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Scott Saxberg: An oil man who sells hockey in the desert

Scott Saxberg has come full circle.

Starting as a teenager in the 1980s, Mr. Saxberg worked for several seasons with the Winnipeg Jets – the old Jets – the NHL team of Hawerchuk, Steen and Babych, the team that broke a city's heart when it was packed up and shipped off to the Arizona desert in 1996.

Last year, he joined a Calgary-based group of oil barons that assembled a bid for the money-losing club that those Jets became, the Phoenix Coyotes. He is now part owner of the franchise, which aims to grow a fan base in a cactus-dotted region that has been slow to embrace the sport.

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In the time between the two events, the Manitoba-born engineer built Crescent Point Energy Corp. from a junior oil company into the dominant driller and producer of crude in the part of the Bakken shale formation that juts up into Canada, and a growing player in the main part of the red-hot prospect in North Dakota.

Crescent Point began operations in 2001 and within two years converted to an income trust and went on a shopping spree for oil assets. In 2009, it converted back into a dividend-paying corporation and made several more acquisitions. Since then, production has more than doubled and Crescent Point is now Canada's ninth-most valuable energy company. Mr.

Saxberg eschews top-down formality, encouraging staff to talk often with senior executives so ideas don't get bogged down in bureaucracy.

Today he is in the bustling Oyster Bar on the Stephen Avenue. level at Catch in downtown Calgary. The reservations were initially made for the more-refined second floor of the establishment, a go-to venue for serious business lunches. But he called an audible at the last minute to move the meal downstairs, opting for fish and chips in what he describes as a less hoity-toity atmosphere. As is normal for the youthful 45-year-old, he's left his tie at home.

Like any red-blooded Canadian, the engineer-by-trade says he grew up as a hockey nut. As a young man working for the Jets, he co-ordinated the game video that the players use to study and prepare for opponents. But he had no long-term designs on being a sport franchise owner before joining the group led by Calgary financier George Gosbee, chairman of AltaCorp Capital.

"So it's sort of an interesting circle of events. I'm a hockey fan. I play hockey. My kids play hockey. I have an understanding of the NHL, with the inner workings of the team. I was there (with the Jets) six years. So I wasn't afraid from that perspective," he says amid the lunchtime din. "And the way the deal was structured it was a very good deal. It's a risky deal – like we could lose all our money. But I looked at it as a great leverage into other business opportunities."

The group includes several other oil men, including RMP Energy's Craig Stewart, Bonterra Energy's George Fink and Anadarko Petroleum's Bob Gwin. They bought the Coyotes last August in a $170-million (U.S.) deal.

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Former Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Vernon, whose son plays hockey with Mr. Saxberg's, alerted him to the opportunity about a year ago. The oil man told him to have Mr. Gosbee call him and the two met a couple weeks later to discuss the idea.

"To be honest, I looked at it and thought it was crazy. It's a lot of money and it's pretty risky," he said. "But I told him to keep me in the loop and I'd do some work on it. I did more research and when we walked through the deal terms, it resonated with me."

That was because of a key aspect that allowed the group to get bank debt based on a long-term contract with the Phoenix-area suburb of Glendale, Ariz., where the team plays. That measure was strikingly similar to a deal he watched a wealthy friend complete years earlier for supplying electricity to Seattle – realizing value from the security of the franchise. "I always remembered that," he said.

The group negotiated a $15-million, 15-year contract to keep the team in Glendale, and was able to use that guarantee to borrow $100-million from the bank.

"It made it, from my perspective, a valid and fairly valuable deal. It's a win for the city, a win for us, and it gave us the ability and time frame to make it successful in Phoenix," he said. "And if it isn't successful in Phoenix, we're not involved. Because the way that deal is structured we can't be the group of owners moving it … so we're bought in, 100 per cent, to being in Phoenix."

The idea is to model the Coyotes on the Detroit Red Wings – a famously well-run franchise that the city takes pride in. Specifically, the group, with general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett, aims to emulate the Wings' system of long-term player development, rather than making frequent changes to their lineup.

