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Former Air Canada exec Michael Friisdahl plans to focus on MLSE business operations

Expect a different management style from Michael Friisdahl, the new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Outgoing MLSE boss Tim Leiweke was a larger-than-life leader usually found in the foreground of the ownership group behind the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC. Friisdahl, who has served as president and chief executive officer of Air Canada’s Leisure Group since it was formed in 2012, expects to work his magic in the background.

Friisdahl starts in December.

“My primary focus when I get into the role full-time will obviously be to support the teams, and also to focus on the fan experience,” he told The Canadian Press on Thursday. “Clearly there’s a lot of opportunity to grow on the success that MLSE has already had in terms of the fan experience … and the depth in the management team vis-a-vis the individual sports teams are really best in class.

“So my focus will clearly be much more on the business operations as well as supporting each one of the teams to ensure their success.”

The 53-year-old Friisdahl, whose surname is pronounced FREEZE-dale, was previously in charge of a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Canada, combining Air Canada Vacations with the low-cost Air Canada Rouge division. Before that, he was CEO of Thomas Cook North America.

News of his appointment comes 14 months after word that Leiweke was leaving,

“Given our unparalleled sports executive and team leadership, MLSE’s CEO search focused on the appointment of a seasoned Canadian business executive to lead the organization and we’ve found exactly what we were looking for in Michael,” MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum said in a statement Thursday.

Leiweke was appointed CEO of MLSE in April 2013. In August 2014, the organization announced he was leaving to pursue new equity opportunities in the sports and entertainment industry.

Leiweke extended his tenure while the ownership group looked for a new chief executive.

Last week the Miami Herald reported that Leiweke is joining David Beckham’s bid to bring Major League Soccer to Miami. Leiweke helped bring the former England captain to MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“On behalf of everyone at MLSE, I sincerely thank Tim for his support for the fans and his many contributions to our organization. We wish him the very best for the future,” said Tanenbaum.

Friisdahl has big shoes to fill, although Leiweke began to pull back from the limelight after an enthusiastic entry into the Toronto sports scene.

The Raptors and Toronto FC have made the playoffs on Leiweke’s watch. The Maple Leafs remain very much a work in progress, although the hockey team now has a high-powered, all-star management team in charge of the rebuild.

Under Leiweke, BMO Field is in the midst of a $100-million facelift.

With Bill Manning recently put in charge of TFC, Brendan Shanahan running the Leafs and fellow team president Masai Ujiri at the Raptors’ helm, MLSE’s three major jewels have management in place.

The NBA all-star game, World Cup of Hockey, 2016 Grey Cup and the 100th anniversary of the Maple Leafs in 2017 are already in the cards.

Friisdahl also pointed to increased interactive technology, already prevalent in the airline industry, as something that can be built upon.

MLSE says Friisdahl has more than 25 years of experience in the international leisure travel business and a background in international travel, finance, marketing and sales management, mergers, acquisitions and divestitures, and business integration.

Tanenbaum said Friisdahl has shown throughout his career “an unwavering commitment to delivering for the customer.”

“His focus will be on supporting our fans and our teams while maximizing the potential of MLSE’s iconic sports, entertainment and real estate assets.”

Friisdahl, 53, was born in Denmark but came to Canada when he was 13. Originally based in Vancouver, he has been in Toronto since 1985.

Soccer was his first sport growing up in Europe — he also spent time in the United Kingdom — but he says he’s a big hockey fan and frequent visitor to the Air Canada Centre.

“For me it’s a tremendous thrill to be a part of this organization,” he said. “It’s obviously something I’ve virtually grown up with.”

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