NHL

Toronto Maple Leafs fans need hug, says MLSE exec

The blue-chip Maple Leafs brand has survived bad seasons in the past. But 2014-15 took its toll.

Fan frustration at all-time high

It was a terrible year to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. (The Canadian Press)

The blue-chip Maple Leafs brand has survived bad seasons in the past. But 2014-15 took its toll.

"I'll tell you there's a bunch of us down here that are losing sleep about it," said Dave Hopkinson, chief commercial officer for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

Toronto finished 27th in the league with a 30-44-8 record, losing 34 of its last 43 games and finishing with the NHL's worst road record (8-27-6).

It took just two games for a disgusted fan to toss a Leaf jersey onto the ice, during a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh. More followed as the season went south.

"If there was a tipping point on fan frustration, I think we saw it this year," Hopkinson said in an interview.

"Just the overall mood about this team around this city, I've never seen it that bad," he added.

Terrible period for team

A March loss to Minnesota drew a less-than-capacity announced crowd of 18,366, believed to be the Leafs' lowest attendance ever at the Air Canada Centre. That same month, Toronto was shifted from "Hockey Night in Canada" to a Sportsnet channel for a Saturday game against Ottawa.

As five Canadian teams made the playoffs, Toronto was once again on the outside looking in. The lacklustre Leafs have made the post-season just once — in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season — since 2003-04.

"It's a terrible, terrible period for performance for the team," said Hopkinson. "And we need to be make sure we're hugging our customer right now."

The franchise has not raised ticket prices for next season.

On the plus side, Hopkinson says he believes fans are buying into the "complete reset of the program" under team president Brendan Shanahan. And he says season ticket-holders are remaining loyal, with 95 per cent having renewed already.

"We'll exceed 99 per cent renewal," he predicted.

That fan loyalty will "allow Brendan and the hockey operations group to make the changes they need to make without worrying if the business is going to fall apart."

Hopkinson says there will be fan-focused initiatives like an improved Fan Fest, offering access to the players and rink. The team, which in conjunction with Ford gave away 200 seats every game last season, will continue to look for ways to broaden its audience.

But what happens on the ice matters the most.

"Our ability to influence the brand of the Maple Leafs outside of the team performance is extremely limited," Hopkinson acknowledged.

Leafs look for their Drake

While the Raptors hit paydirt with their "We the North" campaign, he says MLSE won't roll out a similar rebrand until the Leafs play can match the hype.

"Any good marketing needs to be authentic," he said.

The Raptors campaign worked because "we had a basketball team that we could be proud of." And because of that, MLSE unveiled it two years early.

The Raptors have hip-hop star Drake as their global ambassador and Hopkinson says MLSE is looking at a counterpart on the hockey side.

"We have talked about what high-profile stake-holders we can engage for the Maple Leafs to help us through this rough stretch of road here. And we're working on that plan now."

"We have what I believe is the correct positioning for the Maple Leafs," Hopkinson added. "But we're not going to deploy it, we're not going to share it (now) because it needs to be authentic and we'll need to make sure that the team that Shanny (Shanahan) builds reflects it."

Hopkinson says MLSE marketers will "keep our powder dry" until that day comes so they can communicate to everyone that "yeah, the Leafs are back."

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