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Championship no longer a four-letter word at MLSE

Tim Leiweke came up from Los Angeles seven months ago to run Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

The one thing fans of the Toronto hockey, basketball and soccer teams owned by the company have learned about him is whenever he gets up in front of a group of people, he is never less than interesting.

The MLSE president and chief executive officer may misfire occasionally, such as his early remarks about a Stanley Cup parade route for the Toronto Maple Leafs or taking down the pictures of Leafs greats at the Air Canada Centre, but he is always compelling. It was no different Tuesday, when Leiweke spoke to a business club in downtown Toronto.

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In a little more than 30 minutes, he offered a series of tantalizing views and asides on a variety of sporting topics and even a few political ones, such as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ("He's like Tommy Boy").

Leiweke said the chances are "pretty good" Toronto would get an NFL team in the next decade, but not another NHL team because the league should be going into Seattle, Quebec City and even Las Vegas or Kansas City first.

This will come as news to the politicians in the northern suburb of Markham, who are still committed to spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer money on an arena with not even a hint of an NHL franchise.

Leiweke said the Toronto Raptors would be better in the NBA this season and MLSE's Major Soccer League team, Toronto FC, is "absolutely in complete disarray," but would make the playoffs next season.

And, he said, he is trying to persuade his fellow MLSE executives to spring 500 or so Maple Leafs seats on a nightly basis at a discount so "diehard, blue-collar fans" can introduce some "new noise" in a building where the corporate types routinely linger in their luxury suites between periods so the players are greeted by thousands of empty seats.

What follows are the highlights of Leiweke's speech, and he emphasized later the opinions, especially on NHL expansion, are his own, not the league's. After all, Leiweke said, he would not want to get the deep-freeze treatment from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that his MLSE predecessor, Richard Peddie, got from time to time.

On NHL expansion:

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"With the [new] arena in Seattle, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put hockey back into the Seattle/Portland marketplace and we have to make a commitment to that. There's a new building being built in Quebec. They are way ahead of anyone else as to considerations because we took a team from Quebec. [The Nordiques moved to Denver after the 1994-95 season.] I think we owe Quebec another shot. Seattle, Kansas City, Quebec, Las Vegas right now, are all way ahead [of Toronto]. There's not a second team coming to Toronto in any time in the near future."

After his speech, Leiweke said during his years running Philip Anschutz's AEG sports and entertainment empire (which included the Los Angeles Kings) and since he joined MLSE: "I never heard one person on the [NHL] board of governors talk about Toronto."

On freeing up 500 or so Leafs tickets for ordinary hockey fans at affordable prices:

"Because there's a lot of people, especially in that lower level, you can't teach them to cheer. You just can't. We have some trouble just getting them in the seats at the beginning of every period. I think we have to think about the culture of the Leafs experience and bring fresh blood in there."

On MLSE considering a roof for TFC's BMO Field, but also considering how to include the CFL's Toronto Argonauts as a potential tenant or acquisition:

"[The City of Toronto] has asked us, 'Can you ultimately make it work for the Argos?' It is a process, it is research and we have to figure out do we pay for it? I know this much … it's time to put a roof on BMO Field. The Argos are part of the conversation."

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On previous MLSE executives not talking about winning titles:

"What we had were excuses. They found reasons why we would not succeed. And that's why they wouldn't talk about championships. They didn't want the pressure, those expectations. From now on, championship is not a nasty word."

So yes, he doesn't regret talking about a Stanley Cup parade route: "We're going to throw you one, I promise."

Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts

Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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