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Scott McCain watches his Sea Dogs on the ice. (Aaron McKenzie Fraser)
Scott McCain watches his Sea Dogs on the ice. (Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

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Scion finds a challenge on ice Add to ...

Scott McCain adjusts his Bulgari to his favourite time zone: Sea Dogs Standard. He's on his way eastward to Saint John, the home of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) franchise he owns and cheers on rinkside every chance he gets. The ostentatious watch is one of the few signs that McCain is the scion of a legendary Canadian business family. Well, that and the private jet. But this is a hockey trip, so the chief of Maple Leaf Foods' agribusiness group, jacket off and Levis slung low, is quick to hand beers around the eight-seat cabin.

This will be McCain's fifth home opener with the Sea Dogs, and his record isn't great. “One and three,” he moans. “One and three.” The team has certainly tested his devotion and business mettle. A lifelong hockey nut, he and a group of minority partners bought the franchise as an expansion team in 2004. For several years, he saw little but losses, both on the ice and on the spreadsheets. The whole escapade started to seem like the punchline for a mid-life-crisis joke: Rich bored guy buys new toy and can't make it work. “My dad couldn't understand it,” he says, referring to billionaire entrepreneurial legend Wallace McCain. “He'd say, ‘What did you go and do that for?'”

This season, however, the Sea Dogs have emerged as the most compelling story in the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization for the three junior leagues and 60 franchises that are the primary source of talent for the National Hockey League. By Christmas, the team had fashioned a 22-game winning streak, the third-best in QMJHL history, and was trailing only the defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires in the rankings.

Still, the economic rationale for owning a junior-league hockey team continues to elude McCain. The team came perilously close to bankruptcy early on, and as wealthy and hockey-mad as McCain is, he's not interested in losing money forever. “I didn't get into the goddamn thing with a view to writing a cheque for a couple of hundred thousand every year,” he says. Even now, with the Sea Dogs playing like championship contenders, the franchise is lucky to fill half of its 6,300-seat arena. As McCain's operations team struggles to raise attendance and eke out a profit, the corporate titan who has spent his entire career working behind the scenes of the family-owned food conglomerate is getting a schooling in just how hard it can be to run a small business.

The Sea Dogs on ice.

Despite the on- and off-ice headaches, McCain acknowledges that the Sea Dogs were a welcome respite from the food-contamination crisis that unfolded at Maple Leaf Foods a little over a year ago. An investigation by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed the presence of listeria monocytogenes bacteria in sliced-meat products that had been processed at a Maple Leaf plant in suburban Toronto. The tainted meats were eventually linked to 22 deaths. The company's share price plunged nearly 30 per cent. While his younger brother, Michael, was front and centre with the media, Scott, the family's operations expert, was charged with implementing new food safety protocols at the McCain plants. “If I had a long day and wanted to go home and drink a bottle of Scotch, I'd instead have a glass of wine and call one of the guys and talk hockey,” he says.

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that McCain thinks of the hockey franchise as a plaything. Even though he's an heir to a $2-billion fortune, he balked when the QMJHL upped the expansion fee from $2-million to $3-million virtually overnight, after business groups in Saint John and St. John's both clamoured to bring new teams into the league for the 2005-'06 season. The St. John's organization was willing to pay the new price, so McCain had little choice but to follow its lead. He jumped in, after joining forces with a competing group of bidders headed by Wayne Long, whom he'd met and hit it off with some years earlier. Long saw the merit of having a McCain as a partner; McCain liked the idea of having a co-owner on the ground in Saint John. McCain ended up with a 75 per cent share in the franchise, while Long and a few other local entrepreneurs put up the rest of the money.

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