As a self-confessed “entrepreneurial spirit,” Howie Campbell had already successfully set up and sold a number of businesses when he decided he wanted to go back to his first love: hockey.
So when Home Depot Inc. bought up Sesco Inc., a Toronto-based business co-owned by Mr. Campbell, 11 years ago, he saw his opportunity to go in a different direction after 22 years in the lighting and electrical supply business.
After scouring hockey’s Junior A and B levels, along with the United States Hockey League and the ECHL for potential fits, he found what he was looking for in the Ontario Hockey League, one of the top suppliers for National Hockey League teams.
But with just 20 OHL franchises in total, 17 in Ontario and three more south of the border, getting in was easier said than done, especially for a family man who didn’t want to stray too far from Toronto.
“I drew a circle around Toronto and it left really three or four franchises that were available and that was it, and none of them that I thought were for sale,” the 52-year-old says, noting that both the Oshawa Generals and the Mississauga franchise were unavailable at the time.
So he turned his attention to the Barrie Colts. Though the team had just been bought by three partners, Mr. Campbell knew one of them and put in a call, saying that if they were ever interested in another partner he’d be happy to buy in.
“Much to my surprise, about two weeks later I got a call to say that two of the partners weren’t happy and there was some animosity between the three of them and they wanted to sell, at that time, 70 per cent of the stock of the Colts,” he says.
Mr. Campbell’s majority ownership has now reached 75 per cent, and he is having the time of his life, watching his team flourish and giving back to the community. He has instituted projects such as the Adopt-a-School program, currently in its fifth season, whereby the Colts invite a different school to each game via discounted tickets, and donate $6 to that school for each ticket sold.
But then it’s the Colts that give him the platform to do such projects.
“Fifty or 60 years ago … the farmer’s market was the place where the community got together,” he says. “Well, now, in these small towns, it’s the OHL franchise that brings the community together.”
At roughly $15 a ticket for season-ticket holders, for 40 games a season, OHL hockey represents incredible value, Mr. Campbell says, reasoning that three hours of live entertainment compares favourably when stacked up against competitors such as the movie theatre, where customers pay $12 for an hour and a half of “watching a film on a wall.”
But it’s the interaction with the youngsters that gets him really excited, and that doesn’t just apply to his mostly-teenaged hockey players. Returning to his entrepreneurial roots, Mr. Campbell has taken on a few projects, such as helping the co-owner of Barrie Trim & Moulding buy out his retiring father and branch out on his own.
He also bought into the X-Copper traffic ticket defence franchise, obtaining the rights for Alberta and partnering with his friend’s son, who didn’t want to go into corporate law, to set up shop in Calgary.
“I’ve been finding that there are a lot of young guys out there that … have the entrepreneurial spirit but at the same time don’t have the money or know-how,” he says. “… I’ve found great success with helping some of them out.”
His greatest successes have been on the ice, though, helping develop talents such as reigning NHL rookie of the year, Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers, and Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little and Alexander Burmistrov of the “Winnipeg Colts,” as Mr. Campbell calls the NHL’s Jets franchise.
Though he is happy and proud to watch his alumni ply their world-class talents on TV, he’s equally proud of the work the team puts in to ensure that the players are prepared for the next level, especially for those whose futures don’t lie in the NHL.
“For a lot of the young kids this is where [the hockey dream] ends for them, too,” Mr. Campbell says. “So a lot of those kids we’re sending out right into the working world and a lot of our guys, they leave here and they know how to speak publicly, they know how to shake hands, they’ve dealt with business people.”
One of the driving forces behind the Colts’ success since Mr. Campbell bought into the team – they’ve missed the playoffs just once in that time – is head coach Dale Hawerchuk, a former NHLer who had 518 goals and 1,409 points in a 16-year career.
Mr. Campbell says it’s “neat” going to work every day with a Hockey Hall of Famer, but believes Mr. Hawerchuk is the man to get Barrie its first Memorial Cup, awarded annually to the best team in the Canadian Hockey League, in more than 60 years.
The owner has already had an up-close look at a championship trophy. After former Colt Kyle Clifford won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, he invited Mr. Campbell and some of the other guys from the Colts front office to his wedding in Ontario’s Muskoka region that summer.
“That’s when it really hits home,” Mr. Campbell says. “It’s like holy mackerel, you’re walking in and the Stanley Cup’s on the table and there’s one of the kids that used to play for you hoisting it above his head. And he just saw his dream come true.”
The Colts owner dreams of getting his own championship trophy one day, and with Barrie set to begin the Eastern Conference OHL final Thursday against the Niagara Ice Dogs, maybe this will be his year.
“I really bought this team because I want to win the Memorial Cup,” he says. “I really want to put that on my tombstone saying, what did he accomplish? Well, he got to do what a lot of people never got to do and he won a national prize, a national championship, and that’s what I like about it.”Report Typo/Error