Athletes go for gold, Marcel Aubut goes for grand.
On his business card, the 66-year-old lawyer is listed as the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), the country’s deep-pocketed amateur sporting organization. In his own words, he is the “country’s biggest volunteer.”
Parades, sponsorships, banquets and announcements are always megascale affairs on Aubut’s watch. He points to Rendez-Vous 1987, a five-day gala in Quebec City that included two games between the NHL’s best players and the Soviet national team – “the biggest event in the history of the league, never beaten,” he proclaims. Even his CV lands at a fat 48 pages, though a single sentence captures his sense of self: “Mr. Aubut has left a bold impression wherever he has ventured.”
He is certainly doing that these days, putting Team Canada gear on athletes who have earned a ticket to the Sochi Winter Games next month. At every festive event, he speaks at length, showcasing his love for the cameras and giving fuel to eye-rolling critics who feel the Marcel Show cannot end soon enough.
But Aubut has methodically built a formidable power base inside the Olympic establishment, long a decentralized web of sporting federations. He has both expanded and consolidated his Olympic empire, hiring more staff, opening new offices in Montreal and making renewed riches cascade into COC coffers – no small feat after the inevitable sponsorship fatigue following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Now, starting his second and final four-year mandate as COC president, he has his sights set on affecting everything from coaching to anti-doping – but well knows he’ll ultimately be judged on winning.
“Top of the board” is how Aubut describes the Canadian team’s goal for Sochi, though he refuses to target a specific medal haul. That kind of talk induces cringes in some quarters of Canadian amateur sport – “We’re nowhere near where we were for Vancouver,” one federation executive said – but is standard procedure for a man known for his jaunty brand of charm, arrogance, self-promotion and tireless dedication. While almost everyone assumes Aubut has larger personal ambitions – an eye toward rising high inside the International Olympic Committee – he insists he is only focused on his current mandate, which ends in 2017.
“One of the things that my father said, ‘We are always as good as our last shift.’ That sticks with me always, always,” he said in an interview. “I can’t, at my age, have taken this on and missed my last shift. Forget about it, that won’t happen.”
Aubut leaves no one indifferent. Fans and foes alike describe the big-bodied former owner of the Quebec Nordiques in essentially the same terms: a force of nature, a bull in a china shop, an outsized character forged in the days before political correctness. But Aubut is also deft at building and preserving relationships, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.
“Everyone around the office loved Marcel, he’s very affectionate,” Daly said with a laugh. “I often bump into him in what I would consider to be the strangest of places, but when you know how much he travels and how much he’s doing, maybe it’s not so strange.”
A trait that wins over many people turns off others: Aubut will deploy absolutely everything in his arsenal to get what he wants. “He is unstoppable,” said Jean Charest, who had Aubut in his office – and his face – on a number of files during his time as Quebec premier. “It’s a lot easier to say ‘yes’ to Marcel than to say ‘no.’”
‘I was received like a king’
The irrepressible Aubut was born in 1948 and raised on the family farm in Saint-Hubert-de-Rivière-du-Loup, a small town halfway between Quebec City and the Gaspésie. After graduating from Laval University’s law school in 1970, he made his mark in Quebec City, where he earned the nickname of the “Grande Allée Kid,” after the city’s main drag.
Working on a case, he grabbed the attention of Jean Lesage, a former Quebec premier who was the chairman of the board of the Quebec Nordiques. At just 30, Aubut became president of the hockey team, then part of the World Hockey Association. After the league merged with the NHL, Aubut set about breaking up the television monopoly in Canada to allow each team to earn greater broadcast revenues. He went to all the other NHL owners individually to mount his campaign, proving a particular hit down south.