I twice almost became the CEO of the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is somewhat ironic because I’m a well-known Maple Leaf hater. Of course, had I become the CEO either time I would have quickly learned to love them.
My first brush with the Leafs was in the mid 1980s when I got the idea that Anne Murray would be a perfect owner of the franchise. She was a fierce hockey fan, a Toronto resident, and a universally loved and respected Canadian international superstar. Harold Ballard, who held the controlling interest in the public company that owned the Leafs (Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd.) was, on the other hand, despised by most Leaf fans and seemed to care only about making money rather than having a winning team,
I floated the idea at one of the meetings that Anne, her manager Leonard Rambeau and I regularly held .Although they were sceptical that we could raise the money to pull it off, Anne loved the idea, and Leonard didn’t really care as long as I was prepared to run the show.
Back in those days I was on a first name basis with most of the bank chairmen and had already gotten an oral commitment from one of them that we could borrow enough to get Ballard’s shares provided they were pledged as security. I had also gotten an agreement from the chairman of a major public company that they would come in as a partner if necessary. So I called Harold, whom I’d met a few times, and asked for a meeting. He suggested we have lunch at the Hot Stove Lounge in Maple Leaf Gardens.
I knew that others had approached Harold about buying his shares and had gotten absolutely nowhere because they all wanted him completely out of the way; but I had a plan that I thought he might accept. My proposal was that he would stay on as a special consultant on all non-hockey operations, which would mean he would manage the building (at which he was very good) and which would allow his son Bill to keep the inside track for his concert promotion business. This would keep Harold involved in the company and allow him to maintain his office, bunker (where he sat for events) and apartment at the Gardens; but he would have nothing to do with the hockey team. I also knew that he was a big Anne Murray fan.
Harold and I had two very enjoyable meetings at the Hot Stove Lounge to discuss the Anne Murray purchase and then a final one that was not so enjoyable. It was during this third meeting that Harold finally confessed to me that because of an intricate web of borrowing covenants involving the TD bank and Molson Breweries he was, in fact, unable to sell his shares to anyone without their approval. Because Molson knew that I was an advisor to archrival Labatt, there was no way they would ever approve a sale to a group of which I would be CEO and chairman. So that was that.
My next brush with heading up Maple Leaf Gardens came shortly after Ballard’s death on April 11, 1990, an event that put control of the company in play because the restrictive covenants referred to earlier either died with Harold or were ineffective because of some other legal manoeuvres (I don’t recall which). Steve Stavro, a well known and well-heeled Toronto sportsman and grocer, Don Giffen, another Toronto businessman, and Don Crump, Harold’s right hand man for many years, were the trustees of Harold’s estate and effectively controlled the company until the shares were dealt with under the terms of Harold’s will.
As I recall the situation, the trustees split along the following lines: Stavro had his opinion of how the company should be run; Don Giffen and Thor Eaton (yes, one of the famous Eaton family) had different ideas; and, Crump was more or less just waiting to see what transpired.
Stavro’s lawyer, Brian Bellmore, and the lawyer for Maple Leaf Gardens, Dave Matheson (also a close friend of Crump’s) were, and remain, both good friends of mine. I think it was probably Brian who convinced Steve that I should be offered the job of CEO. Anyway, Stavro offered me the job and I began negotiating with Brian and Dave to come up with a satisfactory deal. Knowing full well that this wasn’t what Giffen and Eaton had in mind, Stavro suggested that I have lunch with them so that they could, as he put it, “get to know me.” If I had ever met either of them before I didn’t remember doing so.
So, it was back to the Hot Stove Lounge for lunch, this time with Don Giffen and Thor Eaton. It was, to say the least, an interesting experience.
Giffen fell asleep about half way through his steak sandwich.
Eaton asked me what I thought about Cliff Fletcher as a possible CEO for Maple Leaf Gardens, to which I replied, “You mean the guy who traded away Brett Hull?” Not exactly the answer he wanted.
I told Eaton that Fletcher might be okay as general manager of the Leafs, but had no credentials whatsoever to run a public company, which Maple Leaf Gardens was. At that point Giffen woke up (actually he was just dozing, I guess, because he picked up the thread of the conversation) and said that they had just signed a deal with Fletcher that made him both GM and President of the Leafs.
The Fletcher deal had been made without Stavro’s knowledge (I don’t know about Crump) and, needless to say, he was more than a trifle upset. Then Stavro and Bellmore suggested that I still join Maple Leaf Gardens as an equal to Fletcher, but having no say where the Leafs were concerned. The effect of this would have made me a building manager, much as I would have reduced Harold Ballard to if the Anne Murray purchase had gone ahead. It took me about one-quarter of a second to say “no” to that.
Thus ended my Toronto Maple Leafs saga. The downside was I that would not become CEO of the Leafs; the upside was that I could still enjoy watching them lose.