October 18 2014 07:56AM
In 1996, John Tory announced he would step down as chairman of the Canadian Football League after five years on the job.
But he would stay on for four more years, instead taking the helm as commissioner during the most tumultuous time in CFL history: a controversial expansion into the American market; half of the league’s eight Canadian teams in dire financial hardship; and a deficit of national sponsorship and broadcast time.
For years it was unclear whether anyone really cared about Canadian football or whether it could survive on its own.
In 1992, Tory first signed up to help pro bono — it was widely reported he received just $1 a year in compensation, something Tory and other officials say is true — during his time as an executive at Rogers Communications.
“I did that as volunteer because I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Tory said.
In that light, Tory became both the fall guy and the league’s de facto saving grace.
In the early ’90s, Tory — then a managing partner at Torys LLP, the firm started by his grandfather and run by his father — became the league’s lawyer.
Those who know him say Tory had a passion for football, having grown up watching it with his two uncles. Even then, as things often go with Tory’s public life, there was speculation about whether he would step in to the commissioner’s role after previous commissioner Donald Crump’s departure in 1991.
“I’d have to think long and hard on it,” Tory said then. “Being commissioner is more than a full-time job. You’d have to be prepared to devote all your time to it.”
Though he wouldn’t take the top job, Tory, then 40, was in 1992 a league chairman alongside newly appointed commissioner Larry Smith, a former Montreal Alouettes player.
At the time, the league’s board of governors — made up of an acrimoniousgroup of team owners — bought in to the idea of expanding south and bringing the success of American football home.
Tory’s role in all of this was strategic, said Smith, now a Canadian senator, in an interview. Tory was in charge of reviewing the plan for how to get American teams to buy into the idea and figure out how they were going to make a profit that would benefit the struggling Canadian teams.
“We were going in at the worst time really in the history of the CFL,” Smith said. “John had a high amount of visibility for the chair position.”
Tory was the one trotted out in front of TV cameras to speak about why, less than a year after the B.C. Lions played the Baltimore Stallions in the 1994 Grey Cup, the five American teams had begun to drop out.
Then in late 1995, the NFL announced their Cleveland Browns would move to Baltimore for the 1996 season, putting pressure on the Stallions who were buoyed by a large local fan base but could not compete with the vastly popular American league.
“I am optimistic the Baltimore Stallions group will remain a part of the CFL,” Tory told reporters in 1996.
But the Stallions would eventually relocate to Montreal and were later reconstructed as a new Alouettes team, marking an end to the expansion experiment.
In his book, End Zones and Border Wars: The Era of American expansion in the CFL, sportswriter Ed Willes called the Browns move the “killing blow.” He wrote that the remaining American owners met Smith in Toronto and said they were pulling out of the expansion idea.
“It ended and it ended abruptly — and it was tough,” Smith says now.
But like Tory and others who bought in to the plan, Smith argued the experiment hadn’t failed — that it brought much-needed cash flow, as much as $7 million, to the Canadian teams, and the new draw it had on American players and officials who basically didn’t know Canada even existed, let alone had football teams.
“I would argue that the expansion was a failed venture in the event that we didn’t make a success of Canadian football in the United States,” Tory says now. “But financially, it saved the league.”
Behind the scenes, the less publicized problem was that nearly half the franchises were heading for bankruptcy, an ongoing issue Smith said Tory was “critical” to resolving.
“We did a lot of that behind closed doors because we wanted to deliver the solutions,” Smith said.
There were issues with Toronto’s Argonauts, as a celebrity team of John Candy, Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall fell apart. Stable ownership for the B.C. Lions was needed and sought in Brick furniture store owner Bill Comrie. Later, David Braley and Bob Wetenhall would be recruited to save the Lions and the Alouettes.
“He had to deal and keep a lot of people happy,” Smith said about Tory’s role.
Wetenhall, an American who still owns the Alouettes today, remembers starting out in 1996 as the team was going bankrupt. He remembers Tory flying out to Montreal to help set up business meetings to get new sponsors. At the same time, Wetenhall remembers Tory flying across the country to Vancouver and Saskatchewan to help prop up the other teams.
“When I came to Montreal, I didn’t know anybody,” Wetenhall said. “John contributed an awesome amount to the CFL. He cared. It was just one of those unusual things . . . I’ll always be appreciative to him for that.”
David Braley, who took over the B.C. Lions at the end of 1996, said he was convinced by Tory and Smith to go to Vancouver to stabilize the team — which represented 25 per cent of the television market.
“I think he worked with all the teams very well in trying to get the problems that we had resolved,” Braley said. “He did the leadership job of making sure the eight teams that were left moved forward and we solved the problems. That’s what he did, and if you look at his record, we’re still here.”
The depth of the league’s money troubles is perhaps best exemplified in the 1996 Grey Cup game, which pitted the Edmonton Eskimos against the Argos. Tory and Jeff Giles, who was chief financial officer before becoming the league’s president, found themselves suddenly without enough money to pay the players. The money coming from the organizing committee wouldn’t be paid straight away, but the players were to be handed cheques after the game.
“We didn’t have the sponsorship we were supposed to have and we couldn’t cut the cheques the next day,” said Giles. “I said to John at that time, I just don’t have the desire to stand up one more time to say we don’t have the money.”
