What We Learned: Leiweke sees Leafs as Yanks

Tim Leiweke. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Tim Leiweke knew exactly what he was getting himself into when he signed on as president and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment earlier this year. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, the Raptors have never made it past the second round of the NBA playoffs and Toronto FC have never seen the MLS post-season in their seven-year history.

Leiweke was the keynote speaker at the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto Tuesday where he talked about the teams he’s attempting to lead to championships.

Here are a few things we learned from Leiweke’s speech:

Toronto is “the heart and the soul of the great game of hockey”
Leiweke began his speech by talking about the lofty goals he has for the Maple Leafs. The team is already the most financially viable franchise in the NHL, but Leiweke said the team can become an even bigger enterprise.

“We must become the [New York] Yankees of baseball or the [Dallas] Cowboys of football,” Leiweke said.

The Leafs have gotten off to a strong start in 2013–14 and Leiweke credits the team’s general manager, Dave Nonis, and the off-season acquisitions he made. In fact, he said he thought the Leafs had the best off-season of any team in hockey.

New Leafs Dave Bolland, Jonathan Bernier, Mason Raymond and David Clarkson have been major contributors to the team this season and Leiweke said it’s these types of players that can help the team to its first Cup in over 40 years.

“We’re going to continue to do whatever we need to do to win a Cup,” he added.

Players don’t like the energy at ACC
He also added that some Leafs players don’t like the atmosphere in the Air Canada Centre during home games. It’s quite common for the platinum seats at the ACC to be mostly empty at the start of periods. There are many businesses that have Leafs season tickets and blue-collar fans have argued that it’s difficult to get tickets to support their team.

Leiweke suggested maybe it’s time to free up more tickets for those fans.

“There’s a lot of people, especially at the lower levels, you can’t teach them to cheer,” Leiweke said. “We have to think about the culture of the Leafs experience.”

Leiweke happy with Masai Ujiri, Raptors
Though the Raptors didn’t make any major off-season moves, Leiweke said he is impressed with the team’s new general manager, Masai Ujiri.

“Masai’s the kind of guy that will catch lightning in a bottle,” Leiweke said. “I think he’s capable of pulling off a big trade that would bring an all-star to Toronto.”

Odds for the upcoming NBA season were recently released and the Raptors aren’t projected to make the playoffs. Even worse, their odds to win the championship are 150/1. Clearly the oddsmakers aren’t giving the team much of a chance to succeed.

But Leiweke said the coaches and management are on the same page and that the players are “ticked off” people are talking more about the mascot and his Achilles injury rather than the team itself.

“You’re going to be surprised by this Raptors team,” Leiweke said. “You will see a different team with a different spirit.”

NBA players will want to play in Toronto
Some have argued that one reason the Raptors haven’t been successful in recent years is the fact they have difficulty attracting top-tier talent. Vince Carter left, Chris Bosh left and so on and so forth. But Leiweke said he has spoken with several current NBA players, plus retired superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and asked them why it’s out there that players don’t like Toronto. According to Leiweke, they all said it was their favourite place to play when on a road trip.

“We do not have an image problem… If we win and create a culture of winning, players will want to play for the Raptors.”

TFC can expect a turnaround
Leiweke summed up what many TFC fans often say about the team by proclaiming: “Our soccer team is absolutely in complete disarray,” he said bluntly.

However, Leiweke did explain he feels the team is poised for a quick turnaround. He spoke to his ability to bring in stars such as David Beckham when he helped run the Los Angeles Galaxy and said he hopes TFC will follow in a similar path.

In a display of sheer optimism, he added: “We’re going to make the playoffs next year.”

Argos at BMO not out of the realm of possibility
The Toronto Argonauts likely won’t play at the Rogers Centre beyond 2017 and many fans throughout the city feel that BMO field could be a great venue if some alterations were made to the stadium.

“We’re looking at it,” said Leiweke, who added it’s far from a sure thing. “We’re fans of the Argos, but it’s a long process.”

Chris Rudge, CEO of the Argonauts, was in attendance at the Empire Club.

Leiweke also said that “it’s time to put a roof on BMO Field” and that he feels the odds of an NFL team coming to Toronto in the next decade are “pretty good.”

Second NHL team in Toronto unlikely
Though the Greater Toronto Area is the biggest hockey market in the world, Leiweke believes there are other markets the NHL should go to before putting a second team in Toronto.

“I think we have to get back to the Pacific Northwest,” he said, adding that cities like Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Las Vegas and Quebec City all want their own NHL teams. “Economically, there’s not a second team coming to Toronto anytime soon.”

Rob Ford is Chris Farley-esque?
While praising Toronto as one of North America’s nicest cities to live in, Leiweke poked some fun at its mayor, Rob Ford. Leiweke said he’d go to breakfast with him, but not out to dinner.

“I love your mayor. He’s like Tommy Boy.”

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