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In Phoenix, there's the added opportunities associated with being in a locale that is a popular vacation spot for Canadians, who can help to create more buzz. Meanwhile, the league has much riding on keeping the sport alive in large U.S. centres, even if they aren't winter cities, he says.

The next step is to seek ways to build on the hockey and Canadian connections. The idea of a Tim Hortons franchise has been tossed around, though that has yet to be pursued.

Mr. Saxberg had a bit of experience in the business of sport, buying advertising space for Crescent Point at CFL stadiums in Winnipeg, Calgary, and the home of his favourite Canadian football team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The company's and Mr. Saxberg's connection with that province runs deep. It is where he began his career in the oil business and Crescent Point is now one of the largest private-sector investors there.

For hockey in the southwestern desert, it's still early under the new ownership, but the club – to be renamed the Arizona Coyotes next season – is creating some excitement. Attendance at a few games this season has hit franchise highs. Meanwhile, the team has had the highest growth in ticket sales in the NHL, he says, though it started from the lowest point.

"I think the sport's been very well received. We've locked up a lot of the long-term contracts – TV, food and beverage – we're looking now for the naming rights for the arena. So we're shoring up a lot of the financial aspects of the franchise," Mr. Saxberg says. "It's a lot lower risk of endeavour now than it was six months ago."

Of course, in sports, winning wins fans, and the Coyotes are in fourth place in the Pacific Division so far this season, with 27 wins, as of press time.

Mr. Saxberg's engineering background, and experience with heating, ventilation and air conditioning, has already come in handy. The 17,000-seat Arena in Glendale has always been frigid, especially for fans coming in out of the Arizona heat. That's not good for beverage sales, at least cold beverages.

During a game, he walked down to the chiller room, the crucial mechanical guts of any arena, to talk to the operators in hopes of coming up with ways to warm up the building for the fans while keeping the ice hard for the players. He made a few technical suggestions that stuck.

"We changed their mindset and thought process around it and we added about 10 degrees to the temperature of the arena. Now it's comfortable and warm in there. It's like Calgary or any other arena. As an owner, that's a skill set I brought to the table," he says.

"Now people notice it and over time, that'll change the mindset of fans going to the arena. Before, they sold blankets and tuques because it was so cold in there. Now you can play golf, then go there in your shorts and watch a game."


His life

Born: Brandon, Man.

Education: University of Manitoba (B.Sc mechanical engineering).

Married: Rachel Saxberg

Children: Graeme, 15; Kellen 12.

Crescent Point sponsorships: STARS Air Ambulance, Inn from the Cold, amateur athletics (luge).

Hobbies: Hockey, snowshoeing.


On the rapid increase of shipping oil by rail: "If Keystone XL was approved, we'd probably almost have it built. Rail would probably be a non-event … a pipeline is the most economic, effective, safest, environmentally friendly way of shipping products by far. And yet we went down this path of shutting something down that in a normal world nobody would even talk about."

On the odds of Canada's shale oil output to mirroring the growth in the U.S.: "The plays aren't large enough on a relative scale to the U.S. plays. It's just the nature of the size. Oil sands, obviously, is where our growth is for volumes in Canada."

On oil men running a hockey team: "It's similar to our business, oil and gas. If oil prices drop or you're not successful in what you're doing, it's a drop down and it's really hard to dig yourself out of it. [In hockey] it's hard to get players. That takes a lot of time. But the beauty of the NHL is that if you fall to the bottom, you get the opportunity of draft picks so you can climb your way back out of it. But it's a long process."

On a Manitoba native's support for the Saskatchewan Roughriders: "I was born and raised in Manitoba, but I grew up in Saskatchewan – that was where my first job was. As a kid, I don't think I went to a single football game. And then when I graduated out of university I moved to Regina and that's what you do. You get into the fever of it. Everybody loves it. It's like the Green Bay Packers. It's a religion there."

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