Deep-pocketed, brash owner Gary Stern wants to quickly restore the Alouettes lustre

Photo courtesy: Peter McCabe/CFL

Just like millions of other Canadians, Gary Stern was watching the 2019 Grey Cup.

Stern had a group of buddies over to his place and one of them was Toronto Argonauts governor Dale Lastman. He explained to his good friend that the Montreal Alouettes were for sale and asked if Stern was interested in potentially purchasing the team. The answer from Stern and his father-in-law Sid Spiegel was yes — by the next day CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie was in Stern’s office.

Ambrosie went from handing the Grey Cup to the champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Calgary to brokering a deal in southern Ontario in less than 24 hours. A month and a half later, Stern was sitting beside Ambrosie with the paperwork signed to usher in a new era of football in Montreal.

“It happened fast. It’s an easy decision. I’m sorry if I say, Khari [Jones] 2020 Grey Cup, we’re going to do it. I didn’t put in the 18-0,” Stern said with a laugh.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment bought the Argos in 2017 after the double blue won the CFL title. Stern was blunt about why he didn’t want to purchase the Boatmen.

It’s difficult, please take it the right away, and if I say it the wrong way… the Argos suck.”

Stern is Crawford Steel’s chief executive officer and his longtime business partner Spiegel is the founder and chairman of the company. The Als were bought by S and S Sportsco, a corporate entity owned by Stern and Spiegel. The pair of businessmen had previous investments in Quebec including steel plants in Longueuil and Rouyn-Noranda and real estate holdings.

“When we sat with Sid and Gary they didn’t have to go looking for anyone to support them as owners and they were going to make a long-term commitment to being the owners. And the question of how they would fund this team was not an issue,” Ambrosie said.

“One of the real things that distinguished Gary and Sid from everything else and all the other conversations, pretty much all of those other conversations involved those groups having to find investors to support their ownership. One of our great concerns was that group ownership works well when when things go well, but group ownership is more difficult when things don’t go well.”

Ambrosie led the search for new ownership in Montreal after the CFL officially purchased the Alouettes from the Wetenhalls in late May 2019. Bob and Andrew Wetenhall owned the team for a 22-year-span that included three Grey Cup championships. The league and the Wetenhall family had been working for several months to identify and assess potential new owners.

“We need to build all of our franchises to a point at which we’re creating franchise value, that we’re driving our teams to greater levels of success, so that we don’t have to be in a situation where we’re looking for an owner with, as Gary described, a distressed situation,” Ambrosie said.

“But rather we’re talking abut ownership through the lens of a league that’s moving forward, that’s exciting, that franchise values are growing.”

Montreal lost more than $12 million in 2018, according to CBC Radio Canada reporter Michel Chabot. From Chabot’s reportThe Alouettes have lost $50 million since the Wetenhall family owned the team, including $25 million for three years. In 2018 alone, losses would have reached $12.5 million due to a revenue decline of approximately $6 million and an increase in expenditures of more than $6 million.

“Yes, it’s lost a lot of money. It doesn’t frighten us. We didn’t do it to throw away money. We paid our bill. I’m telling you don’t worry, this team’s well funded,” Stern said.

While the ownership process played out, Montreal enjoyed a resurgent season in 2019 as head coach Khari Jones led the Als to a 10-8 record and earned the franchise’s first post-season spot in four years. Jones inked a three-year contract extension last November. The Als’ next steps are to hire a general manager and president.

“They will be two distinct jobs. I am thrilled with the candidates I’ve met,” Stern said. “The language is a strong consideration. Our goal is to get it done now. We have a team to put on the field.”

Stern went from a CFL fan to owner in short order and he’s working quickly to restore the lustre to the Alouettes.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.