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John Forzani, Chairman of the Calgary Stampeders, is a Canadian businessman and former CFL player with 7 years with the Stampeders. Forzani is Founder and Chairman of the Board of The Forzani Group Ltd. (FGL), Canada?Ü?s largest and only national sporting goods retailer. He was photographed on the field on Tuesday, June 01, 2010. (Chris Bolin/© 2010 Chris Bolin Photography Inc.)
John Forzani, Chairman of the Calgary Stampeders, is a Canadian businessman and former CFL player with 7 years with the Stampeders. Forzani is Founder and Chairman of the Board of The Forzani Group Ltd. (FGL), Canada?Ü?s largest and only national sporting goods retailer. He was photographed on the field on Tuesday, June 01, 2010. (Chris Bolin/© 2010 Chris Bolin Photography Inc.)

Allan Maki

Stampeders have never looked better Add to ...

On the book case slumps a deflated autographed football from the 1971 Grey Cup game he played in. Below it is a collection of books, including Tom Callahan's gridiron bio Johnny U. Below that is a pair of bronzed football cleats. On the opposite wall hangs a framed Forzani Group common share valued at $5,875. Such are the twin passions of John Forzani - business and sports, football and finance.

But this, too, speaks to the 63-year-old former Calgary Stampeder turned capitalist and team owner: on the wall behind his desk is a black-and-white poster that reads, "Golf with your friends." The poster is of Larry, Curly and Moe. The Three Stooges.

On this day, Forzani is carrying on about the former owner of the Stampeders, Southern California businessman Michael Feterik and his well-heeled henchman, Fred Fateri. The Two Stooges. Let unfettered, Feterik and Fateri could have flat-lined the franchise. A cardboard-box maker, Feterik was suspected of buying the team principally to provide a place for his son, Kevin Feterik, to play quarterback. With Fateri acting as Feterik's operating officer, the team sunk into last place.

"The fact Fateri, in his Giorgio Armani suits, was on the sidelines yelling at the ref during games got to me," Forzani says. "Then I found out he never thought, spoke or had anything to do with football before. That was it. That was when Ted [Hellard]and I believed it would be best if someone else bought the team."

This is the fifth anniversary season since that acquisition and the Stampeders have never looked better. Their principal owners - Forzani, Hellard and former CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell - have restored pride and professionalism through one of the slickest turnarounds in CFL history. Gone is the comedic management style. In its place, through good hires and combined efforts, is a smartly run organization with a football team that has fashioned an aggregate record of 65-42-2, made the playoffs every year, won the 2008 Grey Cup and will play host to the West Final this Sunday.

Off the field, the franchise is profitable for the first time in a long time. Getting hard numbers from the CFL's privately owned clubs is like prying secrets out of the Kremlin and, true to form, the Stampeders owners won't divulge theirs. But CFL contacts are adamant the club generated annual profits of $1-million from 2005 to 2008 and more than tripled that in 2009 by playing host to the Grey Cup. When The Globe and Mail bounced this figure off various owners, they offered no resistance.

This much is absolute:

- The Stampeders ownership group, which includes former players Dave Sapunjis and Bob Viccars, former University of Calgary football player Paul Colborne, oil and gas man Matthew Brister, investment dealer Rob Peters and three others who wish to remain unidentified, paid $6.5-million to send Feterik packing. (The Calgary Flames are also in for roughly 5 per cent.) Each owner purchased shares priced at $500,000 each with two goals in mind. "We wanted a winning program and not to have a cash call," Hellard says. They do, and they haven't.

- With the Grey Cup game in tow as an inducement last season, the Stampeders did franchise-record business in ticket revenue, selling 30,000 season tickets. Tourism Calgary calculated the championship game resulted in "net economic activity" of $39.5-million for the province, more than $24-million in the city alone. This season, the Stampeders have sold 24,000 season tickets and "our corporate dollars are up, which is almost mind-numbing to us," Hellard says. "Usually there's a 20 to 30 per-cent drop-off [after staging a Grey Cup]"

- According to Forzani, the Stampeders are in the "top three in the CFL for souvenir revenue." The Saskatchewan Roughriders rank first. As for overall revenue, "no one beats the Montreal Alouettes," he says. "Our top seats go for $600 for a year: the Als' are roughly $1,000. They have fewer seats but they charge a premium."

There are more than numbers to this story.

The personalities and backgrounds of the three keynote owners were the reason the city's football faithful embraced the new group so eagerly. Forzani, a member of the Stampeders' 1971 Grey Cup-winning team, thinks and talks football. He grew up in Calgary; his first job was selling the Calgary Herald. When his playing career was done, he took a single sporting-goods store and turned it into The Forzani Group, the largest sports retailer in the country.

