So what’s the ultimate sports job for the ultimate sports fan?
To Pat LaForge, a man who has yet to meet a game he didn’t like, it’s operating your own pro sports team.
As the Edmonton Oilers’ second-year president and chief executive, LaForge has no trouble relating to the fans that are the lifeblood of a National Hockey League team. He’s one of them, and, from his seat, he’s having a blast.
“I’d like to do this job for 10 to 20 years,” says the 48-year-old farmboy from Lac La Biche, Alta., who has spent most of his business career marketing beer for Molson Breweries.
|Al Popil, for Business Edge|
|Patrick LaForge is an aggressive brand builder and marketer.|
Interviewing the fanatical LaForge, brother of fanatical hockey coach Bill LaForge, is a lot like sitting next to super fan at the game and getting doused in beer when he leaps out of his seat to celebrate a goal.
1. What was your boyhood dream?
“I had lots of them. I was a dreamer. I dreamt about faraway places. It was the ’60s, eh? It was a time when people were thinking big thoughts, right? I thought that some day I’d be the president of a company.”
2. Who was your boyhood idol?
“It was Dave Keon (one-time Toronto Maple Leafs’ star). Every time I went to a rink, I had a blue Maple Leafs’ jersey and I was Dave Keon. I never saw him play because we didn’t get television until I was in Grade 4. I just listened to the games on the radio.”
3. What struck you about Keon?
“Well, he was a hard-working guy from northern Ontario. He went to St. Mike’s College. Foster (Hewitt, the radio play-by-play announcer) would talk about that. He was a captain and leader of the Maple Leafs. It was pretty cool meeting him. My giant was a hell of a lot shorter than I thought he would be, but he was a hell of a nice guy. I didn’t tell him he was my idol. That’s not my style. I’ve never asked for an autograph or been a collector of anything.”
4. Who has had the greatest influence on your life?
“My father (the late Delmore LaForge) taught me about values. He was a rancher, a farmer, a square-jawed guy who believed in values. His thing was that a man’s word is a handshake and a handshake is a contract. That was really important to my father in the way he lived. He didn’t believe you had to have a contract or a lawyer to do anything. I grew up with a farmer’s attitude – you work hard and respect your elders and others and good things happen to you. I’m still pretty much that way.”
5. What’s the difference between selling beer and selling hockey?
“The approach is still about the quality of your brand and the relationship you have with your customers. I think in the beer business (with Molson Breweries), we learned a lot about building a relationship with our customers that said it was more than just a beer. We all knew that essentially any beer is the same as every other beer. But it was important to Molson to have a better relationship with hockey fans and Canadian beer drinkers – young Canadian beer drinkers – and we did it. We made it work. We became the beer of hockey fans.”
6. But, in selling hockey, unlike the beer business, don’t you need a marquee player?
“I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think to the owners today and for the future it’s more about the team. We have had marquee players play for the Oilers, some of the best that ever played the game. The Oilers are still more important than any individual player. There’s a style of hockey called Oilers’ hockey. Several different people can play it. Stars will come and players will go, and I think it’s important for us to know that the Oilers, the team, is always more important than any one particular player. I think the marquee aspect of sports is an Americanism, but I think Canadians have identified with teams for years. The Leafs haven’t won a damned thing since 1967, yet they have a huge and deep following. A team is more than just hockey, ya know. The Oilers have to be involved in the community, we have to be respectful of our fans and we have to skate and hit hard to get it all done. We get a lot of credit here for being a good organization even when we don’t win.”
7. How would you describe your business philosophy?
“I’m an aggressive brand builder and marketer. And I think you have to focus on developing the brand and its perception with the community and the consumer. That’s where I spend most of my time. We’re all locked on doing everything we can to have a sold-out building for every game. We’re already in the top seven in the league in season tickets (about 14,500).”
8. What’s the best story you can tell about your off-season promotional tour of smaller Alberta centres?
“One day we were in Lloydminster at a fund-raising charity golf tournament with 12 Oilers, including (general manager) Kevin Lowe. I got up and spoke and said: ‘Hockey players make a lot of money but they don’t sign their own cheques and there isn’t one of these players you wouldn’t be proud to call your son or your best friend. And we think that’s true of all the Oiler players. We don’t measure our friends by how much they make.’ Within an hour, we sold $120,000 worth of tickets and we never asked anyone to buy a ticket. You go to the community and say: ‘Ladies and gentleman, you’ve got to support us,’ and they do.”
9. What’s your most daunting challenge in ensuring the long-time survival of the Oilers in Edmonton?
“The biggest challenge is the challenge the league has with the collective bargaining agreement with the players (the current agreement expires in 2004). The model for the sport has to be rewritten so there’s a certainty with the costs associated with the labour. We in Canada have to pay $1.50 (on the currency exchange) for every $1 that they pay in the U.S. We’re willing to do that, but we want the field levelled. So we need way better ceiling on the costs of our labour so we can compete and win.”
10. Was the Oilers’ trading of their best player, Doug Weight, to St. Louis a classic example of the Canadian disadvantage?
“When Philadelphia signed free agent Jeremy Roenick to a $7.5-million US (annual contract), that very minute Doug Weight became worth more than $7.5 million US on the open market. So we need a contract that protects the Oilers from goofy owners. We have to protect ourselves from ourselves.”
11. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since joining the Oilers last year?
