Ownership difference between Wings, Leafs

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:46 PM ET

DETROIT — Since 1982, the cast of characters who have had their fingerprints on the Maple Leafs ownership pie includes the likes of Harold Ballard, Steve Stavro, Larry Tanenbaum, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension fund and, in the coming months, well, who knows?

In those same 29 years, the Detroit Red Wings have had one owner.

One.

Pizza magnate Mike Ilitch.

When it comes to ownership, this indeed is a Tale of Two Franchises.

With the Teachers poised to sell their 66% cut of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment shares in the coming weeks or months, control of the hockey team once again is in a state of flux.

On the surface, the transaction would not appear to affect general manager Brian Burke’s duties. When he looks to pull off a major transaction, he runs it by the MLSE board of directors.

While the MLSE board has been quite accommodating to Burke, who has a strong power base in his role as team president, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has a much simpler process when he wants to bounce a major decision off ownership.

“My board of directors are Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch,” Holland said on Saturday. “I pick up the phone and call them.”

Simple. Yet effective. And there’s the rub.

It is no coincidence that the Red Wings have enjoyed so much success in the past three decades. The continuity of ownership, combined with the fact that there is just one man at the top who rubber-stamps moves, as opposed to an entire board or group, has proved to be a lucrative formula.

Consider this: Since Ilitch, the founder and owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza, purchased the team, the Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups.

Over that same period, the Leafs have exactly zero.

You connect the dots.

“I’ve been general manager since 1997,” Holland said. “Whenever I’ve called, if I think there is a move needed that is on the ice or off the ice, (the Ilitches) have never nixed it. If anything, Mr. Ilitch would like to see us grow the hockey staff. I tell him it’s all good, we’re happy the way it is.

“I remember when I said I wanted to sign Brett Hull. I called Mr. Ilitch, I walked him through it and it was done. Then I went through the agent. For Detroit and the Red Wings, ownership is a big part of the reason we’ve had the success that we’ve had.”

There is another big difference between the Toronto and Detroit franchises, this one having to do with the culture. MLSE is portrayed more as a corporate atmosphere, whereas the Wings, according to Holland, are “like a family.”

A family that Holland and Jim Nill, his right-hand man, have shown unwavering loyalty to.

In the past, prior to the hiring of Burke, both Tanenbaum and MLSE president Richard Peddie kicked tires on the possibility of luring Holland and/or Nill to run the Leafs. Both stayed put.

“Without a doubt, it’s a family atmosphere here,” Holland explained.

A lot of people (in this organization) are well-paid (but) I don’t know that a lot of people here are the highest paid in the industry. But it’s about stability. The owners make you feel appreciated. Our owners want to win. I think when your working as a player or coach or in the front office and you know your owners will give you the resources to win; when there’s good stability; there’s good security; and you enjoy the people you work with, why would you want to leave for the potential of a few extra dollars?”

Why indeed?

The list of names who have been in the organization for at least 16 years is an impressive one. Holland. Nill. Senior VP Jimmy Devellano. Director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell. On and on it goes.

For forward Kris Draper, who has been a part of all four Cup victories in the Mike Ilitch era, the continuity in ownership and management has a trickle-down effect into the dressing room, where the players understand every measure will be taken to help them win.

“We’re playing for first-class ownership,” Draper said. “Before the salary cap came in, if they thought there was a need to put out finances to help us win, they’d do it. It’s the same thing now.

“Everything here is first-class. We know how fortunate we are. We know their commitment.”

Draper points to the uncertain ownership situation in Dallas as an example of how different the environments of other NHL teams can be.

“When you don’t have consistency in ownership, I don’t know how smoothly you can expect things to go,” Draper said. “Look at the Dallas situation with Brad Richards. Did they want to keep him? Yeah. Could they? That was up in the air.

“We don’t have that problem. We have consistency.”

It is a blueprint Brian Burke hopes to emulate in Toronto.

Then again, with the sale pending of MLSE, who knows what will happen?

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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