting in that as a first-generation Canadian my off-the-boat parents never quite got around to getting me up on skates in any determined way. I grew up in Montreal in the 70s though and was a huge Canadiens fan and fierce ball hockey player. I quickly switched allegiances when I moved to Toronto in time for Lanny MacDonald’s game winner. Now I’m getting my kids up on skates – and it takes some determination! – and playing ball hockey on the street again, which is fun; the snap shot still works. As for favourite team, I can’t say I have one, occupational hazard I guess, but I never stop appreciating the fact that Toronto has an NBA team, remembering when they didn’t; and when Steve Nash was rolling with the Suns I tried to watch as much as I could.

Feschuk: No, seriously, my game is woeful. And Grange, yes, he momentarily allowed Michael Jordan's hall of fame speech to interrupt this interview, but it is justified. As a media-game spectacle -- and speaking of abominations, I don't recommend attendance -- he and his stop-on-a-penny pull-up jumper are like Kareem and his skyhook.
Pretty great writing partner, too.

Follow-up For Feschuk: It's more of a commentary on how much he seems to love that sport that he barely gets to cover and his seeming disdain for so much of what makes hockey great for the fans. But I am in no way shocked that you enjoy fencing. So it sounds like you're a fan of the game more than of a specific team in the league. Do you think that that makes it difficult to relate to the way that fans approach coverage of their favourite team? Or do you not want to admit that you became a Senators fan? Because you already admitted that you love fencing...

Feschuk: I don’t see Cox’s coverage the same way. I think he’s great at what he does, and I guess I’d have to turn the question back on you to understand what you mean by "his seeming disdain." In any event, I’m not a Senators fan, but I was a fan of teams when I was younger, so I know what it means to be sick to my stomach because of something that happened in an arena half a continent away from my living room, and I know what it means to be ecstatic when those events went my team’s way.

As for now, you’re reading it correctly, I’m a fan of the game, I’m a fan of witnessing great performances and great moments and great teams. And I’m a fan, in some ways, of great fans. I once pitched a book idea to a publisher (not this book and not this publisher) and when I was asked about the target audience I said, because I’m not a marketing ace, "Uh, intelligent sports fans." The publisher laughed and said: "That’s an oxymoron." And if you read the contents of my email inbox, or the comments section of most web sites, you can certainly come to that conclusion. But I actually don’t believe it, because I have a lot of great back and forth with a lot of in-tune fans who are simply craving some intelligent and entertaining discourse about the sports they love.

Editor's Note: I don't really see why it's so hard for reporters to admit that they have favourite teams. Granted, they say they don't but in general members of the media are usually so loathe to admit it. I think anyone that reads Damien Cox knows what I mean by "seeming disdain". "Seeming" is actually sugar-coating it. There is genuine pleasure in his tennis writing while he seems to hate everything about hockey, the Leafs, and the fans. As for the remark about fans craving intelligent and entertaining discourse I am going to go ahead and assume that you mean the readers of this site. The rise of the blogosphere in general and SB Nation in particular along with the hiring of Chris Botta and Rich Hammond by the Islanders and Kings respectively are proof of the existence of that desire.

Now, we will need the name and address of that smart-ass publisher.

Follow-up for Grange: "My hockey background is kind of interesting in that as a first-generation Canadian my off-the-boat parents never quite got around to getting me up on skates in any determined way."
So your parents failed you? I've been listening to your radio interviews (p.s. I hate The Deacon for suggesting any relation between the site and the guys calling in from Woodbridge trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit) and I think that you missed the point of my story about how I became a fan of the Leafs. What I was trying to point out is that in an overarching sense the story of how my father and I became fans isn't really unique. Most of the true fans (not the ones that'll cheer for other Canadian teams in the playoffs) have that kind of connection to the Leafs as do fans of other teams in the league or across sports. Hell, being a fan of Newcastle United might as well be a way of life the way they have to go to every player unveiling. Isn't that a pretty big impediment to any sort of quick shift away from the Leafs because they are bad?

And as an aside, I wouldn't have used Newcastle United as an example of what Leafs fans could be like if they were willing to boycott a game or two. I can admit to being pretty fickle at times but I can't imagine the Leafs listening to the entirety of the fanbase. Newcastle is a mess, despite having owners with cash and all the advantages of a massive fanbase, precisely because they listen to the Vocal and Insane Minority.

Grange: I really don’t think I missed the point of your story, which I think is relatively rare, at least by the details, but if I recall I did bungle the context a bit in the Deacon interview. I promise not to mention you or your website again in public, okay? But yes, it’s probably true that most true fans have a connection that is special is in that sense, and thus not unique.
 
As for favourite team, I can’t say I have one, occupational hazard I guess, but I never stop appreciating the fact that Toronto has an NBA team, remembering when they didn’t; and when Steve Nash was rolling with the Suns I tried to watch as much as I could.

