THE WEEK

Hockey

JAMES DEACON February 24 2003
THE WEEK

Hockey

JAMES DEACON February 24 2003

Hockey

Exit the grocer

The latest maverick owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs is leaving. Preceded by the regrettable Harold Ballard, Steve Stavro earned notoriety when he arranged to buy majority interest in the Leafs for $125 million in 1994 while he was executor of Ballard's estate. That deal was held up when other shareholders and the Ontario public trustee argued that the new owner had underpaid for the franchise. The charities that were the Ballard estate's beneficiaries, in fact, didn't get a dime until after a long legal battle, when Stavro was forced to add about $50 million to the purchase price.

With his Knob Hill Farms grocery chain losing money and finally closing, Stavro struggled to pay his share of the costs when

he and his partners in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. bought the NBA's Raptors and the Air Canada Centre in the late1990s. He already owed millions to one partner, TD Bank, and he borrowed an estimated $70 million more from a holding company controlled by billionaire Ken Thomson, who is part-owner of Bell Globemedia and its networks, including CTV and TSN. Reports now claim that when Stavro

attempted to trade his shares to the media company to pay off his debt, other partners protested. They worried that the media company would use its ownership position to pay less for TV rights—a huge source of income for both the Leafs and Raptors. The deal went ahead only after the parties drafted new terms for a partnership which, under construction magnate Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman-elect, should be more unified than in the past.

Stavro can at least claim that, during his time, the team was better than under Ballard. Last season, the Leafs reached the Stanley Cup semifinals, and they may only be a top player or two from winning it all. But extra talent comes with a cost, and ultimately, Steve Stavro didn't have the money to play that game.

JAMES DEACON