Neither Leiweke nor his older brother, Tim, have spoken much about their formative years of loss and struggle. Those close to them say their experiences left both with an uncanny personal drive, one that has taken them to sports-executive success rarely attained.
His opening words at a re-introductory news conference this week saw newest Seattle sports executive Tod Leiweke reflect briefly on a childhood of deep personal scars.
Neither Leiweke, 58 and the new president and CEO of an anticipated NHL expansion franchise, nor his older brother, Tim, 61 and co-founder of the Oak View Group, have spoken much about their formative years of loss and struggle. Those close to them say their experiences left both with an uncanny personal drive, one that has taken them to sports-executive success rarely attained.
But what they endured is never too far behind.
“We’ve had some real adversity in our life,” Tod Leiweke told assembled reporters Wednesday at Seattle Center.
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Indeed, at age 8, Leiweke, his older brother (then 11) and four other siblings were at Busch Stadium watching their hometown NFL St. Louis Cardinals play the New Orleans Saints when an usher appeared in their row to collect them. Shortly after, they learned their mother Helen had died after a four-year bout with cancer.
Back then, in 1968, chemotherapy was relatively new and not generally covered by the health-care system. The family, led by their father, Jack, an insurance broker and former semipro football player, had depleted much of their financial resources on her treatments.
And always the optimist, their mother kept battling the disease into remission, convinced she’d beat it right up to the end. In a Seattle Times interview late last year, Leiweke described how her death left the family hollowed and uncertain about the future.
Their devastated father was left to pick up the pieces.
“He definitely went through a lot of challenges,’’ Leiweke said. “A widower with six kids.’’
In many ways, their father’s will to endure despite his own personal loss kept the family going and pushed the siblings to do more.
“It had a profound effect on all of our lives,” Leiweke said. “We all had to pull together.’’
His oldest brother, Tracey, began working to supplement the family income. So did Tim, at a bakery and deli in high school and then full time as an insurance salesman afterward.
By 1971 their father met and married whom Leiweke calls “the love of his life” in Pat Fontaine, a St. Louis television personality who had done an 18-month stint on “The Today Show” for NBC.
For six years, Fontaine would be someone the Leiweke brothers referred to as their second mother. She and their dad eventually relocated to the small town of Lesterville in the Missouri Ozarks when Leiweke was 15.
Fewer than three years later she, too, was diagnosed with cancer. Two months after that she died at age 53.
“We had two mothers die of cancer before I was 18,” Leiweke said. “We were definitely hardscrabble relative to my father’s economic position.”
It would be a transformative moment for Leiweke, a high-school hockey player who had grown up an avid St. Louis Blues fan. Like his brother, Leiweke had hoped to go to college but then, just as Tim had, quickly realized it no longer was an option.
“When I left high school,” he said, “it was time to go to work.”
A few years later, at age 21, Leiweke joined his older brothers, Tracey and Tim, running the Kansas City Comets indoor soccer team. Tracey served as president, Tim was the VP and general manager and Tod the director of community relations.
The Leiwekes quickly became renowned in the sports world as young, aggressive showmen. Tim would be running the Comets by 1986 and was soon sought after by teams from much bigger leagues.
The NBA Golden State Warriors wanted a new vice president of marketing. Tim told them to call Tod instead and helped him land his first big-time sports executive job.
By 1994, the younger Leiweke had become an executive vice president with the parent company overseeing the NHL Vancouver Canucks and helped with the construction of what became Canada’s first all privately funded professional arena. Four years later, he became president of the NHL expansion Minnesota Wild.
Leiweke became CEO of the Seahawks in 2003 and later simultaneously served as president of the Portland Trail Blazers, starting in 2007.
He left the Seahawks in 2010 to become CEO of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, spearheading a project to overhaul the team’s arena into a more modern, appealing venue.
Tim Leiweke has said Tod “doesn’t always get the recognition he deserves for all of the tremendous things he’s accomplished.”
But by the time he’d left Seattle in 2010, having helped the Seahawks reach a Super Bowl, installing Pete Carroll as the coach and launching the Sounders alongside Joe Roth and good friend Adrian Hanauer, Tod Leiweke’s understated name had grown.
“For me, the thing that really separates Tod out is his modesty, how grounded he is as an individual,” Hanauer said. “How caring he is. How empathetic. What a good listener. He just cares about people in a tremendously sincere and powerful way.”
And when he was named the NFL’s chief operating officer in 2015, that name became as nationally recognizable as his brother’s.
“We never competed with each other,” Leiweke said. “Given where we both came from and went through, we’ve always tried to stick together.”
Now, for the first time in 30 years, he is working with his brother again as Tim’s OVG company oversees a $600 million remodel of KeyArena and part-ownership in an NHL franchise that could be awarded in June. Their father didn’t live to see it — having died in 2013 at age 90.
But their other brother Tracey, 72 and retired from the sports-promotion world, attended Wednesday’s news conference and posed for photos with his siblings.
“I know Mom and Dad are looking down,” Leiweke told the assembled crowd. “And they’re very proud today.”