Own the Leafs site urges fans to buy share of team
Hockey fan behind website hopes to raise cash for controlling stake of Maple Leafs empire
"Leafs Nation," the oft-used shorthand for Toronto Maple Leafs fans, could soon take on an entirely different meaning.
If Darren Thompson's dream becomes reality, hockey fans across Canada could have a shot at filling the shoes once worn by the likes of Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard, both former owners of the team.
Thompson, a New Brunswick native living in Leduc, Alta., is spearheading Own the Leafs, a web initiative aimed at raising enough money to purchase the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan's controlling share of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), the Leafs' parent company.
"I've always had a dream to own a professional sports team," Thompson said in an interview with CBCNews.ca. "When I realized I didn't have the talent to make an NHL team, that was the only chance I'd have to get my hands on the Stanley Cup.
"If teachers can buy a hockey team, why couldn't every Canadian that has a dream for this buy one, too?"
Thompson's original plan was to collect $1,000 pledges from enough people (that is, more than one million hockey fans) to raise the $1.3 billion the pension plan was asking for its share of the team.
Thompson says that since launching his website March 13, one day after Teachers' announced its intention to sell, he has received $40 million in pledge commitments by email — promising varying amounts should the project get off the ground. In one day of the drive, promised — and as yet theoretical — pledges totalled as much as $5 million, he said.
"The speed with which this is increasing is phenomenal," Thompson said. "The emails are coming in faster than I can read them."
Thompson has also set up Facebook and Twitter accounts to support the project.
Packers' success a model
Community-owned professional sports franchises are not commonplace, but Thompson says he's been inspired by the incredible success of the NFL's Green Bay Packers, a team owned by a non-profit community-controlled enterprise.
He says he has had conversations with Packer executives to discuss their business model.
"What I've learned so far is that they do a shareholders meeting once a year where they elect a board of directors from those shareholders," he said. "That board of directors, collectively, is the voice for the shareholders, and that model seems to be working really well."
MLSE's business structure will not allow for the exact same model, though, as chairman Larry Tanenbaum has a 20.5 per cent stake in the company and TD Bank controls 13.5 per cent; both entities have right of first refusal on any sale of Teachers' shares.
Thompson says he has taken this into consideration but stresses that his initiative, while ambitious, is entirely serious.
"I've been in conversation with the head office at the Packers and a few Toronto law firms guiding me through the process of creating a prospectus," he said. "I've learned this will take time, but at least I can start giving people updates as far as the prospectus goes, as far as their return on investment.
"I want to have something more formalized so that we're not just those guys on Facebook and Twitter."
Support has gone global
Thompson says he has fielded some interesting emails pledging support.
"Interest has come from across the country, even Montreal, if you can believe it," he said. "My email box has become a confessional: 'Darren, I'm a Habs fan and don't you ever share this with anyone else, but I just want a piece of this.'"
And it's not just interest from Canadians. Thompson says he has received emails from Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden —from people who had lived in Toronto and developed an affinity for the lowly Leafs.
"We even had one email this morning from Tokyo," he said. "They said, 'Thanks for the hope.'"
Not just Leafs
Although the Maple Leafs may be the crown jewel of the MLSE empire, the corporation also owns the NBA's Toronto Raptors and Major League Soccer franchise Toronto FC, not to mention the Air Canada Centre, BMO Field and the Leafs' AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
Thompson says while the Leafs are clearly what attracts people to his project, he is beginning to hear interest in MLSE's other properties.
"As the idea catches on, people are realizing MLSE is made up of many different parts," he said. "There are Montreal fans, for instance, who are not interested in the Leafs but are into the Raptors. The interest on that is tremendous.
"I don't have operational experience running a hockey, basketball or soccer team, but I have a passion to help people win and inspire those with a dream."
When asked if his own devotion to the Leafs, who have the NHL's longest-running Stanley Cup drought — nearly 44 years — was behind his initiative, he is not forthright in his allegiance.
"I'm a Canadian with a dream who's a hockey fan," he said.
"I just want to see the Cup back in Canada and whatever I have to do to make that happen, I'm willing to do it."