Grange: Leiweke’s rookie season as MLSE’s boss begins now

Tim Leiweke says everybody needs to slow down and wait when it comes to Toronto FC's final designated player signing. (Jesse Johnston/CP)

The seasons haven’t even started and the most valuable player is gassed, at least temporarily.

Tim Leiweke, president, chief executive officer and visionary-in-chief of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., admits his recent pace has taken a heavy toll. The man who knows only one speed, whose nickname among some back in Los Angeles was the Energizer Bunny is, for the moment, in need of a breather.

Such is the effort required to convert MLSE from a money machine to a dream factory.

“I’m exhausted,” he says.

Unfortunately, there is little time to rest. For all the hustle, bustle, firings, hirings and parade routes planned (more on that later) over the past few months, this week begins Leiweke’s rookie season. Everything up until now has been practice.

The Toronto Raptors training camp opens Monday and the puck drops on the Toronto Maple Leafs season Tuesday night. And while Toronto FC has been playing out the string all summer, for Leiweke the real work fixing the disastrous soccer side begins in the next few weeks as he tours Europe with newly-minted TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko looking to spend many, many millions on a saviour or two.

Oh, and for good measure the NBA will announce Toronto as the site of the 2016 All-Star Game Monday.

But a simple announcement won’t do. Also on hand will be Toronto’s rapper-in-residence, Drake, who will kick off Leiweke’s stated efforts to eventually rebrand the franchise by being introduced as the Raptors “Global Ambassador.”

It’s an arrangement that has been in the works for a while and will involve Drake as the host for the All-Star week festivities. In the meantime, having one of music’s most influential artists—and one who counts the likes of LeBron James and Andrew Wiggins as friends—can’t hurt brush up the Raptors flagging image for the moment.

But that’s the flash. What this week really means is that the cement is now dry on Leiweke’s status as the man to lead any or all of MLSE’s sports teams to the Promised Land—the playoffs, championships, the whole shebang.

He’s fired some executives (TFC’s Kevin Payne), pushed out others (former Raptors’ president Bryan Colangelo) and had others leave without ceremony (MLSE’s interim president and chief operating officer Tom Anselmi and others within the MLSE hierarchy). He’s left the Leafs largely untouched, but has general manager Dave Nonis and the rest on notice that he’s expecting the Stanley Cup drought to end, the sooner the better.

He’s stepped into controversies of his own making—saying he was planning the Leafs parade route, unaware that’s it’s a local punch line, or when he pledged to take down photos of the Leafs’ past legends from the ACC—and otherwise tried to wrestle to the ground dragons left unchallenged by his predecessors.

All while marrying off his daughter to Maple Leafs hopeful Troy Bodie this past August.

“For me it’s been the hardest time in my career,” says Leiweke. “With AEG it’s been 19 years of building—the only rebuild was the Kings. You come here and you’re immediately thrust into rebuilding two out of the three [teams] and you’re trying to rebuild the corporate structure of the parent company as well. I’ve never had three different processes where you were trying to learn, educate, process and define and fix at once.”

And now the world will begin to see if he’s done even a half-decent job.

Logically, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—this idea of grading Leiweke by the on-field performance of his teams. All three of them function under a salary cap, so it’s not like he can wave a magic money wand and buy the competitive success MLSE has been so sorely lacking.

Sometimes poorly run teams win because they are lucky enough to stumble into a franchise player in the draft—think the bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins lucking into Sidney Crosby.

Can a jolt of personality and vision at the top translate into the right bounce or a lottery ball or drift of a puck? It seems a tenuous connection, but it’s Leiweke who wants it that way.

A full house at Real Sports and streets coursing with authentic Phil Kessel jerseys is no longer the measure of the sports executive at MLSE.

“We have to win,” says Leiweke while perched on a bar stool in an upstairs suite at Real Sports Saturday morning, shortly after hosting a meet-and-greet with angry TFC fans. “We can’t separate Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from the teams. We have to stand up and say: As the teams go, so go the organization.”

“I think there was a theory here where we were a great sports organization but that the GMs haven’t done a good job with the teams. Nope. We are the teams. This community wants to buy Leafs tickets. They want to buy Raptors tickets. They don’t want to buy MLSE tickets. If these teams don’t do well, then we’re not a great organization and we shouldn’t kid ourselves … It’s the Leafs, it’s the Raptors and it’s TFC. How they do is our report card.”

The very public goal setting has a purpose. In Leiweke’s mind, he’s creating breathing room for the men required to make his fever dreams come to life. With Leiweke front and centre, apologizing for past failures—“I’ve had to apologize a lot,” he says—or setting the course with broad proclamations, his general managers can preach process and patience.

“I’m the optimist,” he says. “My job is to create an environment. The GM’s job is to make this thing work.”

After a whirlwind off-season Leiweke is beginning to settle into his new job and his new life. His family has joined him in Toronto, taking up residence in tony Yorkville. He takes the subway to games and walks out his front door to movies or dinner with his wife. After two decades in Los Angeles the freedom of being able to get around without a car is a welcome treat.

How long he’ll call Toronto home, he can’t say. He plans to retire back to Los Angeles and he’s the type that will always have opportunity knocking. Asked about the length of his contract or if he has on out clause he can exercise, Leiweke bobs a little bit.

He doesn’t give a timeline but says it will be long enough to get the job done.

“At this point in my career, I probably could have called it a day,” he says. “I’ve done enough and earned enough that I probably could have said, ‘I’m good.’ But I came here because I thought what would happen if we could win.

“I thought, ‘my God, is there anything I’ve done in my career that would be as rewarding and fulfilling for the community?’ But we have to win. I don’t know how long that will take. I don’t know anyone who can predict that, but I do know that I have to hang in here and finish what we just began.”

He says his primary goal since he arrived has been to allow an organization beaten down by losing to think big again, at least beyond profits.

He learned his lesson; he doesn’t talk about planning the parade any more (“I caught so much heck for that. I made a mistake there because I didn’t understand the marketplace.”) but he still talks in bold letters. He still can swell your chest.

“We have a shot to be great here,” he says. “Don’t be afraid. We’ve been afraid of dreaming a little bit. We’ve been so polarized by our lack of success with the teams that people have been afraid to have a vision and afraid to have a passion and afraid to have a dream.”

Those dreams are meant to dance in the heads of millions of sports fans, but they rest heavily on Leiweke’s shoulders.

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