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.
“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.
His main fear? That his successor will not keep up.
“When I leave, it has to be strong enough to not crumble,” he said. “One of my great challenges is for this castle to not fall apart in four or five years.”
‘He brings results’
Dressed in a lawyerly pinstripe suit, with three pins on his lapel (Order of Canada, National Order of Quebec and Olympic rings), Aubut moves swiftly as he gives a tour of his offices in Montreal, which will be officially inaugurated in the spring. Sweat is forming on his forehead as he describes how he had a hand in the nitty-gritty details of office design.
With a child’s energy he shows where the massive television screen will be located, points to the rooms where sports officials will meet, mentions how fundraisers will be held on the newly landscaped terrasse at a busy downtown intersection. He goes on to explain where he will put a treadmill and other exercise machines like those he has in all of his residences and workspaces, trying to get in shape.
It is an obvious contradiction: The rotund man who oversees an organization dedicated to ideals of fitness, strength and grace struggles to maintain his own health. “My biggest battle is against my weight,” he said. “I probably lost 2,000 pounds in my life. Up and down, up and down; that’s not real good.”
The fact he never seems to slow down is cause for concern. In addition to working for the COC, Aubut sits on a few boards and works full-time for the Heenan Blaikie law firm (the offices in Quebec City are still called Heenan Blaikie Aubut).
“We all think that his work rhythm versus his waist size isn’t a good equation, but that’s his way of doing things,” said Jean-Luc Brassard, a former Olympic mogul skier and medal winner who is assistant chef de mission of the Canadian delegation in Sochi.
Like many people, Brassard said, Aubut is far from perfect, but the upside of his style compensates for any downside.
“Sure, he loves the limelight,” Brassard said. But athletes can detect when someone tries to live off their work and sacrifices, he said, and wouldn’t tolerate Aubut if they felt he was an imposter. “We admire what he has done,” Brassard said. “He brings results.”
Although a federalist, Aubut has no overtly partisan leanings. Basically, he cozies up to whichever government happens to be in power, both in Ottawa and in the provinces.
The COC’s executive director of communications until recently was Dimitri Soudas, a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, while his manager of media relations, Jane Almeida, worked in former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s office – one Conservative and one Liberal. Chief executive officer Chris Overholt was a senior executive with the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. The COC recently hired Ray Lalonde, a former executive with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, to replace Soudas.
“I don’t compare to the average,” Aubut said. “We compare ourselves to the best. And then we become the comparator.”
There is an obvious overlap between Aubut’s volunteer work with the COC and his day job as a lawyer and deal maker.
By working in the Olympics, Aubut hobnobs with the world’s elite in splendid settings. They talk amateur sports, but also set up contacts that can eventually pay off. When he organized a 4,000-seat filet mignon feast in Quebec City in honour of former IOC president Jacques Rogge in 2012, the building was packed with one of the biggest contingents of CEOs and senior executives in Canada ever assembled.
Aubut, however, said “sports doesn’t bring a lot” to his legal career, “except for the national respect that comes with the function.” Although obviously wealthy – he is said to have pocketed $15-million on the sale of the Nordiques alone – he makes no apologies for his workaholic pace.
“I have to do both, given I’m still earning a living,” he said. “I get nothing here financially as the biggest volunteer, which doesn’t mean a lot when you go to the grocery store.”
Still, Aubut acknowledged he will always need to feel needed. Not only does he want to go out with a bang – to see high Canadian medal counts, to play every shift as if it were his last – he wants to remain at the centre of something big.
“I’d be unhappy, I think, if I lost this feeling that people need me,” he said. “I think I would feel a bit useless.”