A T.O. legend

VIVIAN SONG -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Under the shadow of Alexander the Great, another Macedonian will be remembered for transplanting himself in a foreign country and establishing a mini-empire.

Steve Stavro, former chairman of the Maple Leafs and founder of the discount food giant Knob Hill Farms, died of a heart attack Sunday in his Toronto home. He was 78.

Stavro planned his own memorial in recent years, building a 7-metre statue of Alexander -- king of Macedonia and conqueror of the Persian empire -- at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

The bronze will mark his final resting place.

Born Manoli Stavroff Sholdas on Sept. 27, 1927, in Gabresh, Macedonia, Stavro came to Canada when he was 7 and worked in his father's grocery store.

Later he opened his own store at Queen St. E. and Coxwell Ave. and parlayed the corner fruit stand and his business savvy into the country's largest independently owned retail grocery business, Knob Hill Farms.

Stavro would rise at 4 a.m. to visit farms and hand-pick produce. By 6 a.m., he would tour two or three food terminals and was known for plucking a knife from a butcher's hand to show him the proper way to present certain meat cuts.

SHY LEADER

In 1981, then Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard made Stavro director of the NHL team.

When he took over the Leafs in 1991 after an 18-month war of litigation, attrition and boardroom negotiating, Stavro brought his hands-on approach with him. He also retreated from the public, carving out a reputation as an elusive and enigmatic man.

"He was shy, yet inside the boardroom he was never shy. He was a leader," said Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. corporate secretary Paul Perantinos. "When he spoke, people listened. He was hardworking, charming and charismatic. He was a good person to work for."

Perantinos, hand-picked by Stavro, worked under him for 12 years and was well-acquainted with his "unique style" of governing.

Instead of examining a candidate's resume, Stavro was known to hire based on a person's character.

He once scribbled a $34-million real estate transaction on the back of a napkin in a doughnut shop. When he got back to his office, Stavro handed the napkin to his in-house counsel, who translated it into draft agreements.

For Stavro, a handshake was as good as signing on the dotted line, Perantinos said.

You always knew where you stood with Stavro, Perantinos said, and when it came to the Leafs, there was no question.

"He and (wife) Sally sat two rows behind the bench and they were the loudest fans," he said.

WINNING WAYS

During Stavro's tenure, the franchise had eight winning seasons and four trips to the Stanley Cup semi-finals.

"Mr. Stavro will be missed dearly by all who knew him," a statement from Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. said. "Those in our organization feel blessed to have been among those so privileged."

The Raptors NBA basketball team and the Air Canada Centre would soon be added to the MLSEL portfolio. But in 2003, Stavro sold his share to Bell Globemedia when other interests squeezed him out.

As a teen, Stavro parked cars at Woodbine race track.

Years later, he would own one of the country's most successful racing operations, earning nearly $2 million from Knob Hill Stable in 1992.

Stavro was also honoured with Sovereign Awards in the same year, as outstanding owner and breeder.

Stavro has been recognized for his philanthropy and he received both the Order of Canada and the City of Toronto Award of Merit in 1992.

Stavro is survived by his wife, four daughters and nine grandchildren.


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