Discussion in 'Toronto FC' started by BringBackTheBlizzard, Apr 25, 2006.
Steve Stavro dies: Remembering a dear friend
Steve Stavro dies
Former Leaf owner was 78
By CHRIS JOHNSTON
# Remembering a dear friend
Former Leafs chairman Steve Stavro is all smiles following the sale of his controlling interest in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in 2003. (CP File Photo/J.P. Moczulski)
TORONTO (CP) - Steve Stavro never sought the spotlight or forgot the people who helped get him to the top.
The grocery store giant, whose sports holdings once included his beloved Maple Leafs, has died of a heart attack. He was 78. Following Stavro while he took a walk around Maple Leaf Gardens told you all you need to know about the man, according to Bill Watters.
"He was a little shy, but he always had time for everyone," said Watters, an assistant GM with the Maple Leafs for the 12 years Stavro ran the team. "He was particularly very sensitive to those people not making the most money in the building.
"That's a characteristic you can't buy."
He came by it honestly.
Born Sept., 27, 1927, in Gabresh, Macedonia, Stavro arrived in Canada when he was seven and worked in his father's grocery store. He went on to open his own grocery store on Danforth Avenue, eventually expanding it into a multimillion-dollar chain of food terminals known as Knob Hill Farms.
He was also a keen supporter of horse racing and soccer along with the NHL team he first became chairman of in 1991.
Despite his high-profile role in the sports and business world, Stavro shied away from the spotlight.
"He wasn't a newshound," said close friend George Gross, corporate sports editor of the Toronto Sun.
However, he couldn't avoid the headlines after the death of close friend and former Leafs owner Harold Ballard in 1990.
Stavro had been a director of the NHL team since 1981 and set out to take control of it, eventually becoming its chairman in 1991 after purchasing Molson Ltd.'s shares.
Success soon followed as the Maple Leafs made a run to the Western Conference final in 1993, eventually falling one game short of the Stanley Cup final and losing to the Los Angeles Kings.
Mike Kitchen, an assistant coach in Toronto from 1990 to '98, fondly remembers the conversations he had with Stavro and his wife Sally during that playoff run on the flights to and from Los Angeles.
"He came in and gave us direction at a time when the organization needed direction," Kitchen said from St. Louis, where he is now head coach of the Blues. "And he was extremely proud of that."
A few years later, Stavro took the team private with the financial support of TD Bank and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment soon controlled the NBA's Raptors and the Air Canada Centre.
But Stavro started feeling the squeeze from creditors and was forced to sell his share of MLSE to Bell Globemedia in December 2003.
"This change in ownerships guarantees that Canada's teams - the Leafs and the Raptors, will remain in Canada, in Canadian hands," Stavro said in a brief statement.
His fondness for the NHL team never wavered.
"He was a huge Leafs fan," said Wendel Clark, the team's captain from 1991 to '94. "He was always a big backer when he was involved and just treated everyone with a great deal of respect."
Added Watters: "He had a love of the Maple Leafs that far exceeded what other people understood it to be."
Stavro was also a racing enthusiast and watched his Knob Hill Stable grow into one of the country's most successful operations.
It was one of his proudest achievements.
"I was parking cars around Woodbine (racetrack) when I was a kid," Stavro said in a 1988 interview. "I thought that was as close as I would get to racing."
In 1992, Knob Hill Stable topped the owners' list by winning nine stakes and earned $1,894,248 from just 94 starters.
The star of the stable was Benburb, named Canada's Horse of the Year and champion three-year-old that season. Stavro was also honoured with a Sovereign Awards that year as Outstanding Owner and Breeder.
In 1999, Thornfield carried the Knob Hill colours to an upset win in the Canadian International and took Canadian Horse of the Year honours.
But Phil England, who trained Stavro's horses for 10 years, remembered him taking as much pleasure in meeting the people at racetracks as having success on them.
"He'd go down into the grandstands and talk to people, he'd talk to everyone," England said. "Not many of (the owners) do that.
"The fans all loved him."
Stavro was also a huge supporter of soccer and was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame as a builder in 2005.
Over the years he was involved in the organization and management of several professional leagues, including the North American Soccer League.
In 1961, Stavro helped form the Toronto City Soccer Club which played in the newly created Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League. The team signed such British stars as Stanley Matthews, Danny Blanchflower, Jackie Mudie, Johnny Haynes with Tommy Younger player-coach.
Gross, who helped create Toronto City, said that team was "his biggest joy."
Haynes was captain of England, Blanchflower captain of Northern Ireland and Younger captain of Scotland. They were all on the same side.
"That has never been accomplished before or since," Gross said.
Colin Jose, a respected Canadian soccer historian, didn't know Stavro too well, but was still touched by him.
A few years ago, Jose mailed in a cheque to buy tickets for he and his wife to attend the Stanley Matthews dinner hosted by Stavro. The cheque was returned to him with a note "saying that Steve is paying."
"I think he did a lot of things like that for people, but kept out of the limelight," Jose said.
