The Leafs, you see, are the longest-running sitcom in the National Hockey League. It isn't just because they haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967 that makes them a joke, you understand. Nor is it due to the fact that they're the only outfit that has failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament since the 2004-05 lockout. It's the way they go about their business. And it matters little who's pulling the strings and pushing the buttons in Leaf Nation.
We all know that Humpty Harold Ballard was a big buffoon and a jailbird who brought the once-proud, flagship franchise into disrepute, both on and off the ice.
During his time as guardian of the hockey club and Maple Leaf Gardens—or, as I used to call it, Mainly Grief Gardens—if Humpty Harold wasn't insulting NHL president John Ziegler ("A know-nothing shrimp."), he was assailing one of his players for being a tad too dainty (Inge Hammarstrom "could go into the corner with six eggs in his pocket and he wouldn't break one of them.") or playing the misogynist, fratboy fool ("Women are best in one position—on their backs." CBC commentator Barbara Frum was a "dumb broad.")
His most telling quote, however, was this nugget: "All I`m interested in is making dough. A winning hockey team is secondary unless fans stop buying it, and I doubt if they ever will."
So there you have it. This is why the Leafs were so laughable once Humpty Harold became the sole bankroll. Winning was secondary to the almighty dollar. The Leafs were the Barnum, Bailey & Ballard circus run by Sideshow Harold, who fired a coach one day, rehired him two days later and asked him to go behind the bench with a bag over his head (Roger Neilson accepted his job back, but refused to wear a paper bag). Sideshow Harold ran his captain, the much-revered Davey Keon, out of town and called his next captain, Darryl Sittler, a "cancer" and ran him out of town.
It was a yuk-a-minute carnival with Sideshow Harold, whose Leafs went an entire decade (1980s) without a winning season.
The thing is, Humpty Harold left our mortal coil in April 1990 and his successor as bankroll of the Leafs, a group led by Steve Stavro, who didn't want Wayne Gretzky on the team and cared as little about winning as Ballard. The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan cared even less. It was all about profit. Now we have media giants Bell and Rogers at the wheel and they've already shown Humpty Harold-like tendencies with their dismissal of general manager Brian Burke.
Based on his record in the Centre of the Hockey Universe, Burke's ouster makes sense because the Leafs failed to make the playoffs during his four-year stewardship. Yet no one from Bell/Rogers has cited the on-ice record as the reason Burke was told to leave the building last Wednesday.
It has been suggested, of course, that one of more of the suits at Bell/Rogers weren't fond of Burke's blowhard act. He doesn't fit their brand, if you will.
It's true that Burke is a loud, oft-profane, stubborn, argumentative and defiant man who led the NHL in feuds (see: Don Cherry, Mike Gillis and anyone carrying a notebook, a pen, a TV camera or a microphone). His handling of the coaching situation last season was very Ballard-like, in that he gave Ron Wilson a contract extension in December then gave him a pink slip little more than two months later. But, again, no one from Bell/Rogers served up personality or mismanagement as the rationale for Burke's removal. No one has explained the very odd timing of the move, either. He's fired. Period.
So, what does this have to do with the Jets? Simply this: They aren't the Maple Leafs and you can be thankful for that reality.
Can you imagine True North Sports & Entertainment sticking the shiv into GM Kevin Cheveldayoff like Bell/Rogers did to Burke? Unthinkable. Can you see owner Mark Chipman going through four general managers in seven years? Not bloody likely. Can you imagine Cheveldayoff giving head coach Claude Noel a pat on the back at Christmas, then sending him packing before Easter? Won't happen. Can you see Chipman and/or Cheveldayoff engaging in nasty, name-calling feuds with other NHL executives or members of the media on an ongoing basis? Not a chance.
There is one similarity between ownership of the Jets and Leafs: both want to make money.
I do not, however, think we will ever hear Chipman or his co-bankroll, David Thomson, saying, "All I`m interested in is making dough. A winning hockey team is secondary unless fans stop buying it, and I doubt if they ever will."
The Jets have rabid supporters and, even though the Little Hockey House on the Prairie is sold out each home match, Chipman doesn't take fans to be fools. He realizes that last season was a honeymoon period for his hockey club, because the locals were simply delighted to have the NHL back in River City. He also knows he has an adoring, fawning media. For now. At some point (perhaps as soon as the shortened season that commences next Saturday), fans will assume a more critical, demanding posture and some news scavengers will get out their poison pens and carving knives. In short, the Jets will have to start winning. They'll have to start qualifying for the Stanley Cup tournament.
Toward that end, Chipman has said TNSE will follow the blueprint laid down by the Nashville Predators.
At first blush, the very notion that anyone would use the Predators as a role model seemed absurd. I mean, Nashville? Nashville is hee haw, not hockey. It's Waylon and Willie and Toby Keith and the coal miner's daughter. They'd probably use the Stanley Cup for a spittoon down there in Music City.
What have the Preds ever won? Nothing.
But wait. Let's take a closer look at the Nashville operation. David Poile was hired as GM in July 1997. He holds that portfolio to this day. Poile hired head coach Barry Trotz that same year. Trotz is the only head coach the Predators have known. That's stability at the top, where it's essential. On the ice, the Preds failed to make the playoffs in their first five seasons. They've only missed once since 2003-04. They have won 40 or more games every season since the 2004-05 lockout; they have had four 100-plus point seasons since the lockout; they have won a playoff round each of the past two springs.
"Since the lockout, if you look at the teams that have had success and won—Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit—they build from within," Chipman said last year. "The best example for us is Nashville. They draft well and develop and provide a stable environment that fosters winning. They're the best example for us. Now that they're close, they're trying to make a few tweaks to go after the Cup. The Nashville example is very fitting for us."
So, yes, it makes sense that Chipman would choose to mirror the stable, consistent Nashville operation and leave the carnival act to the Toronto Maple Leafs.