TORONTO – It took less than a day for Tim Leiweke and Brendan Shanahan to agree on the terms of the contract that made Shanahan the new president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
All told, the wooing period between the parties lasted about a week.
So if you came away from Monday’s press conference wondering just how exactly this arrangement is going to work you’re not alone: The principal figures now in the hockey office, Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis, are still ironing out some essential details themselves. About the only thing we can say with certainty is that the Leafs are unquestionably Shanahan’s team.
“We’re going to give him full authority,” said Leiweke, the MLSE president. “He’s the boss.”
On some level, that must have hurt Nonis, who put on a brave face despite an avalanche of comments that painted his disintegrating regime in an unflattering light. One in particular came right from Leiweke’s opening address: “I definitely sense that we lack an identity, and right now we’re a team that lacks a direction.”
Perhaps this was simply Leiweke being Leiweke – making strong statements to keep the show under the big tent as entertaining as possible. It was also a chance to deflect attention away from the disastrous 2-12-0 collapse the Leafs just staggered home with down the stretch.
For what it’s worth, Shanahan and Nonis said all the right things about being comfortable with the arrangement and wanting to work together. The two men had even dined with one another on Sunday night at Sotto Sotto in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood.
Despite all that, Leiweke acknowledged that Shanahan’s hiring wasn’t one that had Nonis popping champagne bottles in his office at 50 Bay St. And understandably so.
“(The hiring) wasn’t without some debate, it wasn’t without some conversation,” said Leiweke. “I understand that if I’m Dave life would be better if we didn’t ultimately have this additional layer that we’re going to add here. But if I’m the Leafs, the layer is not only necessary but good.
“It makes us better.”
How so wasn’t immediately clear. This is uncharted territory for a man grew up in the shadows of downtown Toronto.
Shanahan’s accomplishments as a player speak for themselves and saw him inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. His work in the NHL’s head office made him one of Gary Bettman’s most valued employees. In fact, Leiweke asserted that the commissioner was upset at losing his “superstar” pupil, although Bettman disputed that characterization when contacted by Sportsnet later on.
He said he was “very happy” for both Shanahan and the Leafs – even though it meant losing the league’s lead disciplinarian on the eve of the playoffs. “We can deal with it,” Bettman added.
Meanwhile in Toronto, there were all kinds of unanswered questions about how the new president planned to proceed with a cap-strapped team fresh off its eighth playoff no-show in nine years. Facing a massive gathering of reporters and a live television audience, Shanahan offered little in the way of a vision for the future.
“I’m not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations,” said Shanahan. “Today is my first day at work, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Shanahan is an analytical guy. After learning of the Leafs interest in him, he prepared a list of questions and concerns – covering everything from the reporting structure to available resources to the organization’s long-term vision – and meticulously worked through each item with Leiweke before they even started negotiating the terms of his contract.
Now that he’s taken the job, a full-scale review of the organization will begin. Players, coaches, scouts and other members of the hockey operations department – they’ll all be looked at. Nothing will be rushed. The status of head coach Randy Carlyle is still unclear.
All of this made for a strange locker cleanout day at Air Canada Centre. Typically, this kind of event features a full-scale post-mortem of the season past and plenty of discussion about the first-line centre or shutdown defenceman that must be acquired to avoid another early exit next year.
It will be a little while yet before fans of the Leafs hear any of that. However, the impatient lot can take some comfort in the fact that change is in the air. On Monday morning, the Toronto players reported for a private meeting and were given a tongue-lashing from Leiweke – not to mention some sobering talk from Shanahan.
“It was real simple,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. “(Shanahan) just wanted to introduce himself and make sure that we understand there’s going to be some changes made.”
The first, and perhaps most significant, has already occurred. The hiring of Shanahan represents another seismic shift for an organization that has seen John Ferguson Jr., Brian Burke and Nonis all take turns manning the wheel since its last victory in a playoff series.
Having attended the introductory press conferences for each of those men, it was easy to identify the familiar rhetoric and hope. That’s what these things are always about before the enormity of the task sets in.
However, in Shanahan, the organization feels that it has something different.
“He fought as a player, he fought for the union, he fought for the game and he (fought) for the integrity of the league,” said Leiweke. “Now he comes here to fight for the Leafs. The one thing I know about Shanny is he’s going to fight for us every day.
“He may be analytical, he may be patient, he may not knee-jerk, but in that heart beats a man who is extremely committed to winning and doing whatever is necessary.”
The only thing we know for sure is that it won’t be easy. It never is.