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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Coyotes' owners desert oasis

If anyone can turn franchise around, it's these four guys

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc fulfilled every Canadian boy's dream last week by becoming NHL owners.

But before they had even completed the deal to buy the Phoenix Coyotes from the league, Gosbee, LeBlanc and their partners were already in the crosshairs.

The issue was the five-year out clause they put in an arena lease agreement with the city of Glendale.

On one hand, they understood the consternation; Coyotes fans had gone through an emotional roller coaster in four years of waiting for an owner.

What bothered the members of IceArizona was that they had no intention of moving the team. That would mean they had lost $50 million in their new venture and had failed, something none of them have had much experience with.

"It's frustrating for me because for this exit clause to kick in, we have to lose $50 million and that's not something I want to do," Gosbee said. "We came into this to build a successful organization in Phoenix and that's our plan. We have no plans of relocating anywhere else and we have no plans to lose $50 million, I can tell you that."

For LeBlanc, buying the Coyotes completed an arduous quest that lasted more than four years.

He started his career as a salesman for a regional cellphone company in New Brunswick and later joined Research in Motion just as it was developing the Blackberry. LeBlanc worked his way up through the ranks in eight years with the company, becoming a marketing executive before leaving in 2008 to pursue his dream of owning a hockey team.

He started Ice Edge Holdings with a goal of bringing a major junior or minor league team to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where his family moved when he was 10.

After former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in 2009, LeBlanc shifted his focus toward the Valley of the Sun.

His initial effort, with partner Daryl Jones, fell through, as did a minority ownership with Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer. LeBlanc also was working with former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison in his attempt to buy the team.

When Jamison's bid fell through in January, LeBlanc decided to take one more crack at buying the Coyotes.

This time, he and Jones brought in Gosbee, a Calgary businessman whose specialty was completing complicated financial transactions.

"If George didn't get involved, we wouldn't have bought this team, it's as simple as that," LeBlanc said.

Gosbee grew up in Alberta and, like LeBlanc, spent his Saturday nights watching Hockey Night in Canada and loved playing shinny games with kids in the neighbourhood. His two sons are also accomplished hockey players; John plays for a Junior A team in Port Alberni, B.C. and Carter at a high-performance school in Calgary.

Gosbee made his mark professionally in energy investment banking, handling mergers and acquisitions for numerous companies. Once he became a part of the group trying to buy the Coyotes, Gosbee put his background to perfect use, bringing in what had been lacking in previous deals: investors with hard cash to spend.

Gosbee's ability to close the deal earned him the moniker the Great Gosbee and helped him offset the devastation of having his Calgary home flooded out in June.

"We had a good partnership and were able to put all the missing pieces together," said Gosbee, who is now looking to buy homes in Calgary and Phoenix. "I thought if I was able to deliver the last piece to it, I was comfortable with it (being called the deal saviour), but there was a lot of legwork done before I got there."

Though they've only known each other since Gosbee came on board in February, the two have become fast friends.

Gosbee and LeBlanc have the common bond of being Canadians who love hockey and have reached the upper echelons of their fields. They're also different in ways that complement each other: LeBlanc the gregarious salesman, Gosbee the calculating businessman.

"I would say it was the perfect partnership," said Gosbee, the team's new governor. "We're similar in some aspects. He's got some strengths I'll never get near to and I think I have some strengths where he doesn't have the experience with, so it's a great combination."

The task ahead for Gosbee and LeBlanc is making the Coyotes a successful venture in a market that has, at times, been nonchalant in its support for hockey.

When the team is winning, the fans will latch onto the bandwagon, as they did when the Coyotes went to the Western Conference finals two years ago. Gosbee and LeBlanc gave general manager Don Maloney more financial leeway in this year's free-agent period -- he was able to lure top-line forward Mike Ribeiro to the desert -- and plan to give him a bigger bankroll in the years to come.

While being run by the NHL, the Coyotes had limited marketing options, so now the new owners have started aggressively marketing the team to increase suite and season-ticket sales, along with corporate sponsorships.

With a competitive team, better marketing and a firm ownership group in place, Gosbee and LeBlanc believe hockey can be successful in the Valley.

"We have a really strong hockey side of the business," said LeBlanc, who is working on getting his immigration status cleared before buying a home in Arizona. "I'm not going to sit here and guarantee we're going to go to the playoffs or win the Stanley Cup, but I will guarantee this is a franchise that is going to play hard and be competitive every night."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 C6

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