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Success at saving Greyhounds shows city can pull together.

Success at saving Greyhounds shows city can pull together

In these uncertain times facing Sault Ste. Marie, people need only look back a few years to see how the city can pull together to face adversity.

In the summer of 1989 the city's Junior A hockey team, the Soo Greyhounds, came perilously close to leaving town, until the community rallied to keep the franchise.

"In these hard times the city is going through, we've been a positive note," said Mike Desjardins, operations manager with the team.

Desjardins described the Greyhounds as something the city can grab onto and call its own.

The previous owners of the team, including Sault native and former hockey great Phil Esposito, had reached a deal with Detroit-based Compuware Corporation to sell the team for $1 million and move it to the Motor City.

"The $1-million offer came as a surprise to everyone in Sault Ste. Marie," said Ken Gregg, treasurer of the Greyhounds, noting that at the time the going rate for an Ontario Hockey League franchise was $600,000.

However, the city had an agreement with the former owners that local interests had 30 days to match any offer to buy the franchise.

A Save the Greyhounds campaign was launched, and Dr. George Shunock headed up a local group determined to match the offer.

The goal was to sell enough season tickets to attract money from investors. The target was 3,200 tickets, but only 1,700 were sold.

However, those 1,700 were three-year, $600 season tickets, said Gregg, noting that such sales were unheard of in any sports franchise.

Local investors eventually came through with $600,000. A 12-member group contributed $50,000 per person.

The city became involved with a loan guarantee for $400,000 and a 10-year lease of Memorial Gardens.

"They (the city) more or less became partners in the Greyhounds," Gregg explained.

The rescue plan states that, once the $400,000 is paid off from profits, the next $200,000 will go into a trust fund and profits after that will be split evenly between the team and the city.

Desjardins noted that if the team had been lost to the city, it would have meant a loss of about $100,000 per year to the city. In the previous 17 years the city had made $1.5 million from the team from rentals, concession booths and rink-board advertising.

Under the deal to keep the Greyhounds in the city, the team does not pay rent for Memorial Gardens and it gets all profits from rink-board advertising. Profits from concession booths are divided between the city (60 per cent) and the team (40 per cent).

"The city will benefit down the line," said Gregg. "It's really a long-term situation."

Desjardins said it is important to have three-year season tickets because it lessens the impact of one losing season.

This year the team has been averaging 3,700 fans per game in the 4,400-seat arena.

Once the team was purchased, the new owners set about making it a winning force on the ice.

Sherry Bassin, the highly-regarded former director of operations with the Oshawa Generals, came on board as governor to provide overall guidance for the team.

This year the team has spent much of the season in first place in its division.

"The product has really improved and the future of the team looks really bright," Gregg said.

To be profitable in the OHL, making the playoffs is very important because of the high-draw playoff games, he added. "Last year, we were able to make a profit even though we didn't make the playoffs."

Gregg said the team will be close to the target of paying off its $400,000 loan in the predicted three-year period.

GIVING RETURNS

Gregg is general manager of Cooper's Crane Rental Limited, one of the largest investors in the deal which kept the Greyhounds in Sault Ste. Marie.

"In our case, we were simply not going to let Detroit take our hockey team," he said.

Cooper's Crane Rental is a successful company in the city, Gregg noted. "We were prepared to give something back."

Desjardins noted that many of the businesses involved in the saving of the Soo Greyhounds were in real estate and other business fields, and many were competitors.

However, he said the Greyhounds brought them together, and some new friendships were formed.

LINDROS DEAL

The Greyhounds have turned things around even though they lost Eric Lindros, the most highly-touted junior player to come along in years.

In 1989 the team drafted Lindros, widely predicted to be the next superstar in the NHL, even though he made it clear he did not want to move away from home and play with a northern team.

"Basically, we had no choice," said Desjardins, explaining that there was no one else in the draft near the talent of Lindros, and the team owed it to fans and the city to draft the best player available.

Desjardins added that other players, such as Paul Coffey and Craig Hartsburg, had said they would not come to Sault Ste. Marie, but eventually did.

Once the Greyhounds had Lindros, OHL rules stated that the team could not trade its first-round pick for at least one year.

"Our hands were tied," said Desjardins.

However, the team approached the OHL governors and successfully suggested the rule should be changed so that such trades could be made in a prescribed time, a 10-day period at the end of the first school semester.

"The Lindros sweepstakes began," recalled Desjardins.

Eventually the future star, 17 at the time, was traded to Oshawa for four players, one draft choice in each of the 1990 and 1991 midget drafts, and $85,000 in cash.

In addition, if Lindros plays in the NHL as an underage junior, the Greyhounds will get all of his draft money, $25,000 per year.

PHOTO : Mike Desjardins, left, is operations manager of the Soo Greyhounds Inc., while Ken Gregg is treasurer.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Focus On Sault Ste. Marie; Sault Ste. Marie retains Soo Greyhounds hockey team from being sold to Compuware Corp.
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Words:1001
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