Growing up in Calgary, George Gosbee had a dream.
“Every boy wants to play in the NHL,” he said. “Once you realize that’s not possible, you change your focus and you start to think about owning a team.”
Not every boy goes right from thinking about being on the ice to overseeing all aspects of a hockey team as an owner, but Gosbee spent decades honing his business acumen and last week finalized the purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes with his IceArizona group. Not far into his ownership odyssey, he called it a “total dream come true.”
“Everything’s on track for what we wanted to do and we’re making some progress,” Gosbee said in a phone interview this week. “So far there’s been no surprises.”
Maybe there were a few surprises. Gosbee arrived at his Glendale office Wednesday to find flowers sent from a fan on his desk. When he was leaving an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game, a police officer stopped him just to say thank you.
“It’s the first time I’ve been stopped that way from a police officer,” Gosbee said. “I was really surprised by the outpouring and the thank yous coming in in this community. … Everybody’s just been positive and appreciative of what we’ve done.”
To get the deal done, Gosbee and his partners, who include fellow Canadian businessmen Anthony LeBlanc and Avik Dey, had to go through the long process of getting NHL approval, securing financing and finishing up a lease deal for Jobing.com arena.
So when the Coyotes asked Gosbee to start using Twitter, he was overwhelmed by the flood of positive responses.
“That’s been pleasant because we’ve been really trying to grind out this deal for the last little while and we’ve been so focused in on the deal that we lost sense of why we were doing it,” he said.
In the long-term, Gosbee knew exactly why he was doing this. Through years of successful business ventures, the banker and financier became more and more fascinated with the prospect of owning a professional sports team.
Gosbee, 43, calls himself a “live-sports junkie,” but at the core he’s a businessman.
“When this opportunity came up,” said Gosbee, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Alberta-based AltaCorp Capital Inc. “I just had to keep putting that out of my head and keep focusing on the financial aspects of it.”
That wasn’t just the focus in buying the team. It remains Gosbee and LeBlanc’s goal moving forward, as they plan to let general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett work the on-ice product largely unimpeded.
“I’m not looking to run a team,” Gosbee said. “I think, especially in business, it’s all about people. We had a lot of confidence in what Don Maloney and Dave Tippett have done with this team, given all the adversity and obstacles and a limited budget. …
“We believe in those two guys and want to provide them with all the financial resources we can and let them do their job.”
But from an ownership standpoint, Gosbee is drawing from his youth in Calgary and not just his feelings and memories of when the Flames moved from Atlanta.
“When the Flames came to Calgary, I was the happiest kid on the planet,” he said. “I remember how that group came to be, and it was a group of strong, successful, level-headed businessmen, very strong in the community and successful but not flamboyant. And they were all friends as well. So I took that model and put together a group of friends that were successful and similar to the Flames ownership.”
Gosbee and Co. can only hope to have the same success. But he concedes that Arizona in 2013 is a much different situation than Calgary in 1980.
“Back then you were really on your own when you owned a team,” Gosbee said. “Now, we really bought one 30th of the NHL and we’re managing a team in Phoenix, so it’s a different concept now with regards to how the league works. I’m kind of bullish on the structure, how it works, and that was another reason why I wanted to get into it.”
Mark Chipman and True North bought into that NHL ownership structure two years ago when the Thrashers moved and became the Winnipeg Jets. And while new ownership gives the Coyotes something of a fresh start, this is a unique situation because it’s the same team that has played in Glendale with varying degrees of success and fan interest.
It’s a situation Gosbee sees the best in. He called the Coyotes’ mix of players one of the best in the league, citing the leadership of Shane Doan, and hopes to cultivate an even bigger fan base now that at least the short-term future is secure.
“The fan base down here has to be one of the most loyal fan bases I’ve seen, to continue to buy season tickets, to continue to make the drive out here (to the arena in Glendale),” he said. “It’s asking those fans to come back that weren’t really wanting to support a team that was thinking about leaving. And there’s a lot of those fans around. …
“There’s number of things that are going to happen that I think those fans are going to come back. Also I think we’re going to be able to generate new fans based off the stability of ownership.”
Gosbee is confident hockey in Arizona will work out long-term as well, based on the size of the Phoenix metropolitan area and the large number of Canadians who live there. At the moment, Gosbee is homeless. He lost his Calgary house in the floods earlier this year, but bought another one there to fulfil a promise to his wife. He’s looking for a place in Arizona.
He and the IceArizona ownership group have already made sure the Coyotes have a home there, for at least the next five years. Leaving hockey to Maloney and his staff, Gosbee and the collective “brain trust” of IceArizona are convinced they can do enough on the business side to ensure an NHL presence in the desert for a long time.
“There’s one unique thing about this deal: It’s not all dependent upon one thing working,” Gosbee said. “There’s five or six or even seven type of avenues that we’re all pursuing on increasing revenue. Some of those won’t work and some of them will, and we’re not dependent on any one particular avenue to go with.”