Editor's Note: If you don't mention it we'll have fans call in and mention it. We are everywhere! But come on how can no reporter in the history of reporting have a favourite team?

Follow-up for Grange: Is that really an occupational hazard? The writers covering the senators have no problem acting as cheerleaders. Would you find it hard to cover the sport objectively if you did have a favourite team?

Grange: I think it would, to be honest. I’m not trying be high-minded about it, but fans see things through a different light. I’m not saying objective is better, but it’s not like I could change now if I wanted to. And I’ve never really been a big ‘fan’ of teams or players anyway, and I can’t say why exactly, though I did keep a Dallas Cowboys scrap book for one season as a child. But I love sports and I love figuring why players or teams are good and I literally can watch any level of athletic competition – U8 soccer to masters swimming -- with pleasure, but identifying closely with a team in a personal sense I probably haven’t done since the Jays were good and even then I liked the homegrown 80s Jays more than the 90s version when they started throwing all the money around. Can’t explain it.

Editor's Note: The Cowboys? Who are you Howard Berger? Eyebleaf approves of your appreciation of the Blue Jays though.

Question Five

Your book seems to offer a couple of ways in which the team could improve. You mention the need for a passionate owner but for every Mike Illitch, there’s an Al Davis or a Ford. Ted Leonsis is held up as a great owner but while he's definitely passionate he's not even had the kind of success that gets dismissed when achieved by the Leafs. You also mention the Detroit model and highlight a lot of the amazing work that they have done. However, at the same time you advocate tanking your way to success but they haven't been terrible for over 20 years. Doesn't that serve as an acknowledgement that there is no hard and fast route to success in a 30 team NHL?

Grange: No there is no hard and fast rule, you’re right. But in my view the Leafs fan base is among the very best in any sport. And if you’re a Lakers fan or a Celtics fan or a Real Madrid fan or Manchester United fan or a New York Yankees fan or Boston Red Sox fan or a Dallas Cowboys fan or a Detroit Red Wings fan, you can got to sleep each night and wake up each morning absolutely convinced that the people owning your team are just as interested as you are in doing everything possible to win a championship and building teams that echo through the ages. Can Leafs fans say that, without equivocation?

The Ballard years were a disaster and Stavro ran out of money. The current owners, I think, are quite good in the overall scheme of things, but are they the best? Or have they at times in recent years been compromised by conflicting agendas? When George Gillett sold the Canadiens he apologized because they hadn’t won a Cup under him. Who would do the same thing for the Leafs? Tanenbaum maybe? But he only owns a fraction of the team. What would Teachers say? Who would say it? Leonsis was interesting because he made a conscious decision to take a big risk to build a historic team and who knows, he might even pull it off, but he’s definitely trying. The Red Wings aren’t a great comparison because they had the core of their team in place before the salary cap era and have been able to add affordable pieces around that core. But what Illitch has shown is that a laser focus on winning can only help matters.

Feschuk: There's more than one way to win, but if your ownership is just pretty good -- and I would argue the upper-management team that represents Leafs ownership hasn't even lived up to that descriptor for much of the past handful of years -- it's a considerable hurdle to overcome. We all know the margin of victory, the difference between the great teams and even the awfully good teams, is already very slim. And when you look at how top-tier ownership sets the tone in some of the examples we highlight in Leafs AbomiNation, it becomes difficult to argue against its merits.

Follow-up For Feschuk: "We all know the margin of victory, the difference between the great teams and even the awfully good teams, is already very slim."
Is there a way for you to tattoo that sentence to the arms of the other reporters in the Toronto media because it's honestly tiring to hear the Leafs portrayed as if they have been abysmal since 1967 when they've really been not only the best Canadian team since 1993 (after the Habs win of course) but have made four trips to the semi-finals all of which highlight that slim gap between being a champion and an also-ran. Why do you think that coverage is so often black-and-white with no shades of grey?

Feschuk: I think it’s black and white because competition is, at its crux, black and white. You win or you lose. You’re a champion or you’re not. You hoist the Cup or you don’t. And in some ways I think that’s why I love to watch sports, because it’s so much fun to see the great players and the great teams separate themselves from the good ones in the biggest moments, the way Gretzky played one of his best games to deny that Leafs-Canadiens final in 1993. I was babbling on incomprehensibly about this on TSN’s Off the Record the other day after Michael Landsberg brought up the very point you’re making, and whatever I said I can assure you it made no sense. (I express myself much better with a back space key, an editor and less makeup).

The truth is nobody can deny the Leafs had some good runs to the semis (although there was a lot of future-mortgaging short-term thinking that went into the building of those teams that turned Toronto’s developmental system into a non-entity, and the legacy lingers). Then again, the semis are the semis, and the Leafs should had every competitive advantage known to man at the time and they still couldn’t get over that hump.  If Toronto played college basketball, maybe I’d be more inclined to gush about their magical rides to the Final Four! But if it makes you happy enough as a fan to say that Toronto’s the best Canadian team since 1993, knock yourself out. I’m not trying to take that joy away from you.

