Stavro despised being in public eye

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

Steve Stavro lived a prosperous life of contradiction, disdaining publicity but rarely avoiding it.

He wanted no part of the headlines and yet, for most of his adult life the so-called Honest Grocer couldn't keep his name out of them.

In life, and maybe now in death, Stavro would despise all this attention, all this noise, being the news. He avoided notoriety with fervour, running from the public eye whenever possible or convenient.

But he lived a life and then some with immense success -- is there any story more endearing than that of an immigrant kid who sells fruit beside the TTC streetcars and ends up as owner of the Maple Leafs? He lived a life and then some with no shortage of scandal, some of it real, some of it circumstantial.

There were only two kinds of people in Steve Stavro's world: You were either for him or against him. A friend or an enemy. The lines were that clearly defined. There was almost no room for compromise.

Back in 1991 when the late Don Giffin, one of the three executors of Harold Ballard's estate, did an end run on fellow executor Stavro and brought in Cliff Fletcher to become president and general manager of the Leafs, Stavro disapproved. He wanted a financial man in charge, a hockey man like John Muckler running the hockey club. There also were hints he wanted his close friend, the late Judge Joe Kane, to take a senior position with the team.

Had it not been for Stavro's unwillingness to battle unfavourable publicity, Fletcher would have been out before he was ever in. In other words, no Doug Gilmour in Toronto, no Pat Burns, no Mats Sundin trade, none of that would have happened had Stavro gotten his way.

Even after Fletcher had success, Stavro never warmed to him. And that was part of who he was -- if it wasn't his way, it wasn't the right way. That's how he ran his grocery business. He tried to run the Maple Leafs that way. Years ago, after hearing too often from his customers at Knob Hill Farms that Leafs fans missed Wendel Clark, Stavro ordered Fletcher to bring Clark, who had been traded away in the terrific Sundin deal, back to Toronto. He knew about pleasing his customers.

In 1996, after the Leafs had missed the playoffs, Fletcher came up with a creative means of invigorating the roster. Why not bring Wayne Gretzky to Toronto?

Gretzky loved the idea and was even willing to take a large paycut or deferred payments in order to do so. Almost everybody loved the idea, but Stavro. He refused to give Fletcher to go-ahead on having Gretzky finish his career as a Leaf.

Interference has been the standard for operating the Leafs under any and all ownership. It has been a thread for this franchise, dubious ownership in dubious situations.

Stavro became owner of the Leafs under circumstances so questionable they required an investigation and a significant reprimand from the Ontario Securities Commission. All told, he and his partners wound up paying $23.5 million more for the team than the original purchase price. The deal was murky enough to write a book about -- and business reporter Theresa Tedesco did.

Eventually, financial demands elsewhere -- even after closing his chain of grocery stores -- forced Stavro to sell his stake in the Leafs. Later, his family would refer to current Leafs chairman Larry Tanenbaum as a "traitor."

That's the way it was with Stavro. His friends will tell you there has never been a man more loyal to those he trusted or believed in. But when your hands are in so many pies they are often in need of being wiped clean, there is always a little bit of leftover dirt.

There were land deals to question, a sex scandal at Maple Leaf Gardens handled terribly, a buried report on MLG's potential profits. Just never answers for the public.

The last time I saw Steve Stavro was at Jim Hunt's funeral. He sat near the back of the church on Bayview Ave., not far from Red Kelly and Bill Stephenson and Frank Orr, all of them Toronto legends of one kind or another.

He nodded politely when he saw me. As always, he said nothing.

OTTAWA AGAIN?

Something is missing from the Ottawa Senators. Still. And it has nothing to do with Dominik Hasek. They play cute hockey, not necessarily playoff winning hockey. They make an extra pass, an extra move when it's not necessary. From here, they still look like a team vulnerable to an upset. It may not happen in Rd. 1 but it looks plausible.

INSPIRING CLIPPERS

There is hope for the Raptors. It's called the Los Angeles Clippers. Not only did the Clippers make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, but they won their post-season opener against the Denver Nuggets. If the Clippers are in, you have to believe in the rather weak East the Raptors aren't as far away as they often seem.

SALARY CAP WOES

Has anyone ever done more for a franchise than Steve McNair has done for the Tennessee Titans? He played hard, played hurt, took them to their only Super Bowl. And now, a war over money. A contract that pays McNair too much. A contract that would kill the Titans salary cap agenda. This is when business of sport collides and fans gets trampled.


Videos

Photos