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Pension Plan Puppets: Still surly after all these years

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The kitten ranch is 15 years old.

CYPRUS-ANIMAL-CATS Photo by AMIR MAKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Our Anniversary

A little bird reminded us that the blog was founded 15 years ago today, so instead of links today, we have a look back at the deep past of the blog and the Leafs.

PPP Kitten Ranching Industries GmbH is old enough to get acne, to be drafted into the OHL (Soo Greyhounds, of course) and to just generally be annoying and irreverent, which is our major skillset.

To celebrate, today’s FTB is all about us, and the rest of the world can intrude again tomorrow.

It’s all the teachers’ fault

In 1994, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan bought a stake in the ownership of the Maple Leafs. The OTPP or “Teachers’” as they like to call themselves, are one of the biggest investment funds in Canada, and their mandate is to create the wealth that will continue to pay out pensions to retired teachers for as long as they need to. They buy shares in businesses, they don’t run them.

At that time, the Leafs were in the post Harold Ballard period after his death in 1990. Ballard left the shares in the parent company of the Leafs to various charities, and a lot of buying and selling of shares in that company followed. Two things are key, Steve Stavro was one of the executors of the estate and the company had a large debt with TD Bank. Molson had an option to buy some shares for almost nothing, but they were compelled to sell them since they own the Canadiens. Stavro bought those shares, loaned the estate some money when they couldn’t pay a debt, and then, in 1994, Teachers’ joined in and a new ownership was formed with Stavro and TD Bank. In 1996, Larry Tanenbaum also acquired an interest as the business transitioned into a multi-sport enterprise that included the Toronto Raptors.

In 2003, Stavro sold out to one of the forerunners of Bell Media, and Teachers’ ended up owning the majority of the newly named Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment.

Meanwhile on the ice, the Leafs were ending a run of good playoff performances that saw them never quite get out of the conference, and they slid into a decline that began with the departure of GM Pat Quinn. When Brian Burke took over, the team idled around 80 points for years, and it seemed like the hockey world changed around the moribund Leafs who stubbornly stayed stuck in the past. Sports itself had changed, and the conservative world of hockey couldn’t seem to catch up, but the Leafs were trailing the pack within the NHL too.

After decades of Ballard, then the Stavro years, the ownership by the disinterested pension plan seemed like a good thing in some ways. At least they did no harm. And the blog decided that being the puppets of a disinterested master was the image of Leafs fandom that fit.

Teachers’ increased their share of the business as Burke seemed to be building a better team, and then in 2011 sold out to the new owners Bell and Rogers, and the new era began just as this blog was coming into its own.

MLSE Infographic.pdf

The layers of corporate ownership and incestuous business interests that combine Bell, Rogers and their media companies Sportsnet and TSN with the team they jointly own are less disinterested than the pension plan, but we’re still dangling on strings.

We’re also just too lazy to change the name.

Corsi Wars

PPP has always been set apart from the mainstream in sports fandom. As the pension plan gave way to a more active ownership, this corner of fandom was surfing the wave of new ways of thinking about sports, which had come late to hockey. The adaptation of concepts from soccer and baseball, Moneyball and analytics, all found a home on the blog-heavy internet of the day.

The time around 2010-2013 saw fandom factionalize into vituperative cabals of people who argued about which things to count up about hockey: shots or points, as well as what was important in a player: skill or grit, and the false dichotomies and unexamined middle reigned. You get really loud arguments when no one occupies the middle ground, and the blog reflected that.

It wasn’t all yelling, however. Some very early examinations of Corsi and what it all means exist still on this blog, although in the way of the internet, the image links are often broken and posts become less valuable as historical documents.

Corsi - Intro To Advanced Hockey Statistics - Corsi - Burtch

This article from 2012 gives simple, clear definitions of the forms of Corsi used at the time, and also still in use now.

Fenwick - Intro To Advanced Hockey Statistics - Fenwick - Burtch

This article from 2012 carries on from the Corsi article to explain Fenwick. Fenwick had largely fallen out of use until Expected Goals, which has to based on Fenwick, took hold.

PDO - Intro To Advanced Statistics - PDO - Burtch

This 2012 article covers the basics of PDO

We’ve never stopped covering this kind of thing:

xG - What to expect when you’re expecting (goals) - Arvind

This recent article by Arvind is much more than a funny headline. He delves into the ideas behind Expected Goals, and helps you get up to speed on all these X stats that keep showing up.

But as is also natural, we’ve evolved (get it?) into a blog that tends to use the analytical work of established sites to examine the team, the players and figure out why the Leafs still disappoint us. There’s a lot more middle ground in the debate about how to measure hockey and its players, but the topic will never really die.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Seven Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Simmering Resentment

As this blog moved through the Burke years into the dark times that followed, Leafs fans had moved past the idea of cheering for a team that always lost, into demanding that one of the highest priced tickets in the NHL deliver a quality on-ice product. Nerds got all those math skills arguing about stats, and when they applied them to the economics of the sport, they were really mad.

PPP wanted a revolution, and the overthrow of the atrocious management of the Dave Nonis years led to fights that might make the Corsi wars seem tame. The mainstream media, a term that maybe made some sense then, took a lot of justifiable blame.

This period saw the fans at PPP debunk the Phil Kessel hot dog story, scream themselves blue over David Clarkson, and demand some skill players join Kessel on a team full of pylons.

Shanahan’s Leafs

And then came the revolution. Bloody Sunday, the Red Wedding, whatever you want to call the greatest mass-firing in NHL history as Brendan Shanahan finally acted to clean house.

As the Leafs started drafting differently, tanking in the most effective way since the Penguins got Sid, and then bouncing back high and fast, we discovered optimism in our hearts. I think of this period as the Zippy Little Winger era at PPP. We all believed really hard in a lot of players who never made it. And the King of all ZLW, Mitch Marner has gone from universally adored saviour to the goat in a very short time.

The truth is that sustaining the revolutionary spirit is hard. Being at the vanguard of change in the NHL and staying there is impossible, because someone else will come along and do some of the things you do better and find innovations all of their own.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Vegas Golden Knights Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

But given PPP’s history, maybe no one should be surprised that we’ve slipped back into the simmering resentment phase of fandom like it’s a comfortable and familiar pair of slippers.

The Maple Leafs are at a crossroads as they make choices that will either redeem the revolution or doom it to the dustbin of history. After all, Dave Nonis thought he was good at his job, too. And PPP, dangling on the strings of Bell and Rogers, Shanahan and Dubas, will keep following along, counting up stuff and complaining all the way.

It’s part of our heritage.