I would argue, however, that the lure of getting on another one of those Final Four rides – this idea that you could sneak into the playoffs and win a couple of rounds, even if we point out in the book that Cup champions have rarely come from the bottom half of the playoff draw since the inception of the 16-team tournament 30-some years ago – has hurt any chance of compiling enough Cup-worthy talent since. How egregious is that sin? I guess it depends how badly you want to win a Cup. There’s nothing wrong with being the third- or fourth-best team in a tournament. Bronze is bronze, but heck, it’s still an Olympic medal. Mind you, if third and fourth place meant something to more people, I would suggest there’d be a popular push to play a bronze-medal best-of-seven between the two losing semifinalists in the NHL playoffs.

Editor's Note: Needless to say I think that's a very simplistic way to approach things. There has been a thing or two (or three) written about droughts and odds on this site. As for being the best Canadian team since 1993-1994, it doesn't make me happy so much as temper my rage towards moronic fans of the other Canadian teams that have droughts of 16, 19, 20, Infinity, and Infinity. The point about the trend under JFJ to 'just make the playoffs and anything can happen' is absolutely bang on however there is no denying that, with a small change in luck, those Leafs teams that made runs to the semis would have at least been finalists. The years that they made those runs they might have sacrificed some youth but before the salary cap it just meant that the Leafs would have to poach it from elsewhere. Now, of course, it's a much more dangerous move to sacrifice youth...yikes...

And I can't believe that you brought up May 27, 1993.

Follow-up: The one thing that those teams (Lakers, Celtics, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Yankees, Red Sox, and Cowboys) have in common is that they all play in leagues that either have no salary cap or a laughable one. Where do you see MLSE being able to exploit their financial advantages and have you seen any evidence of their willingness to do so since Burke came on board?

Grange: Spending on management and coaching is a start, so that’s positive. The new training facility is impressive, from what I’ve heard, so that’s smart. Buying out bad contracts quickly would make sense. The question Leafs fans should have is that if there’s any point where expenses are being spared, that’s a problem, basically. And if it means forgoing some revenue if a team drifts along the bottom while picking up top talent in the draft, so be it. It’s not hard to make the case that there’s some momentum building now, but is it too soon? And can it make up for the best franchise in hockey wasting the past five years by being neither bad nor good? And going back a bit, why did the best fan base in hockey allow Ballard to steal their money and dignity for two decades?

Feschuk: Grange hit the key point: Why should they be sparing expenses? And yet they do. I think Craig Button made a really salient point in Leafs AbomiNation: The Leafs, with all their resources, should have by now blanketed the hockey-playing parts of the earth with the world’s best talent-scouting machine. The big Champions League soccer clubs try to do it, with academies and the like, and they’ve got a lot more earth to cover. To date, the Leafs haven’t done it.

Editor's Note: These are actually some really good points and Button's frustrations certainly explain his sudden departure from the Leafs as well as the failure to sign Fabian Brunnstrom. The Champions League teams in England especially are scouring the planet for every advantage possible and it's never really been clear if the Maple Leafs have been seeking those advantages.

With Burke's entrance the Leafs suddenly have one of the largest scouting departments. What I would ask is why, instead of writing their usual "draft schmaft!" articles, the media in Toronto don't do in-depth reports comparing how the Leafs stand in relation to the league in the non-roster spending.

Question Six

If you could recommend one thing for Leafs fans to do that would definitely lead to a Stanley Cup what would it be and how would it help? 


Feschuk: I don't think there's anything any fan base can do that would definitely lead to anything, because, as it's been well-established, there are no guarantees in building champions.

Grange: Tough question, but if you go by the examples in the book, owners with money who are faced with declining fan interest find the means to turn things around – desperate times and all of that. The Red Wings were a basket case when Illitch bought them but he had money from elsewhere and was able to take some risks to build from scratch. Failing to take some risks might have been the end of the Wings. Similarly in Washington. Leonsis had to do something bold just to get his team into the local conversation.

Another team we write about, the Boston Celtics, was struggling at the gate too when new ownership swung for the fences after some studied tanking. The Leafs never struggle at the gate and sometimes I wonder if the effect of that is an obligation by ownership to try and provide value for the money fans spend and thus icing a lot of ninth-place teams in a misguided attempt to make the playoffs, rather than getting bad to get good. I do think market pressure could provide some focus to the task, but is it really going to happen? I doubt it.