“No matter what we do, whether it’s buying stationery or the way we put stamps on our envelopes, we have fans out there who care about that. And they expect us to do it a certain way. We have to be careful about everything we do. When we put out a press release on our website expressing our condolences for the (victims of terrorism) in the U.S., I saw 50 e-mails within half an hour from people who appreciated that.”
12. What were your first thoughts when you heard about the U.S. tragedy?
“I thought I was in a movie theatre. It was like: ‘Pinch me, wake me up.’ I couldn’t believe humanity would get there. . . . This incident showed us the opposite of civilization. And it hit very close to home for us. Of course, Ace Bailey (Los Angeles Kings’ scout) was in the second plane (that crashed into the World Trade Center). He was Wayne Gretzky’s left winger here with the Oilers in the World Hockey Association. He worked here for 13 years after he retired as a coach and scout.”
13. How do you feel about criticism over your recent decision to publish the names in a buyers guide of corporations that support the Oilers as sponsors or season-ticket holders?
“The way it was written up in the Edmonton Journal was absolutely insulting. It was just (columnist) Dan Barnes trying to make a story out of something. He accused us of threatening – buy season tickets or face the wrath of Oiler fans. It was the opposite. If you don’t promote the people that support you, then they go and spend their money on something else. You can’t leave the running of your business to a sports writer.”
14. What kind of fan are you?
“I’m a huge fan. Ever since I got a television, I’ve probably watched 300 hockey games a year, even before I had this job. I’m a guy that goes to (University of Alberta) Golden Bear football games. I like to watch hammer throw and rugby and soccer . . . just to watch athletics. I don’t need a side to cheer for, I just like to watch sport. I think hockey is the best spectator sport played – more emotion, more grip, faster and takes more skill.”
15. Were you a Flames fan during your seven years in Calgary?
“During the 1980s, I got to know Pepper (Jim Peplinski) and Lanny (McDonald) and Paul Reinhart and Doug Gilmour and the whole gang that won the (1989) Stanley Cup. Those guys were the same kind of rogues that the Oilers had. So you could not live there and not be a Flames fan. But living there in the 1990s, I was more of an Edmonton fan because the Oilers were still playing great hockey and the Flames weren’t.”
16. Who’s your favourite athlete of those you’ve known personally?
“Tough question. I always was impressed by Nancy Greene (Olympic gold medallist skier) and Doug Gilmour was incredible. But I’d have to say Wayne Gretzky. When you meet him, when you’re around him, when you watch him do what he can do on the ice or off the ice, it’s incredible. I don’t think there’s anything that can compare with him in any sport anywhere anytime. I just think Gretzky’s the greatest of all athletes.”
17. What’s your opinion of the Flames’ recent hiring of Ken King as CEO?
“I think it’s good. I know Ken and I know he’s a very good business guy. I know that he’s a very proud Calgarian. And I think he’s very highly skilled. I think he’s very good at what he does and good for the Flames. And I’m not knocking Ron Bremner (King’s predecessor). Ron was a very smart guy, too. I think Ken’s got a particular charisma about him that Calgarians will generally warm up to.”
18. What kind of minor hockey parent are you?
“I’m good. I don’t scream or lean over the boards. I don’t think you can scream your kid into being better. I’m sort of disgusted by parents who think that way. I always wanted to do on the ice what my son (Riley, 12) can do. He’s got all the moves.”
19. God taps you on the shoulder and says you can change one thing in your life?
“The one thing I’d change is to get a new hockey rink for the Oilers. It would be an 18,000-seater with 100 sky boxes and 8,000 seats in the lower bowl. It’d be right in downtown Edmonton at the corner of 101st Street and 107th Avenue.”
20. Have you thought about what would happen if the Oilers won another Stanley Cup?
“Knowing the way this city was when we played Dallas in the playoffs last year, by this time of year they still wouldn’t have the street lights back up. . . . “I guess if we win a Stanley Cup, I’ll probably run for premier.”
IN PROFILE: Patrick LaForge
* Born/raised/age: Lac La Biche, Alberta; Lac La Biche, Edmonton; 48.
* Title: President/CEO, Edmonton Oilers (since July 2000).
* Education: Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (business administration), also studied at University of Western Ontario Business School (London) and University of Michigan.
* Family: Wife Fran; daughter Meredith, 20; sons Connor, 14, and Riley, 12.
* Career: LaForge began his business career with Molson Breweries in 1979 and spent 18 years with the company, including positions as vice-president of sales for Ontario and vice-president of international marketing. He has also been a president of Alpine Canada and national director of marketing communications with Canadian Pacific Railway in Calgary.
* Idol: Dave Keon.
* Passions: Being a sports fan, golf, hiking, swimming.
THE COMPANY: Edmonton Oilers
* Brass: Patrick LaForge, president/CEO; Kevin Lowe, executive vice-president, general manager; Darryl Boessenkool, vice-president finance, CFO; Allan Watt, vice-president, marketing and communications.
* Ownership: The Oilers are owned by the Edmonton Investor Group, 38 co-owners who purchased the team from financially troubled owner Peter Pocklington in 1998. Cal Nichols is the group’s chairman.
* History: The franchise began as the Alberta Oilers in the World Hockey Association (now defunct) in 1972 and the Edmonton Oilers began play in the National Hockey League in 1980, building a powerhouse that won five Stanley Cups with superstars such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey.
* Arena: Skyreach Centre (capacity, 17,099).
* Website: www.edmontonoilers.com
* Phone: 780-414-4000.
* Tickets: 1-780-414-4625, 1-866-414-4625 (toll free).
* Address: 11230-110 St., Edmonton T5G 3H7.