Local legend is gone

Former Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro, in this 1997 photo, shows off an artist's concept of what a...

Former Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro, in this 1997 photo, shows off an artist's concept of what a proposed new arena was to look like, an arena that later became the Air Canada Centre. Stavro died yesterday at age 78. (Toronto Sun File Photo)

DEAN McNULTY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:46 AM ET

When Steve Stavro arrived in Toronto with his immigrant parents from pre-war Macedonia in 1936, few would have dared predict the impact the then nine-year-old would have on his adopted homeland.

But when he died of an apparent heart attack in his Toronto home Sunday night at age 78, Stavro had left a legacy of accomplishments in sports, business and philanthropy few in Canada could equal.

His rebuilding of the Maple Leafs from the depths of disrepair left by the Harold Ballard era into one of the National Hockey League powers is looked upon in sporting circles as a milestone in modern professional franchise management.

Yet Stavro would beg to differ.

He would tell friends that he considered his Toronto City professional soccer club of 1961, with Toronto Sun Corporate Sports Editor George Gross as the managing director, to be the highlight of his sporting life.

"Many, many times he would reflect back on that team as his greatest joy," Gross said yesterday of his 50-year-friendship with Stavro.

"That team included the captains of three of Europe's most virulent foes -- England's Johnny Hayes, Northern Ireland's Danny Branchflower and Scotland's Tommy Younger. It also included international heroes Sir Stanley Matthews and Jackie Mudie."

But it was his beloved Maple Leafs that brought Stavro so much unwanted media attention.

An intensely private man, Stavro dove into the high profile job of running Canada's best known sports organization with the same determination he had in building his personal fortune through his Knob Hill Farms grocery chain.

"(He) performed a high public service by restoring the Toronto Maple Leafs to much of their former distinction after the demeaning antics of Harold Ballard," author and uber capitalist Conrad Black wrote in his 1993 memoirs.

Stavro had taken over a Leafs empire in 1991 that was on the brink of bankruptcy with a huge overdue debt to the Toronto-Dominion Bank.

He also had to battle a coalition of eight charities named as beneficiaries in Ballard's will and Ballard's eldest son Bill, over control of the Leafs.

But Stavro prevailed in an ugly court fight that gave him control over all of the assets in Ballard's estate.

Within a decade, Forbes Magazine had listed the value of the Leafs -- now labeled Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. -- at $241 million US.

Stavro strove to make the Leafs an artistic as well as financial success, but despite an admirable record of missing the playoffs only twice in his 11-year tenure as owner, he was bitterly disappointed the team never made it to the Stanley Cup final during that time.

AIR CANADA CENTRE

It was also under his stewardship that MLSEL took over the building of the Air Canada Centre and bought controlling interest in the Raptors.

His achievements in the boardroom were not enough, however, to stop his cash-strapped Knob Hills Farms empire from folding in 2000.

The resulting debts from that transaction forced him to sell his MLSEL shares to Bell Globemedia and the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund in 2003, thus effectively ending his time as the Leafs chairman.

In a statement released yesterday, MLSEL remembered its former chairman.

"Mr. Stavro served with great passion and dedication as chairman of the board for our organization from its founding in 1998 until stepping down in 2003. His legacy in the field of sports, especially soccer, hockey, horse racing and basketball, has been unparalleled in Toronto during the past 40 years," it said.

When Stavro wasn't toiling at the helm of MLSEL, he was accumulating a prized collection of thoroughbred race horses.

He built Knob Hill Stables into one of the top enterprises in the sport with such four-legged stars as Benburb, Canada's horse of the year in 1992 and champion three-year-old that season

Stavro's stallion beat highly favoured Alydeed to win that year's Prince of Wales Stakes.

"It's a thrill when you breed one on your own; you have the mother and you choose the stallion, it becomes one of the family," Stavro said at the time.

Stavro's horse trainer, Phil England, said it always was a delight to be around the stable owner who never put on airs normally associated with the Sport of Kings.

"The horses are like family to him," England said. "When a horse he breeds goes on to do something, it means a lot to him.

"Mr. Stavro is not one of those owners who would go and spend a million dollars on a horse just to get a winner. He would much rather breed them on his own."

Stavro is survived by his wife Sally and four daughters.


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