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Stu Cowan: Mitch Garber gives Seattle Kraken a little Montreal flavour

Montreal businessman grew up as a big Canadiens fan and is now a minority owner of the expansion Kraken.

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Mitch Garber grew up in Montreal as a big Canadiens fan and his favourite player was Jacques Lemaire.

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“I just loved the way he played,” said Garber, a successful Montreal businessman. “And I always liked the little guys, too. So I really loved (Yvan) Cournoyer, later on Mats Naslund because I’m a little guy. But Jacques was my favourite. Pete Mahovlich was my favourite for another reason. … I knew him when I was a kid and I’ve always liked him and he’s been a great friend.”

So you have to think it’s going to feel weird for Garber to watch the Canadiens play the Kraken expansion team for the first time on Oct. 26 in Seattle. The reason: Garber is now a minority owner of the Kraken.

“No. Not at all,” Garber said Thursday when asked if it will feel weird. “I’m not as emotional now about the Canadiens at 57 years old as I was in the ’70s when I was in my teens. I’ve had my share of attending Stanley Cup parades.

“I think it’s the best of both worlds,” he added. “I grew up a Stanley Cup kid and as an aging, almost senior, I’m going to have a second life in hockey trying to build a team in some ways after the image of those great Canadiens teams and that’s a really tall order. I’m not building the team, but just to be part of a team that wants to be successful. The league is so competitive … you can see just by the fact there are teams in the NHL that have never won the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens haven’t won a Cup in 28 years and the Leafs in 54 years.”

Garber is a great Montreal success story. He didn’t grow up rich, living in an upper duplex in Hampstead, and members of Montreal’s Jewish community helped pay for him to attend the private Bialik High School before he went on to earn a BA at McGill University and a law degree from the University of Ottawa.

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As CEO of Caesars Interactive Entertainment in 2009 — a digital gaming and entertainment business — Garber founded the Playtika social gaming company that was later sold for US$4.4 billion to a Chinese consortium.

Garber started a working relationship with American billionaire businessman David Bonderman in 2008 and they also became good friends. Bonderman is the majority owner of the Kraken, who paid a US$650-million expansion fee to join the NHL, and asked Garber if he wanted to join him as a minority owner.

“I told him it was a dream, that absolutely I would love to,” said Garber, adding that the main ownership group of Bonderman, Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Tod Leiweke , did the heavy lifting, along with the local minority owners in Seattle. “I’m involved in a lot of investments with (Bonderman) but this one is by far the most exciting and the one that I’m the most interested in. I was just very thankful that he would think to ask me and I’d like to add a little bit of value to the franchise because I really respect his investments and I really respect him.

“He’s extremely cerebral,” Garber added about the 78-year-old Bonderman. “He’s very funny. He’s philanthropic. He’s very, very well-regarded worldwide as one of the original, very early developers of the entire realm of private equity. He’s an iconic figure. When he walks into a room or when people mention his name or call him by his nickname, Bondo, which most people do, everyone knows who he is.”

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Garber has been impressed by the job Kraken GM Ron Francis — a Hall of Famer as a player — has done building the team both on and off the ice.

“Before he had a team of scouts and before there was the ability to even think about what the expansion draft might look like in 2021, Ron was making business presentations about how he was going to build the hockey operations side of the business and he’s really, really good at it,” Garber said. “I’ve enjoyed watching him do that.”

Garber has spent quite a bit of time already in Seattle and is looking forward to getting to know the city better by spending more time there with the local minority owners once the NHL season starts. Garber will be in Las Vegas for the Kraken’s first game against the Golden Knights on Oct. 12 and will spend about 10 days later that month in Seattle when the Kraken have their first four-game homestand, starting against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 23 before facing the Canadiens three days later.

“The vibe in Seattle is incredible,” Garber said. “No team has sold out their season tickets quicker. No team has sold more new jerseys in the first five days of launching it than the Kraken have. People are extremely excited. The arena is magnificent … I think it’s the most state-of-the-art arena in all of sports . Everything is exciting.

“I’m hoping just to play a small role in helping David and the other owners with this journey.”

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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    Stu Cowan: Return of Expos would be dream come true for Mitch Garber

  2. Montreal businessman Mitch Garber poses for photo in his office overlooking St. Catherine St. on Feb. 24, 2015 after becoming the newest business magnet on the French version of the Dragons’ Den TV show in Quebec.

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