“I was received like a king,” Aubut recounted. “The Americans called me ‘the French guy with the great idea.’”
By 1988, Aubut owned the Nordiques, and four years later, he made a killing trading Eric Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers, acquiring a mix of cash, picks and players, including future star Peter Forsberg. In so doing, he also caused headaches at the league office by simultaneously dealing Lindros to both the Flyers and New York Rangers, who called in the lawyers.
But with the slumping Canadian dollar and an increasingly dilapidated rink, the Nordiques couldn’t compete financially and were sold and moved to Denver in 1995, leaving Aubut a wounded, if substantially wealthier, figure in Quebec City. He said his team’s exit wouldn’t have happened if the new Colisée – which he argued for at the time and is currently under construction – had been built during his tenure.
Asked whether he is a visionary, Aubut answered with his customary self-assurance: “The good Lord gave me that, there is no doubt.”
He also gravitates to the limelight.
“He loves the glamour in sports, professional sports, Olympic sports,” former Nordiques captain Peter Stastny said. “He is attracted by something glamorous, something big, something global. He loves megaprojects, he loves the podium, he loves being involved and being visible.”
Most importantly, Stastny said: “He wants to win.”
Although Aubut is a consummate insider and schmoozer, he likes to portray himself as a quintessential outsider, battling long odds.
He is a relative newcomer to the Olympic movement, which he joined in 2005, at 57, after a decade building up his legal career in Montreal and sitting on corporate boards. When he decided to run for the COC presidency four years later, he activated every branch of his famous network and ran a campaign – akin to a political leadership race – that shocked parts of Canada’s usually stolid, genteel Olympic movement.
“I hadn’t been in the machine forever, I wasn’t a former Olympian, I wasn’t an anglophone. On the contrary, I came from the world of professional sports, having learned the ropes in the lap of luxury, with athletes making millions of dollars. Everything was against me,” he said of his victory over four-time Olympic rower Tricia Smith in 2009.
His plans for the COC – on which he was elected with more than 60 per cent of the votes in 2009, and acclaimed into a second mandate this year – are “audacious,” he said.
The COC staff will basically double by the end of his mandate, occupying new offices in Montreal and, next on his list, Toronto. He wants the COC to showcase athletes year-round, regardless of whether it’s an Olympic year, and to beef up coaching and technical expertise across the country and in all sports. His goal is to get even more revenues flowing, through increased merchandising sales and – think big – a new national sports lottery. By the end of 2017, Aubut hopes to have persuaded the federal government to match every private-sector dollar that comes into the COC.
While Canada triumphed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics – topping all countries with 14 gold medals – and expects to perform well at Sochi, Aubut said there is no justification for Canada’s relatively low standing at Summer Games.
National sporting federations (NSFs in Olympic jargon) technically report to their sport’s international governing body. Aubut’s detractors in the sports establishment believe his central aim is to create a “single window” for sponsorships and funding in Canada – a de facto centralization of all sports funding in a secretive body that currently spends less than half its total budget on athletes.
Aubut acknowledged many sporting federations were “nervous” when he took over the COC, but said he comforted the large majority by building partnerships instead of asserting control.
“That was one of the fears at first, that when I get somewhere, I take charge,” he said. “That is not what I did. I showed them that it could be done differently, by showing them that the COC could be their best possible partner. Today, all of the federations are running to us, asking whether we can help them.”
His essential task was renewing the COC’s major sponsors that had been on the Vancouver bandwagon. It had been relatively easy for the COC to attract Canadian blue-chip firms when the Winter Games were on home turf, but harder to bring them back for Games in London (2012), Sochi and Rio de Janeiro (2016). With $100-million in corporate sponsorship deals signed over four years, Aubut expresses no doubt he will succeed in transforming Canadian Olympic sport before his mandate ends in 2017.