Richard Peddie used to carry a clicker that would summon security if he felt physically threatened at the Air Canada Centre.
He never used it, but towards the end of his polarizing 15-year run as chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the multi-billion-dollar colossus that dominates so much of the mindshare of sports fans in Canada’s biggest city and even across the country, he felt he needed it.
“Although I never felt threatened, I could feel the hostility in the air,” he writes in Dream Job, his just-released autobiography that deals with a remarkable career that started marketing packaged foods, transitioned into broadcasting, saw him run SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) and ended up with Peddie becoming one of the most influential figures in Canadian sports in the past two decades.
Of course, influential and successful aren’t the same thing.
Watch Michael Grange’s 1-on-1 with Richard Peddie tonight on Connected | TV schedule
While Peddie’s run at MLSE wasn’t as big a competitive disaster as is commonly thought—in his first six years there the Toronto Raptors made the playoffs three times and the flagship Toronto Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup contenders, making the playoffs six straight seasons and losing in the conference finals twice—he is, fairly or not, more closely associated with all that has gone wrong at MLSE than anything that ever went well.
Peddie is reasonably forthright in the book, although if you’re waiting for him to split a vein or drop juicy gossip you’ll be disappointed. He is hard on Vince Carter (“Vince had little heart…”) and kind to Gary Bettman. He thinks the NHL should contract to 24 teams and that the NFL will never make it in Toronto.
But it’s mainly a leadership tome with glimpses from behind the scenes at a business that transformed how sports are consumed in Canada, with some interesting biographical detail that broadens the picture of the man many sports fans loved to hate.
His primary regret is the double rookie general manager flubs he made when he gave 36-year-old John Ferguson Jr. the job of running the Leafs in 2003 and Rob Babcock the Raptors job in 2004.
The irony is that while Peddie preaches the importance of vision and values—that doing the right thing with the right goals over and over again will inevitably yield success—both moves were flawed in their planning and execution. In some ways MLSE is still recovering.
With Pat Quinn—who held both the coach and GM jobs at the time—on the Leafs payroll, Peddie didn’t want to overspend on a new general manager and so Ferguson Jr. was hired on the cheap. In the case of Babcock, Peddie felt rushed as he had promised a new Raptors boss would replace outgoing Glen Grunwald by a certain date and panicked when he couldn’t secure his first choice.
But John Ferguson Jr.? Rob Babcock? Trading Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft? Trading Vince Carter for two guys named Williams, a “retired” Alonzo Mourning and some draft picks? You know it was a bad deal when Carter is the only one out of all of them still playing.
It’s all enough to make you a bit misty-eyed as the nostalgia of it all comes running back.
The unpredictability of the whole enterprise never ceased to amaze an executive who cut his teeth selling Tang drink crystals (“it was a bag of chemicals… it always tasted the same”) in an industry where one business having a good year didn’t mean the others were all losers.
As if to underscore the point, Peddie and MLSE next hired two of the most accomplished sports executives possible in Brian Burke and Bryan Colangelo—and were rewarded with five straight seasons (and counting) out of the playoffs on the Raptors side and eight straight on the Leafs side (four under Burke).
And TFC? That was a whole different category of disaster.
Given the circumstances it makes sense that Peddie took refuge in the business successes at MLSE. That the condo towers went up and the restaurants went in just as the teams at the heart of the enterprise were going down made Peddie an easy target.
He’s unapologetic about the manner in which MLSE capitalized on fans’ fervour for their teams—the same fervour that could tip over to the point where he got death threats, and became the reason he stopped riding the subway after games and felt compelled to carry that clicker.
Sports have become the great distraction of our age and a vacuum for much of our disposable income and even more of our time. By positioning MLSE at the fulcrum of that passion in Canada’s largest city, Peddie was able to triple the value of the enterprise by the time he retired in 2012 to about $2 billion.
When suite sales were slow during the 2008 recession Peddie reclaimed 10 of them and turned them in to the Chairman’s Suite, a fine-dining restaurant in the ACC with a $50,000 membership fee—“an exclusive suite for a select few” is the pitch. It’s sold out.
It’s the kind of thing that drives some fans bonkers, even if it is the reality of sports morphing into big business. With the lack of team success MLSE’s financial success—driven in large part by Peddie’s strategic vision—served to make a lot of fans feel like suckers. Resentment followed.
It’s no wonder that Peddie’s replacement, Tim Leiweke, has chosen to brand himself as the champion of championships.
“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,” Leiweke told me last month. “Nope… 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.”
With all three teams essentially operating under hard salary caps it will be interesting to see how the new MLSE can distance itself from the one Peddie got up and running.
But make no mistake, Peddie got things done. When the Leafs finally did break MLSE’s playoff hex last spring, Real Sports—the fabulous sports bar Peddie built adjacent to the ACC—was packed hours before game time, and fans were lined up out to York Street to squeeze into the madness of Maple Leaf Square. The pure passion outside was beamed on the big screen inside the arena itself, pumping up the swells in the expensive seats.
It was Peddie’s vision come to life.
He wasn’t around to enjoy it, and claims the lure of active retirement out-weighed any urge he had to hang around until one of the teams he was responsible for finally tasted success.
There was a book to write, speeches to give and ships to watch float by from his summer home on the shores of the Detroit River near his native Windsor, Ont.
“I might have stayed longer at MLSE,” he says in the book. “But I just got tired of losing.”