Everything conspired against 13-year-old Steve Barban’s sole passion: to play hockey professionally. He had to work a paper route for two years before he could afford equipment. When he did get on a team, practice was a 65 km bus trip away from his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Then, just before high school try-outs, the talented 5’8″ centre was injured in a 10-car pileup. Litigation ensued, and his family’s lawyer advised no sports until the lawsuit was settled. Despite his back injury, Barban still regrets his decision not to play. “I ended up winning $13,750,” says Barban. “Man, that’s nothing now.”
Still, Barban’s love of hockey didn’t end with a stolen dream. Today, the 43-year-old owner of Ottawa investment firm Gentry Capital Corp. and eight Dairy Queen franchises is playing the game from the other side of the boards as the proud owner of the Cumberland Grads, a Central Junior A Hockey League team based in Navan, Ont. (The second-highest level for kids ages 16 to 20.)
Now Barban is enjoying the grown-up fantasy of so many other wide-eyed boys who first laid their hands on a Sher-Wood and heard their blades slice through fresh ice. “I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t do anything for me,” says Barban. “There’s no question I walk through the rink and get a kick out of the fact I’m the owner.”
That means “riding” the team’s wins and losses (heartbreakingly, too many in the first year) and enjoying the business, politics and sweaty arena scene that is the essence of the game, says Barban. It’s all about the cheering crowds, the local home-team fans, the kids who get a kick out of tapping the players’ gloves as they go on or off the ice, and even dealing with NHL scouts who come to watch the games.
Hockey fanatic aside, Barban also had other motivations when he purchased the team last year. He had heard prospective buyers were planning to move the Grads away from Navan, a village 20 km east of Ottawa, where Barbannow lives. “I didn’t want to let that happen.” After a heart-to-heart with his wife, Krista, Barban went for it. He won’t disclose the team’s exact purchase price (between $100,000 and $200,000) but admits he soon set aside any preconceived notions of glamour. When you own a team at this level, Barban says, you are a jack of all trades. And he was not prepared for just how much time it would take, despite hiring his brother as full-time operations manager.
Barban devotes about one hour of “brain time” a day to the team. “Running this junior hockey club is identical to running the Ottawa Senators or Toronto Maple Leafs, just in miniature,” says Barban. “There are so many aspects to worry about, from team meals to laundry to names on the backs of sweaters to merchandise sales.” At any given game, you might find Barban taking tickets at the door or on the PA system announcing the game.
But it’s not all business. Barban, who currently plays hockey with a local men’s club, enjoys “throwing the puck around” at Grads practices. He attends about two games a week, and hits the road for about half of the 30 awaygames. As a player and an owner, Barban especially enjoys the camaraderie in the dressing room: “[I love] the kibitzing that goes on after a game. With [the Grads], I’m able to joke around with the coaching staff.” While Barban leaves the coaching to the coaches, he admits to feeling some “mother hen” responsibilities for the players, and wants to ensure they are “treated fairly.”
Barban’s decision to keep the team in Navan has been popular among the locals. Sponsorship is up 150% and attendance has doubled to about 230 fans per game, though the team is still in the red. Ninety percent of the time, the team’s net income will range from a $10,000 loss to a $10,000 profit, says Barban. He’d be happy to break even in 10 years, “but it could happen sooner.” After a painful last-place finish in 2007, the Grads tweaked their lineup. Through late January, the team was in first place in its division and, boasts Barban, “there are 12 players from Navan.”