Dave Feschuk: Richard Peddie turns the page after MLSE. A quaint bookshop in small-town Ontario is just the start

It’ll be 25 years next month since Richard Peddie was named CEO of the Toronto Raptors, back in the nascent days of the local NBA franchise.

And it was only a couple of years later that Peddie figured he was getting fired from the gig. Called to a meeting by the club’s new owners in early 1998 after cleaning out most of his office in anticipation of a pink slip — this after the company that owned the Maple Leafs bought the Raptors and then-under-construction Scotiabank Arena — Peddie was instead given a chance to prove his worth as interim CEO of what would become Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. And he was also given an edict.

In the meeting presided over by Larry Tanenbaum, still the MLSE chairman, Peddie said he was told to: a) get a haircut, since the owners didn’t seem to care for his spiky mullet, and b) get rid of the earring he’d been wearing since he was president of SkyDome, where he’d dressed like who he was at the time — a Porsche-driving executive who occasionally rubbed shoulders with the stars of the stadium rock concerts.

“I loved the rock-’n’-roll side of things at SkyDome,” Peddie said.

Still, running MLSE was his dream job. So for the 20-some years after that meeting he’d somehow found a way to navigate life with his hair clipped above the collar and his earlobes unbejewelled. But things changed this past summer when Peddie, now age 74, gave into a recurring hankering.

“I kept thinking, ‘I want the earring back,’” he said.

And so the earring is back, a single diamond that pops in the autumn sunshine. It’s a speck of a thing by the standards of, say, the Raptors locker room.

“But I’d like it to be smaller,” Peddie said.

Speaking of smaller, after a career spent building Canada’s largest sporting conglomerate into an even larger one — it was Peddie’s idea to buy Toronto FC, recently valued at a modest $ 650 million, for $ 10 million back in 2004 — Peddie now spends most of his time in Amherstburg, Ont., population 22,000, a short drive along the Detroit River from his hometown of Windsor.

Earring or not, even Peddie acknowledges it’s an unlikely makeover.

At 74, former MLSE boss Richard Peddie has taken an active role in the town of Amherstburg, Ont., near Windsor, where he and wife Colleen operate the River Bookshop and are expanding into other businesses.

Once a ruthless maximizer of Bay Street returns — the human symbol of the profits-over-championships ethos that made him a target of the derision of Toronto’s oft-frustrated sports fan base — he is now a left-leaning activist and socially conscious entrepreneur who’s devoting most of his time to the betterment of his beloved small town, where he and his wife Colleen own a home on Boblo Island, a four-minute ferry ride away.

“I wouldn’t have seen this coming,” Peddie said with a chuckle.

These days the Peddies are proprietors of the quaint River Bookshop — a gem of a reclamation of a long-decrepit circa-1885 pharmacy — that celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer. The independent book-selling business in the age of Amazon and COVID “sucks” if you’re trying to make money, Peddie will tell you. But it’s “great if you’re trying to make a positive difference in a small town, or because you want to educate and expose people of all ages to interesting and entertaining ideas.”

But as much as Peddie’s profit-hungry days are behind him — he received an eight-figure golden handshake when he retired from MLSE a decade ago — his expansionist tendencies remain. In Toronto, Peddie presided over the building of lucrative Maple Leaf Square, a cash bonanza of restaurants and real estate. In Amherstburg, along with co-chairing a climate-change activist group and running the town’s charitable foundation, he and his wife are the force behind what they call The Corner.

They recently bought one adjacent building that now houses a busy artisanal bakery, and another neighbouring property that, though currently under construction, will soon be home to a candy shop, plus another retail boutique and a couple of luxury second-floor rental units.

“It’ll probably be the most expensive rental in town, because we’ll finish it that way. And we’ve got … people saying, ‘How much is that going to cost?’ And my answer is, ‘It’ll be worth it,’” Peddie said. “I’ve got a lot of experience taking up Leaf ticket prices, so I can handle that.”

Just as a chat with Peddie rarely begins and ends without a sly snicker about the Leafs’ notoriously high price points, it also wouldn’t be complete without a rapid-fire catch-up on a smattering of topics, including his recollection of the day he met with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber about purchasing TFC.

“I flew into New York and had breakfast with (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman … I told him, ‘I’m going to buy a soccer team this afternoon.’ (Bettman) said, ‘Oh, that’s nuts. They should give you one for free.’ So we buy it, and in our first year we were profitable. We were making $ 5 million or $ 6 million. And even today, look at how few NHL teams are making money.”

On the serious consideration he gave to mounting a 2018 Toronto mayoral candidacy against John Tory, who Peddie has criticized as “too safe” and “not bold”: “I really did my research and said, ‘The support’s not there. I’ll get killed.’ I also said, ‘What Toronto doesn’t need is another old, white affluent guy.’ Go vote for a woman or a person of colour. So they didn’t need me. John would have beat me. I was smart enough to do my research and figure that out before being embarrassed.”

On his successor as MLSE CEO, Tim Leiweke, who is widely credited with pushing the company’s teams to prioritize winning championships (albeit free of the shackles of the pension plan that owned the teams during much of Peddie’s tenure): “With Leiweke I heard (MLSE’s) profits dropped by 30 per cent or so. I don’t know that for sure … He was famous for just spending and spending and getting big numbers, but spending a lot to get there.”

On Masai Ujiri, who first arrived in Toronto as a Raptors executive during Peddie’s run: “Man, he’s got carte blanche now, doesn’t he? … I think his first salary (as general manager in Denver, before he was repatriated to Canada) was $ 500,000, and I said, ‘They’re really underpaying you.’ (Ujiri’s new deal as Raptors honcho is thought to be worth north of $ 15 million annually). He’s done the right things. He’s so polished and so authentic.”

On the Leafs’ latest playoff failure: “Different guys come and go, and they’re no more successful, but they’re spending a lot more money. I care about them. You don’t want anyone to lose for that long. But it’s almost like a curse … Of course, it’s not.”

On the perils of restoring the Victorian-era building that houses River Bookshop, which, on the day Peddie chatted with a reporter this past week, was visited by two tradesmen about to begin work on shoring up a sinking foundation: “(Audible sigh.) That’s going to cost me a few bucks.”

Diamond studs and concrete underpinning — so goes the price of staying busy in Peddie’s decidedly type-A retirement.

“I’m often here for early-morning meetings and I see men of my age, and they always seem to be walking small dogs. And I’m thinking, ‘I’m glad that’s not how I spend my day,’” Peddie said.

Not that Peddie doesn’t enjoy some quality-time communion with man’s best friend, specifically the couple’s black Giant Schnauzers, Juno and Beaumont. A quarter-century since he began running the Raptors, and a decade since he walked away from MLSE to eventually settle in a small town, Peddie still prefers walking with the big dogs.

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