Canada’s new Olympic boss

Marcel Aubut, the Quebec heavyweight who lost the Nordiques, is aiming for gold
Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Marcel Aubut doesn’t hide his light under a bushel. Sitting in his private boardroom at the Montreal offices of Heenan Blaikie, surrounded by sports memorabilia—a framed old-school Quebec Nordiques sweater, toy F1 cars, jerseys autographed by soccer’s Zinedine Zidane and the late Montreal Expos—the 64-year-old muses about a career that has taken him from hockey owner to heavyweight corporate lawyer to current president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “I have accomplished so much in the NHL. I was the father of so many big projects. Like the Stastny brothers. Rendez-Vous 87. The video replay. Overtime.” It was only natural his talents would be in demand elsewhere. So when a friend encouraged him to stand for election to the COC board in 2005, he made time in his busy schedule. “He told me, ‘Marcel, the movement needs you. We need that kind of character for the Olympic movement.’ ”

In 2009, the story continues: the big man—with the equally large personality—gave more of himself, mounting a successful campaign to take the reins of the organization. “I got elected with an absolutely ambitious platform about changing things,” says Aubut. “Capitalizing on what has been accomplished, but bringing it to the next level. Making the COC more visible, more credible, and exercising a higher level of leadership in the sports system in this country.” And 20 months into the volunteer job that is now taking up most of his time, he is ready to declare himself a success. “The COC has become a 24-7 operation,” boasts Aubut. “Plus all the biggest corporations in this country are lining up with us as partners.” A “record level” of sponsorship for Games outside of Canada, even if he won’t disclose the figure. “I’m telling you, it’s three or four times more than what was there before.” On his suit lapel, a cluster of pins—signifying his membership in the Order of Canada, Ordre national du Québec, and the International Olympic Committee—sparkle under the pot lights.

These days, the COC press releases are as likely to trumpet Aubut’s milestones as athletes’ accomplishments. (The organization’s new director of communications is Stephen Harper’s ex-spokesman.) It’s all so in-your-face as to almost qualify as post-ego. But heading into this summer’s London Games, there is undeniably something different about Canada’s Olympic movement. The buzz from Vancouver 2010’s Winter Olympic highs—26 medals, including 14 golds, on home soil—has been sustained. The public and media are paying more attention. Big businesses like RBC and Hudson’s Bay Co. have extended their funding commitments through Rio 2016. Politicians continue to cozy up to the Olympic flame. And we’ve all developed a rather un-Canadian appetite for further success.

It’s an attitudinal change that Aubut, a champion networker inside and outside Quebec, won’t hesitate to tell you flows from the top. “We won’t ask our athletes anything more than we ask ourselves,” he says. “We want them to be number one, to win medals? Then we have to impose that on ourselves, too. Everything we do has to have that excellence attached to it.” Owning the podium requires swagger on—and off—the stage.

There has been a significant turnover of staff at the COC and some ruffled feathers—most notably when the entire board of its fundraising arm, the Canadian Olympic Foundation, resigned en masse over an unspecified “difference of opinion.” (Aubut, who plans to relaunch the charity soon, says that board existed in name only. “Those people never met.” ) But the reviews are mostly positive. “He’s got a great big vision and he’s willing to do whatever it takes,” says Pierre Lafontaine, Swimming Canada’s CEO and national coach. “He’s not afraid to knock on doors. He’s comfortable talking to anybody: athletes, corporate leaders, politicians.”

Aubut’s first major act as COC president was to organize a celebration for Canada’s victorious winter athletes in Montreal. People in sporting circles scoffed at the grandiose plans for the April 2010 event, dubbing it “Marcel’s coronation.” But the parade through city streets drew an estimated 150,000 cheering spectators. And an evening gala at the Bell Centre filled 117 costly tables, netting more than $2 million for Olympians.

The plans to celebrate Canadian accomplishments at London 2012 have already been drawn up. (The COC’s stated goal is to finish 12th overall, which translates to approximately 24 medals; a solid increase from the 18 captured in Beijing in 2008.) Aubut won’t say where the event will take place, but he’s clear on one thing: this time he’s going to raise $3 million.

His official bio is comprehensive enough to name almost all of the 30 corporate boards he has sat on over the years, and includes the nugget that Aubut was “the second French Canadian” to be on the cover of Reader’s Digest, but it omits mention of the events he is best known for. In 1995, when Quebec City lost its beloved Nordiques, Aubut was the team president and the face of the franchise. Even his formidable sales skills weren’t enough to convince the city and province to build the Nords a swanky new arena in a deficit-obsessed era. (Ditto for his demands for a casino to fund the team’s operating losses.) When the club was sold to an American communications company for US $75 million and relocated to Denver, his share was $15 million. For a while, “Marcel Aubut: Wanted Dead or Alive” T-shirts sold like hotcakes, and he, his wife and three daughters were under police protection. There were other stories that the lawyer—so famed as a bon vivant that he was nicknamed the Grand Allée Kid after the city’s nightclub strip—was no longer welcome in many establishments. But it was never that bad, he says. “People were disappointed, but they treated me with lots of class.”

Nor was the Nords’ death knell the end of his association with sports. Aubut and the team’s four other owners contributed $2 million each to a foundation for amateur athletes that has distributed more than $5 million over the ensuing years to hundreds of competitors, including Olympic medal-winning kayaker Caroline Brunet. He maintained close ties to the NHL as well. He’s the outside legal counsel for the Montreal Canadiens, and the sports law department he oversees at Heenan Blaikie does salary arbitration work for 15 of the league’s 30 teams.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Aubut is also at the centre of efforts to return a team to La Vieille Capitale. He was the one who brought Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume to New York to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in October 2009. And he has brokered discussions between the league and Quebecor’s Pierre Karl Péladeau, the presumptive owner of the resurrected Nordiques. Last fall, Aubut gave a TV interview predicting that the city will have a team back as soon as 2013. Today, he’s more circumspect. “I have to respect the process here. The worse thing you can do, knowing the commissioner of the NHL, is to speculate in public about it. That could give you a negative rating for real.”

But where his pro-hockey and Olympic interests happily intersect are in the efforts to finally build Quebec City a new arena. The vision is that the $400-million, 18,000-seat facility would also serve as the centrepiece of a Winter Games bid. But funding for the project—a pastiche of provincial, city, Quebecor and fan money—remains sketchy. And the “target” Olympics is now 2026, which won’t be awarded until 2019.

Aubut, who splits his time between Quebec, Montreal and Toronto, remains an enthusiastic proponent. Quebec, like Winnipeg, is a different city these days, with a more vibrant economy. And it has the capacity to host not just NHL hockey, but the world.

Would there be an element of personal redemption? “You appreciate what you don’t have,” he says.“I really want a team back.”

He’s not alone. If Canada wins a boatload of medals in London, the country will cheer. But if the Nordiques come back, a hockey-crazed nation will celebrate. It’s the kind of accomplishment that would fit nicely atop an official bio. Even one as crammed as Marcel Aubut’s.