Rebuilding the Leafs after the lockout

John Ferguson, Maple Leafs GM,  talks with the media after the NHL cancelled the Hockey season in...

John Ferguson, Maple Leafs GM, talks with the media after the NHL cancelled the Hockey season in Toronto, Wednesday, February 16, 2005. (SUN/David Lucas)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

"I'm floating in a most peculiar way ... and the stars look very different today."

-- Space Oddity, by David Bowie

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Everyone tethered to the Maple Leafs, from Larry Tanenbaum to the laundry room guy, is about to leave the capsule and enter a strange new National Hockey League universe.

From the Leafs viewpoint, planet Earth is blue, but there's nothing they can do about the damage of a 10-month lockout; the lost season, the ill will and now, a new economic order that favours have-not teams. Toronto, meanwhile, is chained to a cumbersome, costly roster.

How will the Leafs adapt, now that a salary cap prevents them from throwing scads of money around to keep pace and cover any mistakes? And if they can't get off the launch pad in the new NHL, will their already frazzled fans declare 40 years in a Stanley Cup vacuum to be their departure point?

With the lockout about to end, the Toronto Sun asked the hierarchy of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. to assess its impact and outline a recovery plan.

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The Leafs last played almost 14 months ago, which you can imagine has its drawbacks for a 24-hour specialty channel.

Somehow, Leafs TV stayed on the air and remained topical and now it is ready to resume the next phase of its development. Twelve of the team's 82 games and the entire exhibition schedule will be exclusive to Leafs TV, a package to rival the big three -- Hockey Night In Canada, Rogers Sportsnet and TSN.

It puts those Toronto fans yet to embrace the digital world in a pickle, but Shannon doesn't think the lockout chased away potential customers.

"I don't believe they won't come back, not when you see the kind of ratings the world junior hockey tournament and the Memorial Cup brought in," Shannon said. "They love hockey and they want it back. People want to watch the Leafs and we're part of the broadcast landscape now."

Leafs TV had meticulously prepared for this chance last year with a number of fresh ideas.

"I don't think anything changes in the long run," Shannon said. "We didn't lose any subscribers last year (about 125,000 are signed on to its Ontario-only market) and we hope to keep growing.

"People will be hot and heavy to watch hockey again. By July 1, when people are starting to understand how the cap works, you'll have about 450 free agents and then the draft. Suddenly, all the negative press that has come out the past nine or 10 months will turn into three months of big stories leading up to the first games.

"Just think of this market and the players that could get this town excited again. If you bring in a Paul Kariya to help the scoring or an Adam Foote to play defence, all of a sudden the papers are full of actual hockey news again, instead of lockout propaganda."

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This summer has all the makings of a reality TV show -- take one of the most free-spending teams in the sports world, give the GM in the range of $10 million US and challenge him to fill in two-thirds of his roster.

That's the challenge confronting Ferguson, who has $26.6 million already tied up in eight players, with the cap expected to come in around $36 million.

Solution? Start by ridding himself of big-ticket/small-return players such as Owen Nolan with the reported two-thirds buyout clause in the new deal, using those savings on one or two cheaper, younger players.

Or don't retain a favourite son, such as free agents Gary Roberts or Tie Domi, and give a spot to a deserving Marlie. Gamble that the fans who worship such players will comprehend the logic.

"Everyone understands that change is coming," Ferguson said. "We have undertaken a plan (approved by the MLSEL board of directors) that will allow us to compete over time and that time is nearly upon us. There will be tough decisions to be made and tough decisions to allocate whatever (cap) room we might have.

"Two or three years from now, we plan to have developed a core group of players who can succeed for us over time. Those players are either currently signed or will be signed soon, augmented by top-level free agents, whom we anticipate will be a younger age than (the old 31-year-old minimum)."

During the lockout, the club's pro scouts have been assembling a wish list of free agents, depending on cap allowances. But relying on an old ploy, Ferguson figures that many in this unprecedented crop of unrestricted players will pick Toronto on its reputation as the centre of the hockey universe.

"I know that this is as desirable a location to play hockey as anywhere in the world, in front of a packed house on hockey's biggest stage," he said.

But Ferguson, with a strong background in player development, is wary of over-committing to a quick Cup fix and sacrificing young resources.

"We'll need to (assemble) a team to compete for the Cup, but more importantly to do it over time," he said. "That requires continuity, creating, retaining and maintaining assets and then managing those assets better than our competitors."

Ferguson puts new farm-team coach Paul Maurice in that category. He's a big fish for a minor-league pond, but if he turns out polished prospects as hoped and provides a handy replacement option should Pat Quinn move on, then it's money well spent.

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The joke in Toronto sports circles is that the "boycott'' Leafs fans have threatened newspapers and call-in shows all winter will last until the first exhibition game win. The number of people who actually turned in their precious season-ticket license in protest of the lockout is on par with Bloc Quebecois voters in Alberta.

But that's not to say the Leafs can afford to turn a deaf ear.

"We're arguably in the best shape of all 30 teams after all this, but we can't just assume (there won't be damage)," Peddie said. "Yes, you hear all the stories about (disgruntled fans) and I won't downplay them. I've also heard that the Leafs don't have to worry about losing fans. Not true. We did a lot of things during the lockout to keep the building open and stay in their good graces."

The Leafs will have their own twist to the NHL's anticipated re-launch in a couple of weeks.

"We have a back-in-business plan, which was ready in February (for the aborted shortened season) on hold for five months," Peddie said. "Now, it has to be a bigger plan, a more creative plan. It's premature to get into specifics, but we hope to rebuild awareness and re-engage our customers.

"It will take a partnership with the players, but our people are prepared to go out and execute it, just as in the 1995 lockout."

Peddie said the club was concerned enough after the season was cancelled in February to conduct some market research to gauge fan discontent.

"As with any product that's not being used, the equity erodes," Peddie said. "I've been involved with a lot of great brands, from SkyDome, to TSN, to Green Giant corn. The Maple Leafs are by far the strongest, but no one is bullet-proof."

But earlier this week, Peddie refused to commit the Leafs to reducing 2005-06 ticket prices, a goodwill gesture many clubs will implement. The price will not rise, but with a top ducat of $182, people were looking for a break after the lockout.

"As much as people say price is an issue, it's really the accessibility," Peddie said. "That's indicated by how many scalpers you see out there. People who used to split season's tickets and go to 20 games are now going to seven or eight. But that's also to do with them being so busy in their lives today. I'm not so sure our price is wrong."

The Leafs could have some fence-mending to do in their own NHL lodge. The hawks in commissioner Gary Bettman's cabinet, mostly small-market teams, thwarted early conciliatory efforts toward a deal by MLSEL chairman Tanenbaum. But Peddie does not see lingering animosity after what's being considered a CBA win for the owners.

"There were other NHL people more hard-nosed than us, teams that needed a new deal more than we did," he said. "In the end, I think the Leafs made the biggest sacrifice."

Peddie also has promised to re-visit the issue of improved media access to the team. While the Leafs' flaunting of league rules has been a sore point for years, the entire NHL will have to adhere, if it hopes to lure more U.S. television.

"John and I are on the same page that players and management have to be more media friendly," Peddie said. "Other leagues are more liberal with access than the NHL, but on the other hand there is more media at a Leafs home game than other leagues would see."


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