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Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media
Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media

the lunch

Hockey, family and takin’ care of business Add to ...

This used to be date night for Keith Pelley and his wife.

Seventeen years ago, the then-newlyweds designated Tuesday evenings as sacrosanct. It served them well, maybe even saved their marriage, especially in its early days when Mr. Pelley was a frenzied hockey and football producer for Fox Sports, based in New York.

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“I was travelling 230, 250 games a year,” he explains, sipping a half pint of amber dry in a rambling, family-style Italian restaurant out on The Queensway in Toronto’s west end. “Then I’d go over to Europe for three, four months to do NFL Europe. I was never home.

“When we got married, I would say maybe 50 per cent of the people at our wedding would have given us a chance, to be honest with you.”

A little while ago, though, date night got moved to Thursday. Which is how it came to be that, on this summery Tuesday in June, Mr. Pelley, the president of Rogers Media, finds himself talking about business in a place where he usually goes to escape all of that.

Mamma Martino’s is his regular haunt: He and his wife Joan are here so often, they simply call it “the restaurant.” (In fact, one Valentine’s Day, it’s where he proposed to her.) But he’s a born showman, too, with more than 30 years of experience in television production, and he knows how to sell. Over a two-hour dinner, like an eager talk show guest he reels off a series of anecdotes, beginning each one: “Oh, this is a good story.”

So, never mind that Mr. Pelley’s compensation in 2013, according to a Rogers proxy circular, was a sniff more than $1.8-million. Ignore the shirt cuffs with their monogrammed “KWP.” (Walter is his father’s name.) Forget it was he who oversaw Rogers’s astonishing 12-year, $5.2-billion purchase of the NHL broadcast rights last winter, a deal that has plenty of Canadian hockey fans worried they’ll have to pay to see games that used to be free. The folks at this straight-up Etobicoke restaurant are his constituency. He kibitzes with the owner, Bruno, and compliments Bruno’s waitress, Jane, on her dress.

Mamma’s pastas, pizzas and veal marsala go for less than $10 each, statuary and fountains are out front, clusters of fake grapes and old family photos adorn the exposed brick walls, and there’s even a picture of the Mona Lisa for good measure. Parents bring their kids here for dinner, then everyone saunters over to Tom’s Dairy Freeze next door for a cone or a banana split and watches the sun melt slowly in the distance.

But if Mr. Pelley is here to escape, his business finds him, anyway: In the other room, a TV tuned to Sportsnet is showing the Toronto Blue Jays; Rogers Media owns both the channel and the team. Under Mr. Pelley’s leadership since September, 2010, the high-profile division of Rogers Communications owns more than 20 conventional and specialty channels (including the City network, Omni, F/X and seven Sportsnet TV services), more than 50 radio stations, and dozens of consumer and business publications as well as the all-you-can-read digital magazine service Next Issue Canada.

When he took over the helm from the Rogers lifer Tony Viner, Mr. Pelley told associates he intended to make the company No. 1. “Yeah, I’d say I’m competitive,” he says, his head low over the table now; he is practically whispering. “Oh yeah.”

The drive to be No. l has been bumpy. Sportsnet has been on a tear, and will benefit enormously from the NHL games. Still, in the past two years, Rogers has launched City stations in both Montreal and Saskatchewan. But it doesn’t have a full national footprint, leaving the network a persistent also-ran behind Shaw Communications Inc.’s Global Television and Bell Inc.’s CTV Network. (Bell owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)

In an appearance before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission during the spring, Mr. Pelley said the conventional television industry’s well-chronicled troubles were intensifying: He noted that Rogers had lost $38-million on City in 2012 and $42-million in 2013, and that he couldn’t even trust the sales projections his executives had made five months earlier.

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