When Toronto-born Brendan Shanahan took over as President of his hometown Maple Leafs in 2014, he said he had a plan. A little over four years later, with Shanahan's plans all but realized, his newly minted GM, Kyle Dubas, put the cherry on top by signing National Hockey League (NHL) superstar John Tavares.
To provide some background for those unfamiliar with the NHL, hockey players of John Tavares' caliber almost never leave the teams that drafted them. Yet on July 1, 2018, there was Tavares – another Toronto boy – returning home to make a childhood dream come true.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl— John Tavares (@91Tavares) 1 July 2018
Immediately, fans, media and probably other NHL GMs were left wondering, mouths agape, how in the world the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled it off?
As a marketer and lifelong Toronto sports fan, I can answer that question. It's simple, really.
The Toronto Maple Leafs changed their culture and brand, with the express purpose of once again attracting players like John Tavares, who could help them achieve the ultimate goal: bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto – hockey's mecca – for the first time in over 50 years.
A Long History of Losing
The Leafs have been losing since 1967 – the last time they won the Stanley Cup. It's the longest drought in the NHL, which seems a little crazy given Toronto is one of the league's most storied franchises.
In the last 35 years, the Leafs have only made the playoffs 18 times, just a hair over 50%. Of those 18 playoff runs, none got them to the big dance, the Stanley Cup Finals, and only four times did they even advance to the Conference Finals. To say that until recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs had built a losing culture is an understatement. They were known for losing.
The thing about Toronto sports franchises is there's no losing quietly, especially if you're the Maple Leafs. The Blue Jays have won two World Series titles in the last 25 years, and while the Raptors are a relatively new organization, over the last few years they have generated some exciting playoff buzz around the city. When the Maple Leafs lose, the whole town talks about it. Endlessly. The media, the fans, the sports radio and TV talk shows; the Maple Leafs are under the microscope 100% of the time, no matter what.
The players, coaches, and management of the Toronto Maple Leafs have had it pretty rough these last few decades. It's one thing to get heavily scrutinized when things are going well – at least there's winning to fall back on. Winning makes everything better. Losing, though, makes everything much, much worse.
Professional athletes don't like to lose, and they like it even less when it happens under the brightest of lights. And so the Toronto Maple Leafs, although still a huge name in sports, became a team that hockey players didn't want to play for, in large part because of their losing culture. Even hockey players who call Toronto home.
That is until 2018, when one Mr. John Tavares came home.
The Magic of Change
Brendan Shanahan knew the culture and identity of the Maple Leafs needed to change, from the direction of the entire organization all the way down to what life was like for a Toronto Maple Leafs player. Dubbed the "Shanaplan," the way forward included tearing down the entire roster and hiring new management and coaches. He also steered the organization towards a data-focused approach to player evaluation, and hired a sports-science team, cementing Toronto's philosophy as unequivocally new-school.
Part of the genius of the Shanaplan was the way he positioned it to the media. There would be pain and, unfortunately, more losing before things got better. But Shanahan maintained that things would get better, and begged the fans to give it time. He was confident that Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock could lead the team into a brighter future.
Amidst the promise of change, the Leafs also got lucky. They won the 2016 NHL Entry Draft lottery, which netted them Auston Matthews, a slamdunk superstar in the making, who has been as good as advertised in the two years since. Toronto hadn't been lucky in years, but the timing for their luck to finally turn couldn't have been better.
All of the sudden, the Shanaplan was ahead of schedule. There only ended up being two years of losing (2015 and 2016). In both 2017 and 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs were back in the playoffs again. They lost in the first round both years, but they set a franchise record for points this past season. That's huge progress.
Brendan Shanahan clearly knows the importance of promising only what he can deliver. He was confident in his ability to turn the Toronto Maple Leafs around, he just wasn't sure how quickly it would happen. So he was honest with the fan base and in the end, he was able to delight them way earlier than they expected. That's smart marketing.
But it doesn't end there. It gets better.
A Winning Culture Attracts a Superstar
Ever since Mike Babcock took over as Shanahan's head coach, he has preached the value of "making the Toronto Maple Leafs a safe place for players." I think this extends to the culture and attitude in the dressing room, the communication between coaches and players, interactions with press and media, and all the way to the lifestyle players can expect.
At first, Babcock focused on making the current players feel safe. The Leafs' roster includes many young players, so part of his job is not only coaching them as hockey players, but parenting them from boys to men.
After he was done with that, Babcock moved onto the next task: making Toronto a safe and attractive environment for free agents looking for a new team. In today's NHL, adding a player via free agency is the best way to improve your team fast, because it only costs money, and not other players or draft picks.
In 2016, the Leafs tried to woo Markham-born all-star center Steven Stamkos away from the Tampa Bay Lightning. They didn't get Stamkos, but the fact that they were in the conversation was huge. It proved the perception of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs was changing.
It took two more years, but when it was announced the Leafs were in the running for Tavares, you hoped. When Dubas, Shanahan and Babcock flew to California to pitch the Maple Leafs to Tavares, you dreamed. And when Tavares himself announced his decision on Twitter, you could barely believe it.
The Toronto Maple Leafs landed John Tavares by changing their culture and living their brand from the top of the organization to the bottom. It took a long time for somebody to have the foresight to figure out how to fix the Maple Leafs – more than 50 years – but it could be worth the wait.