He never did enjoy attention.
During a rare interview before he took over the Leafs, Stavro gave insight into the success of his business operation.
"You've got to have ideas, but more importantly you've got to have the gift," he said.
Stavro is survived by wife Sally and daughters Constance, Elaine, Deborah and Stephanie.
Funeral details were not immediately available.
BBTB & Moaca, thanks for sharing. Now the rest of us should be well-versed in the push for naming the new franchise Toronto City. No doubt in my mind it's the right thing to do, especially now, in honor of the man who did more than anybody for pro soccer in Toronto over the years. Stuff those ballot boxes.
Rest in Peace, Steve!
Here's Dave Perkins column about Steve Stavro's legacy in the Toronto Star:-
He also didn't understand what MLSE was thinking by trying pro soccer again, because Stavro was nothing if not persistent when it came to soccer. He often put his own money — not taxpayers' — where his heart was, bankrolling several stabs at making pro soccer work in this town, from the Continental Soccer League to the International SL, the Eastern Canada Professional SL, the United Soccer Association and the North American SL. Soccer responded, at least by naming him to its Canadian hall of fame last year as a builder.
He had his enemies — who doesn't? — but he made himself a lot of friends in soccer, horse racing, junior hockey, around the Leafs. One of a kind? No question. No one else like him in this town.
Worth noting that the Steve Stavro's many attempts at pro soccer were primarily in the 1960s. Not sure what the Continental Soccer League was. Not listed by Dave Litterer on rsssf:-
Stavro despised being in public eye
Stavro despised being in public eye
Steve Stavro lived a prosperous life of contradiction, disdaining publicity but rarely avoiding it.
He wanted no part of the headlines and yet, for most of his adult life the so-called Honest Grocer couldn't keep his name out of them.
In life, and maybe now in death, Stavro would despise all this attention, all this noise, being the news. He avoided notoriety with fervour, running from the public eye whenever possible or convenient.
But he lived a life and then some with immense success -- is there any story more endearing than that of an immigrant kid who sells fruit beside the TTC streetcars and ends up as owner of the Maple Leafs? He lived a life and then some with no shortage of scandal, some of it real, some of it circumstantial.
There were only two kinds of people in Steve Stavro's world: You were either for him or against him. A friend or an enemy. The lines were that clearly defined. There was almost no room for compromise.
Back in 1991 when the late Don Giffin, one of the three executors of Harold Ballard's estate, did an end run on fellow executor Stavro and brought in Cliff Fletcher to become president and general manager of the Leafs, Stavro disapproved. He wanted a financial man in charge, a hockey man like John Muckler running the hockey club. There also were hints he wanted his close friend, the late Judge Joe Kane, to take a senior position with the team.
Had it not been for Stavro's unwillingness to battle unfavourable publicity, Fletcher would have been out before he was ever in. In other words, no Doug Gilmour in Toronto, no Pat Burns, no Mats Sundin trade, none of that would have happened had Stavro gotten his way.
Even after Fletcher had success, Stavro never warmed to him. And that was part of who he was -- if it wasn't his way, it wasn't the right way. That's how he ran his grocery business. He tried to run the Maple Leafs that way. Years ago, after hearing too often from his customers at Knob Hill Farms that Leafs fans missed Wendel Clark, Stavro ordered Fletcher to bring Clark, who had been traded away in the terrific Sundin deal, back to Toronto. He knew about pleasing his customers.
In 1996, after the Leafs had missed the playoffs, Fletcher came up with a creative means of invigorating the roster. Why not bring Wayne Gretzky to Toronto?
Gretzky loved the idea and was even willing to take a large paycut or deferred payments in order to do so. Almost everybody loved the idea, but Stavro. He refused to give Fletcher to go-ahead on having Gretzky finish his career as a Leaf.
Interference has been the standard for operating the Leafs under any and all ownership. It has been a thread for this franchise, dubious ownership in dubious situations.
Stavro became owner of the Leafs under circumstances so questionable they required an investigation and a significant reprimand from the Ontario Securities Commission. All told, he and his partners wound up paying $23.5 million more for the team than the original purchase price. The deal was murky enough to write a book about -- and business reporter Theresa Tedesco did.
Eventually, financial demands elsewhere -- even after closing his chain of grocery stores -- forced Stavro to sell his stake in the Leafs. Later, his family would refer to current Leafs chairman Larry Tanenbaum as a "traitor."
That's the way it was with Stavro. His friends will tell you there has never been a man more loyal to those he trusted or believed in. But when your hands are in so many pies they are often in need of being wiped clean, there is always a little bit of leftover dirt.
There were land deals to question, a sex scandal at Maple Leaf Gardens handled terribly, a buried report on MLG's potential profits. Just never answers for the public.
The last time I saw Steve Stavro was at Jim Hunt's funeral. He sat near the back of the church on Bayview Ave., not far from Red Kelly and Bill Stephenson and Frank Orr, all of them Toronto legends of one kind or another.
He nodded politely when he saw me. As always, he said nothing.