Meet the big cheese

New commissioner Mark Cohon says one reason he was hired was to make the CFL more appealing to the...

New commissioner Mark Cohon says one reason he was hired was to make the CFL more appealing to the younger generation. (Sun Media/Michael Peake)

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

There has been no shortage of adventure in the 41 years of Mark Cohon's life.

As a young man not yet out in the business world, he led a Canadian expedition to the Arctic that got him some face time on MuchMusic and CBC Newsworld.

There surely weren't too many dull moments growing up as the son of a Canadian business legend, George Cohon, the ultimate big McCheese as the founder of McDonald's Canada.

In a previous sporting life as an NBA executive, Cohon travelled to Africa with superstars Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwan, journeys that opened his eyes to the social importance of sports heroes.

Perhaps those experiences, and perhaps none, have prepared the American-born but Toronto-raised executive for his next and potentially wildest ride.

That journey began yesterday when Cohon settled into his Wellington Street office for his first official day as the Canadian Football League's 12th full-time commissioner.

As he gets his feet immersed in what in the past have been the choppy waters that swirl within said office, Cohon will have no shortage of sounding boards.

His former boss, NBA commissioner David Stern, is an e-mail away and has offered his ear, cyber and otherwise.

His father, well connected in Canadian business circles, encouraged his son to take the job and has offered, in Mark's words "help open doors."

There are contacts in Major League Baseball, where he also worked, as well as those in the media and corporate Canada.

"I'm not afraid to pick up the phone and call people," Cohon says. "I have people I can reach out to."

And for some unsolicited advice as his reign kicks off, one man who was unable to negotiate the rough seas offers this:

"You can't do this job just looking to keep the job," says Michael Lysko, who held the commissioner's post from 2000-2002. "You have to do what you feel is in the best interest of the league. Being a nice guy isn't enough. Tom Wright (whose contract wasn't renewed last year) proved that even the nicest guy can't schmooze his way on this one.

"I wish (Cohon) well."

Of course, ruling with an iron fist is easier said than done, especially in a league with a board of governors that hasn't been shy about casting commissioners to the curb at the first sign of insubordination.

But unlike his two immediate predecessors, Cohon's tenure begins with not even a hint of a storm in the forecast.

"The honeymoon period is alive and well," Cohon said in a recent interview at the CFL's downtown headquarters. "There are really no fires. There is a salary management system in place. The TV deal is done. All these sorts of things make it a good time for the league. We are in a good place right now. Hopefully that will allow us to get to work at making the future strong."

Others should have been so lucky.

When Lysko's tenure began, the CFL was a financial mess with several franchises in peril. In getting the fiscal house in order, Lysko was efficient enough but too abrasive for some governors and was unceremoniously turfed.

Wright, everyone's Mr. Nice Guy, apparently wasn't a strong enough leader and met the same fate this past fall.

So in comes Cohon, who has youth on his side and an agenda not to fix the business but to grow it to a new level.

"I think there is a general sense that they (the CFL board of governors) brought me in because they want to appeal to a younger generation," he said. "That and they want to engage corporate Canada even more."

While he was hired for what is on the inside, Cohon also was seen as an executive with flair that will play well in the boardrooms and the grandstands of the country.

He is a marketing whiz who wants to make sure every generation of CFL fan is served and the more youthful the better.

"He oozes presence," said Argos president Keith Pelley, who led the recruiting charge. "He dresses impeccably, he wins over a room when he walks in. He's the perfect candidate to be the face of the league."

To that end, Cohon says he intends to be a commissioner for the common fan. He has joked to his wife to have a down-filled coat ready for cold winter games where he intends to mingle with the ticket-paying public.

Taken further, he talks of appealing to the "YouTube generation," a label that no doubt needed some explanation to some of the CFL's old guard.

Ultimately though, it will be how much authority Cohon has and what he does with it that determines his success.

This season, the CFL will implement its new salary management system, capping each club's payroll at $4.05 million. Even before he studied the details, Cohon declared the cap's enforcement as a red-flagged priority.

Lysko says he had the same approach, even though "every day I talked about enforcing the salary cap was one less day on the job for me."

"If you're not willing to enforce the salary cap, then you're not the commissioner," said Lysko, now the director of sports and recreation at the University of Western Ontario. "The competitive integrity of the league depends on it.

"If (Cohon) does nothing else, he has to protect the owners from themselves. Left to their own devices, these guys will always spend it. If you are more interested in winning than not complying with the salary cap, you have real problems."

Though born in the U.S., where he also has spent much of his professional life, Cohon's Canadian credentials need not be questioned. (Laughably though, they were relentless at his introductory news conference.)

Essentially raised in Toronto, Cohon played high school football at Upper Canada College and as a kid attended Argos games at Exhibition Stadium with his father. Cohon returned to Canada five years ago and lives in Rosedale with his wife and young daughter.

That background gives him an understanding of the culture of the game and its importance to Canadians. But also is clear that it was his time in the U.S. working for MLB and the NBA that may have best prepared him for his new job.

"I don't want to put expectations on being the next David Stern, I just want to be myself and build my own identity," Cohon said of the NBA commissioner. "But I learned a lot from David. He is probably the smartest person I know."

It will take more than smarts to lead a league that so often cruises too close to crisis. But will starting in a time of calm help Cohon avoid the storm?

We're about to find out.

"From a business standpoint, I'll be the chief salesmen of the league and then from the football side, I'll be the steward and guardian," Cohon said. "I see it as a new role for the league that I'm being entrusted with.

"I look at it as a great opportunity to build on what's in place."


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