The two worked as the match went on to secure the funds earlier from the Hamilton committee running the event.
Giles said Tory’s real success, however, was getting the board of governors, who were making calls on the league’s future, to work in harmony.
“They’re a difficult group to manage and they’re a difficult group to get consensus on,” Giles said about the owners. “We were very divided and we were a very divisive group. We didn’t have a common vision and John helped us find it.”
Refusing a salary made it easy to say Tory was doing the job for the love of the game, Giles said. Despite working full-time as an executive with Rogers starting in 1995, Giles said Tory was often available to drop everything and help with that day’s problem, make a media appearance, or talk finances.
On the finance side, Giles said Tory was very involved with securing a $3- million loan from the NFL that was “critical” to the league’s success. Around the same time, the CFL was able to secure a deal with TSN — something Tory, Giles and Braley contributed to finalizing. Friday Night Football, a program that still exists today, was introduced with the TSN deal, adding stable programming to the Canadian league.
“He never wanted to be a commissioner,” Giles said. Still, Tory stayed, playing the role of acting commissioner when Smith left.
Michael “Pinball” Clemons, running back for the Argonauts, said the league changed under Tory’s direction — something that was felt on the field.
“As a player, when he came in as commissioner, it kind of gave us a chance to stick our chest out a little bit,” Clemons said. “He was a guy who came with a great reputation.”
There was a swagger that was reintroduced, with slogans like “Our balls are bigger” (even though the pigskin itself was the same size as the NFL’s).
Tory was someone who presented well and was able to crack jokes, including with reporters, to lighten the mood while the league was crumbling, said author and columnist Ed Willes.
“He was a champion of the CFL when there weren’t a lot of champions for the league,” he said.
October 17 2014 08:25PM
Just about the time the Leafs were being booed off the ice at the second intermission, and well before a league-leading second jersey was thrown on the ice, a simple tweet out of Edmonton got the hockey world’s attention.
Leafs GM Dave Nonis was taking in the action between the Oilers and Canucks.
Of course, that’s Nonis’s job — to scout other teams, see who could help his team, and find out what the price is.
Five games into the season and the team he has assembled seems uneven at best. And it probably could have used some help against Detroit at the Air Canada Centre on Friday night.
The Leafs dropped a 4-1 decision that showed some glaring holes, and indicated the rink’s lost and found department might soon be swelling with jerseys tossed onto the ice from disappointed fans.
The Leafs certainly looked out of sync, taking too many penalties, sustaining little pressure and showing little of the compete level the team likes to talk about.
Goalie James Reimer, making his third start in a row, seemed to fight the puck. His bad habits — flailing around and not knowing where his rebounds were going — returned.
His defence didn’t help. Giving the puck away is never a good idea, but when the recipient is Henrik Zetterberg — who logged four assists — it’s near disastrous.
Now, it’s been a real tough five games to start the season, all against teams that made the playoffs last year, and it continues Saturday night in Detroit to complete this home-and-home series.
Zetterberg showed why he remains one of the best players in the world, jumping on three Leaf turnovers and turning them into goals, two by Johan Franzen and one by Gustav Nyquist, that gave Detroit a 3-0 second period lead.
Franzen did not come out for the third period due to a lower body injury, but Justin Abdelkader took his spot and scored to make it 4-1 after Mike Santorelli had given the Leaf faithful hope with a goal in the first minute of the third.
The Leafs lost forward Brandon Kozun to a lower-body injury in the second period. He put no weight on his left leg as he was carried from the ice, after falling awkwardly into the boards — the result of a hit by Kyle Quincey.
Coach Randy Carlyle should be poised to take the heat, tinkering with a lineup that had won two games in a row by taking defenceman Stephane Robidas out and putting Jake Gardiner in. This after half the city was calling for Carlyle’s head for benching Gardiner in the first place.
Not too surprisingly, much of the focus was on Gardiner and Reimer, for very different reasons.
Gardiner was getting into his first game after sitting in the pressbox for two.
“The biggest thing was staying positive,” Gardiner said about his benching. “It’s never easy to sit out. No one likes doing that. That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Carlyle explained his expectations of Gardiner.
“I expect him to play to a higher level, and move the puck more effectively, be stronger defensively, take the body when it presents itself,” said Carlyle. “He has to be a hockey player, an effective hockey player. That’s what I ask of any of our players.”
Reimer, on the other hand, was in net for the Leafs’ two wins, Jonathan Bernier for both losses heading into Friday.
It was obvious Carlyle was rewarding good play — or riding the hot hand. Most likely Bernier will play the return engagement Saturday night in Detroit.
“Happy to be back in there,” said Reimer before the game. “I feel that’s how it’s going to be with two goalies. Sometimes he’s going to get the first one and I’ll get the second (game of back-to-backs). It’s almost back and forth. You prepare for the game you play and do what you can to give your team the best chance.”
Still, for Reimer to start three in a row — a rarity last year when Bernier was healthy — ought to consider it a confidence booster. It shows the Leafs and Carlyle, at least for now, are running a meritocracy with good play rewarded with more ice time.
“There’s always room for improvement, things to keep working on, keep getting bigger and stronger,” said Reimer.