Hellard grew up here and sold peanuts at the Calgary Stampede for his first job. He played basketball at the University of Calgary and taught school for two years but his restless nature led him to his biggest success, Critical Mass, an Internet marketing company with a blue-ribbon client base (Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, Dell, Anheuser-Busch).

Mitchell, whose first job was stocking shelves at a downtown Zellers store, has a litany of sporting accomplishments, from serving as the Calgary Flames' legal counsel to being CFL commissioner (1984-88) to establishing the BLG Awards for the nation's top university athletes. Mitchell also had control of $1-million from Ted Turner's failed bid to stage the 2005 Goodwill Winter Games in Calgary. Mitchell had a forfeiture clause written into the deal if the Games were scuttled and ticketed the money for a community project.

Individually, Forzani is the seasoned operator who chairs the owners' quarterly meetings, Hellard is the gung-ho, thank-god-it's-Monday enthusiast while Mitchell is the prime negotiator. Collectively, it's a power trio amped by the sum of its parts with Hellard being the most visible given he was with the club on a daily basis for two years.

The owners insisted on having Hellard on-site so he could re-energize the staff and hold them accountable. He asked people to think outside the norm and helped Forzani come up with a 100-day plan to address the problems created by Feterik. They held ticket prices for the first year and cut back on the 5,000 complimentary tickets that were being given out under Feterik. They also brought back two familiar faces: Jim Barker, hired and fired by the old regime, was rehired as general manager; Stan Schwartz, the former club president, was appointed executive vice-president. Barker helped sign free-agent quarterback Henry Burris and trade for receiver Jeremaine Copeland; Schwartz cultivated those eager to once again do business with the Stampeders.

"To be honest, this is a very basic business - win games, sell tickets, facilitate your corporate relationships and entertain fans," Schwartz says. "The owners had instant credibility. That's what made this work right away."

Adds Barker, now the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts: "[The Calgary owners]ran it the way they run their businesses. The only agenda was to win the Grey Cup."

Hellard's presence ruffled some feathers. He took in every practice, stood along the sidelines during games, involved himself in league affairs. But once John Hufnagel was appointed coach - and Scott Ackles, and now Lyle Bauer, took charge of the business operations - Hellard relaxed and withdrew into the background.

"We were starting from a collapsed entity," Hellard explains. "When I get something built, I kind of lose interest. I'm not a maintenance guy - not that we're there yet. We still want a more stable representation in the community."

Sapunjis, the former Stampeders slotback, sees Hellard as "a perfectionist," Forzani as "a great chairperson" and Mitchell "as our diplomat." That doesn't mean the Stampeders' ownership has been devoid of miscues. Its handling of coach Tom Higgins's dismissal was all thumbs. Even before the 2007 West Division semi-final in Regina, it was rumoured (but never addressed) that Higgins would be ousted in favour of a waiting Hufnagel. When the Stampeders lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Higgins was indeed dumped.

"That was a mistake," Sapunjis says of how the news of Higgins's impending departure became known. Still, all was forgiven when the Stampeders won the Grey Cup led by Burris, running back Joffrey Reynolds and Hufnagel, who was voted 2008 coach of the year.

"I came in [as Riders president]in 2005, the same year that group took control in Calgary," Jim Hopson says of the Stampeders' owners. "They're well-connected with their community. They're aggressive in ticketing [with multiyear season-ticket sales]and marketing [with player appearances] They spend money because they know they've got to invest in their business to build a sustainable engine."

So what's next for the Stampeders? Plenty. The owners want to win another Grey Cup and just might this month. Having helped pay for a new front office and an upgraded clubhouse for the players, there are plans to renovate the service facilities at McMahon, where the Calgary Flames operate the concessions. There's also been talk of how to get more events into the stadium without subjecting the surrounding neighbourhoods to rock concerts.

Five years ago, the owners had a study done to see if the stadium could be covered. Not feasible, they were told. Since then they've looked at having a bubble over the field area during the winter months so it could be used for multiple sports.

"What about building a field house on the practice field [south of the stadium]that the university could use and amateur football teams could use and other off-season sports, like soccer?" Forzani asks. "One of the hardest things to find is land, and the land is there."

Giving back to a community that has supported them has always been part of the plan - the club and Hellard contributed more than $1-million to having artificial turf installed at nearby Shouldice Park - but increasing that commitment is what the Stampeders see as a long-term goal.

"It goes back to doing this for the right reasons," says Mitchell, who remembered the time he was CFL commissioner and baseball's Charlie Finley was hounding him for a CFL franchise. "He said, 'Before I got involved in sports, I sold group benefits. I made millions of dollars and no one knew me. When I bought the Oakland A's, everyone knew me.'

"We don't want to celebrate the highs too much and we want to prepare for the downs. I'm not Charlie Finley."

Nor are he and his partners stooges.

"There's a legitimate, honest business here that makes money - but no one will retire on this," Forzani chortles. "We just want to feel good about what we're doing."

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