Ghosts stalk the halls and concourses of the Air Canada Center.
Their names, slogans and statistics resonate: Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Randy Carlyle, Dave Nonis, Brian Burke … Three-Year Plans, Five-Year Plans … The Passion That Unites Us All, Burn the Boats … False starts, regular resets … Waffle Gate, Salute Gate … Improbable Series Defeat.
It has been a long 13-plus years for a club that has only once tasted the spoils of a playoff berth when in 2013 they coughed up an unbelievable 4-1 – game seven lead versus the higher seeded, veteran-laden Boston Bruins.
As crushing as the defeat was to a franchise and fan base bursting at the seams to become relevant once again in the NHL landscape, the series loss to Boston presented an opportunity for change. Not the kind of change offered by general manager Brian Burke in 2008, when he took over the reins and proceeded to trade high-end draft picks for “win now” players; rebuild on the fly becoming his early mantra.
No, after their 2013 playoff debacle, the Toronto Maple Leafs looked to make systemic organizational changes; the kinds of changes that at the time left many scratching their collective heads in wonder.
Insert Tim Lieweke.
Leiweke became President and CEO of MLSE on April 26, 2013. Despite arriving at the “center of the hockey universe” as a relative unknown to most fans, one of the new bosses first and most important press conferences offered a glimpse into what was on its way.
He spoke of the word culture, and how it was about to change for all of MLSE’s sports properties. From the Maple Leafs, to the NBA’s Toronto Raptors right down to the MLS’s Toronto FC; they would all become elite, world-class organizations. The talk at the time was that maybe, just maybe the Maple Leafs might actually “do it right”.
Do it right. It’s always been a thought that Toronto as a hockey market would never stand for a true, tear it down – build from the bottom rebuild similar to what the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks did before they became NHL super-powers.
Brian Burke capitulated on the process and left the organization in a wayward mess. So why would things be any different, especially when it was announced that Brendan Shanahan – he of zero NHL front office experience – was now being brought in to “run the show”.
As the 2014 season kicked off and the Maple Leafs were off to an impressive start with a 21-16-3-0 record, it came as a complete shock when Coach Randy Carlyle was replaced by Peter Horachek who proceeded to lead the Buds to an exceptionally awful 9-28-0-5 record and a seventh place finish in the Atlantic Division. Only the Buffalo Sabres were worse.
Things didn’t look promising in the Big Smoke. Was the hurting fan base offered another pipedream? Were they offered false hope that fateful spring day in April? It sure looked like it.
That is until arguably one of the greatest coaches of all time was brought in to lead the charge.
With Shanahan further insulating his front office with the brightest hockey minds from the likes of salary cap specialist and analytics “wonder-kid” Kyle Dubas to a future Hall of Famer in Lou Lamoriello, the final piece of the puzzle was signing Mike Babcock to become the club’s 39th and likely most anticipated and most sought after head coach.
Unlike those before them, Shanahan and Babcock specifically were honest in letting everyone know that there “would be pain”. For all intents and purposes, the process would be followed and adhered to. A plan was in place from the top to the bottom. From the CEO, to the President, to the GM, to the Coach, all parties would be “pulling the rope in the same direction”.
Management may have accomplished what they wanted, but from a fan perspective the 2015-2016 season was rock bottom. With a 29-42-11 record, and a last place finish, it’s hard to imagine things could work out, but luck would be on their side. The kind of luck that looks to have changed the franchise once and for all.
With winning the NHL’s draft lottery, the Maple Leafs were gifted the opportunity to draft – as we now know – the franchise’s most decorated rookie in Auston Matthews. As the scoring records continued to fall, and a Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie an almost certainty, some will look to Matthews as the savior of the team. Others will give credit to Babcock or Shanahan.
The one person that doesn’t seem to get enough credit is that of Tim Lieweke. Although leaving Southern Ontario rather unceremoniously in June of 2015, Lieweke did as he said he would do. The culture for all of MLSE’s sports properties has been changed, and changed for the better.
The man responsible for bringing in the likes of Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri who has turned the fledgling franchise into one of the NBA’s best teams to being an integral part in TFC signing Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, and making a “bloody big deal” with the eventual arrival of Jermaine Defoe, Tim Lieweke looks to have altered the Toronto sports landscape forever.