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CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon, left, touches the Grey Cup at City Hall during a 100th year celebration that kicked off in Toronto on Friday. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon, left, touches the Grey Cup at City Hall during a 100th year celebration that kicked off in Toronto on Friday. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

the lunch

CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon’s animal kingdom Add to ...

The commissioner of the Canadian Football League is sitting in a Rogers Centre restaurant that overlooks the playing field.

Just below him, the Toronto Argonauts are practising for the East Division semifinals against the Edmonton Eskimos – a game the Argos won 42-26, securing a spot in this Sunday’s East final against the Montreal Alouettes.

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The crowning achievement of Mark Cohon’s career will take place on this field Nov. 25, when thousands of fans will fill the centre as Toronto hosts the 100th Grey Cup. The league has gone all out, promoting the event with a special train ride, television features, commemorative stamps and coffee cups. There will be a rock concert on game day and a fan parade where people can carry the Grey Cup for a few metres through downtown Toronto.

And yet, as the Argos prepare below him for their shot at greatness, all he really wants to talk about is the great outdoors.

“My passion has always been wildlife and animals,” Mr. Cohon says before lunch even begins.

The CFL might not be exactly the life of lions and tigers he envisioned as a child. But his passions nevertheless played an unlikely role in his career trajectory – all the way from zookeeper to football czar.

Mr. Cohon leaves his salmon lunch to cool as he launches into his adventures in the Canadian and Russian arctic, where he once led a group of young people on expeditions as part of a charity he helped launch. About his brief time working with an environmental organization called Earth Rangers which came about after he met his childhood idol, Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist. About the two summers he spent in high school working at the Toronto Zoo where he cleaned out elephant pens, fed polar bears and did snake shows. “My mum would only allow me to come through the back door and take off my clothes before I came in the house,” he says with a smile, adding that he became an expert in identifying the differences in excrement from elephants, orangutangs and tigers.

Then, somehow, Mr. Cohon brings it all back to the CFL and explains that his wildlife work actually led him to the commissioner’s chair. How? He takes another deep breath.

One of the kids on the arctic trip had a connection to a senior official in Major League Baseball who was impressed with Mr. Cohon’s leadership and offered him a job launching MLB’s international operations. Mr. Cohon, just 23 at the time, jumped at the opportunity and headed to New York. A few years later he had a chance meeting in the Tokyo airport with David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association. That led to a job with the NBA’s international division in London. Then he left sports altogether in the late 1990s, lured to an Internet startup. When that didn’t work out he returned to Toronto, worked briefly as an Earth Ranger, became chairman of the Ontario Science Centre and landed a job as chief executive officer of AudienceView, a ticketing service.

“That’s when I made the jump to the CFL,” he says brightly. The CFL had come calling in 2006, looking for a bright young executive who could stabilize a league that had become something of a joke with teams struggling financially, fan interest waning and backroom battles more fierce than play on the field.

Mr. Cohon loved football, he was a good enough player at Upper Canada College to get recruited to McGill University, but he hesitated. “I took a lot of time to think about it,” he said.

In the end, he followed the advice of his father, McDonald’s Canada founder George Cohon, and took a leap of faith, signing a five-year deal reportedly worth $450,000 annually. “I thought I could make a difference,” he added.

Changes came fast. Mr. Cohon felt the CFL had an inferiority complex when it came to the National Football League and he refused to play along. He dropped the league’s slogan “Our Balls are Bigger,” cut most official ties with the NFL and told owners to stop worrying about the American giant moving North. “We were always trying to compare ourselves to the NFL,” he says. “A little bit of this has to do with Canada too, always trying to compare yourself. I said we have to stop doing that … We have to understand who we are.”

His new mantra was: “This is our league.” He began emphasizing the CFL’s history and started building up the profile of its star players. He tinkered with some rules, helping make the game faster and higher scoring. Above all he kept the league’s focus relentlessly Canadian. “We started taking pride in who we are. We’re authentic, we’re accessible, we’re affordable.”

For the most part, it has worked. Attendance is up, television ratings have doubled, sponsorship deals are increasing and more than $1-billion has been invested in stadium projects in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Ottawa. New stadiums are also in the works in Hamilton and Regina, and Ottawa will re-join the league in 2014. There’s also a drug testing policy that is among the toughest in pro sports and the league has been years ahead of the NFL in dealing with concussions.

Need more proof? Consider this: a regular season game between the Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats drew 750,000 viewers on TSN and matchups between Saskatchewan and Toronto pulled in 1 million. “You’ll do 180,000 for a [Toronto] Raptors game,” he said. “We’re No. 2 to the NHL in this country in terms of our ratings.” So when the league starts negotiating a new TV deal with TSN next year, Mr. Cohon will be ready. “I think we’re in a good position to realize some increases.”

Things are going so well there’s talk of expansion to Halifax, or Moncton or Quebec City, and some brave souls even mention the possibility of a second team in Saskatchewan, something Mr. Cohon says is unlikely given the Roughriders’ dominance in the province. Now when people ask about the NFL, which is far less often, Mr. Cohon jokes that the NFL has become a development league for the CFL. He also deftly points out that the NFL’s Buffalo Bills recent venture into the Rogers Centre for an annual regular season game has been a disappointment. Best of all, there is no talk of CFL teams folding or owners squabbling.

To be sure, problems abound. Toronto and Hamilton regularly lose money and remain the league’s weak sisters in terms of attendance. There’s the awkward arrangement with David Braley who owns the Argos and B.C. Lions. And Toronto could soon be out of the Rogers Centre if the stadium moves to a grass surface which would ruin the configuration for football. Mr. Cohon doesn’t shy away from those issues. He says the Grey Cup celebrations are all about raising the CFL’s profile in Southern Ontario and he recognizes the Argos will have to build their own stadium one day. The league has also talked to Mr. Braley about selling one team.

Conspiracy theorists are convinced Mr. Cohon has orchestrated things for the Argos to end up in the Grey Cup, something he laughs off. And the league’s collective agreement with its players expires after next season.

But he still has more dreams. Maybe a CFL video game, or themed restaurants. And yet his own future remains less certain. He signed a three-year extension this year but he’s vague about whether he’ll stay on longer. He is only 46 and his father and brother Craig are running Cirque du Soleil shows in Russia, something that seems to intrigue him. But after a few questions, he offers some reassurance for CFL watchers: “I learned this from my father. I’ll stay as long as I’m having fun and I’m personally challenged … And I think there are a lot of things on my plate that will challenge me.”

___________________

MARK COHON

BEGINNINGS

Born in Chicago, moved to Toronto at the age of 2, remains a dual citizen.

CAREER

Earned bachelor of science degree from Northwestern University in Chicago, has worked at Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

FAMILY

Wife Suzanne runs a public relations business in Toronto, they have one daughter, Parker, who is 6 years old.

HOBBIES

Swimming, paddle boarding, exotic trips. He has been to 55 countries, at last count. “When I turn 50, I want to take my daughter to Africa.”

QUOTE

“You very rarely can be in a job where you enjoy what you do and you are making an impact on your country and that’s why I am having fun.”

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