Follow-Up: "The Ballard years were a disaster and Stavro ran out of money. The current owners, I think, are quite good in the overall scheme of things, but are they the best?"
This is an interesting passage. I think that when you look at the Illitch examples that you cited that no, Teachers' has not had one person take the reins in a meaningful way in the same fashion. However, if the team were to have new owners not only would I have to change my site's name but they could end up with a guy like Ballard that really didn't care at all once he had full ownership or a guy like Stavro that clearly cared enough to succeed but had no cash. And as we are seeing with all of the financial troubles in the NHL is it better to have one single owner than a corporation with $87.4B in assets?

Grange: Can any Leaf fan say, without reservation, that Teachers’ primary motivation is to win a Stanley Cup? Yes they’d like to, but is it the most important thing in their lives? My point is not that the Teachers suck, just that the Leafs fans deserve the absolute best from their ownership. If you think that’s what they have, then fine. 
 
Feschuk: I’m not sure what the $87.4B has to do with it, because it’s not as though that money is all available to MLSE. It’s safe to say that whoever owns the Leafs will always have an overflowing treasure chest. The only question is, how freely and smartly do they spend it in the pursuit of a Cup?
 
Editor's Note: I don't think that the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan cares about winning the Stanley Cup. I do, however, believe that they want to make the most money possible especially in light of some massive underfunding that they are facing. What makes the most money? Winning.

The other point is that the cry for a single passionate owner might make sense except Maple Leafs fans might be reminded of Harold Ballard.

Follow-up: "Tough question, but if you go by the examples in the book, owners with money who are faced with declining fan interest find the means to turn things around – desperate times and all of that."
And I guess this really gets down to the crux of why the Blame the Fans meme among the local punditry is so infuriating for the vast majority of fans. The Teacher's Pension Plan has $87.4B in net assets. The Leafs have estimated revenues of over $170M. That's a 2/10 of a percentage drop in the bucket. It's not really clear how much of that is even from ticket revenues compared to luxury suites, licensing deals, advertising sales, condo sales, facility management, or any of the other big ticket derivative businesses. It literally dwarves every other revenue stream. Can't we all just agree to read Down Goes Brown's Economics 101 and let it die?

Grange: I’m not sure I completely understand your point, but I don’t think that Teachers – or the other owners -- looks at whatever return they make from MLSE as a drop in the bucket. That’s not how they operate in my experience. Maybe you know something different.

Feschuk: To relay the experiences of a lot of employees at MLSE that we come into contact with, there are no drops in the bucket. Peddie and the board spend money as if it is their own. How do they spend their own money? I can’t speak to that with authority, but I remember reading a funny anecdote in a business publication about Robert Bertram, an MLSE board member from Teachers. Bertram, who excelled in a field that obviously made him a very wealthy man, had a morning ritual of being one of the first seven people in line at his regular coffee shop, since the first seven people to correctly answer a trivia question got a coupon for a free coffee. The writer of the piece suggested Bertram’s habit wasn’t about the free coffee, it was about his desire to always be right. But then the piece quoted Bertram saying something like, "You can get a coffee and a scone for a buck."

Editor's Note: Wow. Robert Bertram is a crazy cheapskate. The point is that, faced with a drop in the things that fans can theoretically control (ticket revenue, merchandise sales) to some possible degree and a drop in their most profitable businesses (condo sales, property management) I think I know which one would result in a massive turnaround much quicker.

Question Seven

I noticed that there seemed to be a chapter that was missing. Ron Wilson, Tom Fitzgerald, Kyle Wellwood, and yourselves all alluded to it in passing but it didn't receive the recognition it deserved. Where's the Blame the Media chapter? Isn't the incessant wall-to-wall coverage that Fitzgerald mentions culpable in making fourth liners think that they are stars part of the "Blue and White" disease that Wilson rails about? Or the fact that Wilson bemoans the lack of tactical examination by the media? Doesn't waking up to see "McKlutz" plastered all over town make it difficult to perform?

Grange: Funny, we were all set to do a ‘blame the idiots in the media’ chapter but then we found your site and realized you guys do it so much better…

Editor's Note: First off, "Idiots" was your word not mine. We prefer "mittenstringers" around these here parts.

Secondly, this is a huuuuuuuuuuuuge cop-out. The majority of fans don't just come up with some of their half-baked crusades on their own. Larry Murphy wasn't getting complimentary press coverage until he won the Cup in Detroit. Along with the lack of tactical examination Ron Wilson bemoans the fact that he can't work the players as hard in practice as they do in other top cities (like San Jose or Detroit) because then the media goes ballistic trying to figure out why they are getting bag skated or who is the cause of the punishment.

The Toronto media love painting Leafs fans as alternately reactionary, fickle, too loyal, too slow to anger, and stupid. However, where do they do the kind of reporting that could teach fans? Hell, how often do casual fans have no clue about the CBA? Why aren't they writing more articles explaining it or how it applies to the Leafs this upcoming season? It's a discussion I'd love to have.

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