David Thomson tells a sentimental story about watching hockey with his old man, a near-universal for his generation, even among those whose dads were not the second Lord Thomson of Fleet.
“I think that hockey was a sport that, through my father, I came to love,” says the 53-year-old co-owner of Winnipeg’s new NHL franchise. “My feelings for my father were extraordinary. We rarely played sport together, but hockey was something that we did share.”
Watching a game at Maple Leaf Gardens – Ken Thomson was a close friend of former Leafs owner Steve Stavro – David Thomson recalls that it was dreary night for the home team, that the visiting Florida Panthers were winning 6-0, and that by late in the third period, much of the crowd had already headed for the exits.
His father, though, stayed to the bitter end, and moved right down front. He told his son that he had never seen the ice from that perspective before.
“I sat there for the next few minutes looking at him and not the game,” David Thomson says, “and realizing that I had to be the luckiest human being on earth.”
A question naturally follows: Given that his father who so loved the game was among the wealthiest people on earth, given that his grandfather, Roy Thomson, sat on the original board of directors of the Los Angeles Kings and that the family company has held minority positions in both the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, did the Thomsons ever consider buying a hockey team of their own?
“Neither one of us could have ever imagined having that occurring,” Thomson says.
“How would it ever happen? It had always been assumed that anyone with a hockey franchise just bled to death. You just wrote cheques. It was the London Times, times 50. As an aspiration, it would have felt good, but it just couldn’t have been justified.”
There is the riddle at the heart of David Thomson’s Winnipeg quest. He is a sentimentalist when it comes to the sport. He cares deeply about what the new Winnipeg team means to the community, and to the country. He is, according to Forbes, currently the 17th richest person on earth, whose family wealth is estimated at $23-billion, so he certainly could afford an expensive plaything, could afford to do this simply because it feels good.
But that’s not the story – or at least not the whole story. The bottom line very much matters here. It is a calculated business proposition. Thomson is not in this to write cheques in order to make people happy. He absolutely expects to make money.
So perhaps it is appropriate that from Thomson’s perspective, the tale begins not with a misty-eyed dream of reviving the Jets, not with a nostalgic memory, but with real estate. A bit more than a decade back, Thomson’s company acquired the portfolio of a Dutch pension fund, which included a shopping centre in Toronto, an office building in Montreal, and the former Eaton’s property in downtown Winnipeg.
Thomson grew up in Toronto and in England, but says he felt a connection to the Manitoba capital because of a summer spent there while working for the family-owned Hudson’s Bay Company in 1980, which included extensive travel in the north. “It was one of the seminal moments of my life,” he says. “Manitoba resonates in my memory bank.”
And of the city itself: “I’ve always felt a deep admiration. The word that for me always comes out is ‘arterial’ – the sense that it was always the centre of commerce and the meeting place of rivers and tributaries and traders.”
The plan to build a hockey rink on the Eaton’s site, which would become the MTS Centre, was less about the long-shot prospect of luring an NHL franchise to Winnipeg than about enhancing the value of that property by putting up a building which could be a stand alone profit-centre, with the American Hockey League Moose as its main tenant, and with a busy schedule of concerts and other events.
It was through the arena project that Thomson first met and entered into partnership with local businessman Mark Chipman to establish True North, the company that is in the process of relocating the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
The NHL board of governors is expected to approve the deal on June 21.
“We have weathered many storms together rather successfully,” Thomson says. “If one has an ideal partner, it is Mark Chipman. Integrity, intelligence, determination, curiosity, bravery. Those are fine attributes.”
One decision in which it appears Thomson had a very direct hand was the choice to scale the arena at 15,000 seats – to some minds, too small to house a contemporary NHL franchise – again, he says, drawing on his time with HBC.
“Do you build it at eighteen and a half thousand or fifteen? For those who hadn’t been in retail, you build eighteen and a half. For those who hadn’t spent time with Steve Stavro [who made his fortune in the big box grocery business], you build eighteen and a half. But the important thing is the customer experience. Yes, we have a smaller rink and I still tell people it’s too big in my opinion. More seats would have cost more money and you have to fill them. It’s not the Bell Centre. It’s not the ACC. But for Winnipeg, I think it’s the right size.”
Acquiring an NHL franchise was a possibility, albeit in the early days a remote one. Chipman spearheaded the pursuit, quietly courting the NHL hierarchy – and in the beginning, being quickly brushed aside as the league pursued United States expansion locations. Still, they persevered, and as the business of the NHL changed, as some U.S. teams floundered while the Canadian dollar grew in strength, finally opportunity and readiness converged.
“It may not make any sense to you,” Thomson says, when asked when he knew they’d get their team, “but I never really wanted to be that certain. … You had to be able to focus and not be hurt, not have to sustain a loss. Also you don’t ever want to be in a position where the organization of the NHL and Gary Bettman have been compromised in any way. You have to just wait patiently and be ready.”
When the moment finally came and the deal was made official, Thomson experienced something unique in his personal and business life.
“The citizens that waved, that smiled, that put their thumbs northward. It made me as proud as I ever have been in my life,” he says. “It told me that if anything, the course that we had embarked upon would be one of the great journeys of both our lives and that we could help, maybe, to leave something that was remarkable not just for Winnipeg, but for hockey. And as Canadians did we not deserve to have such an outcome? I could not have imagined ever feeling that vast array of sensation in such a short order of time and in such meaningful form and expression.”
Which sounds … well … romantic, not like a real-estate deal, not like a calculation, not like the bottom-line proposition Thomson insists it is.
What he explains is that it can be both.
“It would please me to no end to have everyone believe that it’s romantic,” he says, “because it would take a tremendous amount of pressure off. At the end of the day, if you take the right course from the heart, and it’s intuitive, you have all the capacity to work through all the aspects of a business – to measure opportunity, to take risk. I can assure you, my friend – as romantic as Mark and I are, we accept the challenge of making the business successful, because in the end it will only reinforce the purpose. And what a splendid outcome – to have the romantic foster a business model that’s not only successful, but leaves behind a challenge for other organizations. …
“If the purpose is right, if there’s a passion, if there’s a determination, if there’s a resonance that runs so deep that every time you look at an opportunity, you think of your father, you think of your grandfather, you look back [to a string of Thomson family businesses], to the Hudson Bay, or CTV, or Thomson Reuters, you look back to North Sea Oil and to the Times and the Sunday Times and you can go on and on and on, and you take elements of all of those and you just figure out which ones work and which ones don’t work. It’s just so exciting.
“Yes, it’s romantic. And thank goodness it is.”