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A quiet exit for Maple Leafs boss

Steve Stavro will leave Tuesday the same way he arrived, without a word of explanation to justify his efforts -- and without a championship legacy.
LANCE HORNBY, Special to The Free Press   2003-06-26 03:36:49  

TORONTO -- In the end, the Toronto Maple Leafs tempted, tortured and titillated Steve Stavro as much as any of their millions of fans. They took his time, money and loyalty; they made him laugh, cry and do some unusual things along the way.

Stavro, as chair, had high times in his 11 years at the top, fostering renewed pride in the franchise through eight winning seasons and four trips to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

He closed Maple Leaf Gardens and opened a state-of-the-art arena that included a basketball team. However, he also was party to some murky boardroom machinations on his way toward gaining controlling interest in the Leafs, with a lot of good people caught in the crossfire.

He had the greatest financial resources in club history at his disposal, but no Stanley Cup banners went up during his tenure, just ticket prices, along with the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. profit margin.

Stavro, 76, will leave Tuesday the same way he arrived, without a word of public explanation to justify his efforts and without a championship legacy.

As the principal guardian of an 86-year-old trust between millions of fans and their favourite team, the decision to remain aloof through a very eventful era won't likely win him the sympathy vote.

"He made himself an enigma," one seasoned member of the Leafs hierarchy said. "In hindsight, I'm sure he wishes he could have done a couple of things differently.

"When he left he talked about 'following the traditions of the great hockey icons such as Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard,' so it's ironic that his departure marks the team's full switch from being run by a recognizable character to becoming a corporate entity."

Stavro, anglicized from his Greek Macedonian birth name Manoli Stavroff Sholdas by a teacher at Toronto's Duke of Connaught public school, was already living a Canadian success story before the Leafs and the Gardens bewitched him.

He turned a knack for marketing at his father's produce store into the Knob Hill Farms chain, the first of the giant discount food marts.

He might have remained a low-profile member of the Ballard-dominated MLG Ltd. board of directors (he joined in 1981), had Ballard not made him one of three executors to his will, which provided for charities to gain from the eventual sale of his stake.

When the irascible Leafs owner was declared mentally unfit in the winter of 1990 and died that April, Stavro slowly emerged from the sidelines to join the scramble for power.

He was pitted against Donald Giffin, another executor of the will, and later, by Ballard's estranged son Bill.

Playing the role of both hero and villain, Stavro initiated some key deals, such as helping the estate pay off a Harold Ballard debt to the Molson Companies, giving him the jump on rivals for control.

He eventually swallowed the biggest pieces of the Gardens pie, in alliance with the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and the TD Bank.

The fan on the street cared little for such matters as long as the Leafs emerged from the Ballard dark ages.

Despite initial attempts to thwart Giffin's choice of Cliff Fletcher to direct the NHL team's operations, Stavro lived with the situation and watched the team get to the verge of the Cup final in 1993 and '94.

"One year, he came along on a road trip to Winnipeg to see what the life was like," former captain Doug Gilmour said.

"It was fun to see him walking around the dressing room and seeing his reactions. But as owner, he stayed in the background."

The arrival of Pat Quinn as coach in 1998 and the move to the Air Canada Centre touched off another run of success, five winning seasons and counting.

Quinn became Stavro's favourite and a congratulatory bottle of wine with two glasses often would be dispatched from the directors lounge to the GM-coach's office right after a big win, with a beaming Stavro following.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. was now the flagship name, the company having launched steps to go private, much to the chagrin of many third-generation minority stockholders.

But while Stavro believed he was within guidelines to pursue the controlling shares, his rivals had raised alarm bells as far back as 1991.

The Ontario Public Trustee's office was urged to investigate if the takeover had not been a breach of his fiduciary duties to the charities.

Stavro was ensnared by the Mellanby Report, an internal projection of a jump in Leafs' broadcast revenues and shares that was not included when appraisals on the price of MLG stock were made in the early 1990s.

He was under intense pressure from the trustee to explain himself and official privatization wasn't completed until a 1996 out-of-court settlement.

A total of $23.5 million was given to the charities and almost $50 a share to the initially suspicious major individual investors Jim Devellano and Harry Ornest. The Ontario Securities Commission later extracted another $1.6 million.

"The sad part of all that is Harold was left with no real legacy for the charities, as he planned," a former Gardens executive said.

Stavro's troubles with the Gardens didn't end there. When reports surfaced of pedophiles having operated in the building during the 1970s, he was overwhelmed by the media attention that scrutinized the Gardens' past.

It was left to Fletcher and later, Ken Dryden, to deal with the fallout and the claims of the abused.

Initially resistant to joining forces with the fledgling NBA Raptors, Stavro and his advisers dithered about the merger and the feasibility of a new jointly owned facility.

An overdue marriage and a $350-million purchase of the ACC and the NBA team settled both issues.

But Stavro found himself at odds with a new investor in the company, Larry Tanenbaum, while his personal coffers were drained by the years of trying to keep control of the $1-billion MLSEL ship.

There were constant grumblings that his refusal to let his hockey department spend in the manner of other rich NHL clubs was tied to protecting his finances.

He had to fold Knob Hill to service the debts and it's estimated that of the $300 million he received for his shares earlier this year, two-thirds went to pay off the Teachers and the Woodbridge Co. Ltd., a holding company controlled by the family of billionaire Ken Thomson, once seen as Stavro's white knight.

"By passing the baton this way, I feel I have fulfilled the role of guardian of the Leafs given to me by (Ballard's will)," Stavro said at the Royal York Hotel in February when MLSEL restructured.

After reading a short text, Stavro deked out a side door to avoid reporters.

Stavro didn't shut out the public for his entire time as chairman.

He has granted interviews from time to time to Toronto Sun hockey beat writers through the years and was quoted in the book Offside, which dealt with the Gardens takeover.

But he turned down Sun Media Newspapers' request to discuss the major events of his tenure for this story.

"He's a private man and wishes to go out quietly," MLSEL corporate secretary Paul Perantinos said.

It's expected Stavro will continue with such less stressful pursuits as thoroughbred race horses, though even that world was rocked last week by a training accident that saw his Queen's Plate contender, Rockfield, put down.

But it's expected Stavro will remain visible on game nights, from his favourite VIP seat behind the Leafs bench.

"He leaves a lot poorer than when he came in," one high-ranking ex-employee said.

"But when you look at everything that has happened and what he got to experience with the Leafs, I think there are a million people out there who would have gladly traded places with him."

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