A Riopelle original and a Rauschenberg print overlook the blazing
telephones and door-slamming hustle of Nelson Skalbania’s Vancouver office. In the reception area, an elegantly suited young man whispers urgently, “Are you here to do a deal?” In the other corner, inexplicably, hangs a limp Peruvian flag. Periodically the consul, a friend of Skalbania’s, darts out of a rabbit warren of cubicles to soothe a visa complaint. The frantic, vibrating offices belong to Canada’s newest sports mogul. In the past decade, Skalbania, 42, spawn of Vancouver’s drab East Side, has danced a fiscal flamenco on bewildered Western Canadian financial circles, first in real estate and, more recently, in sports franchises. In the past year the man who personally bought hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky as a 17-year-old for $1.75 million has gobbled up the floundering franchises of hockey’s Atlanta Flames ($16 million) and soccer’s Memphis Rogues ($2 million), transplanting them intact in the prairie sod of Calgary. Along the way he snagged two Western Hockey League junior franchises, as well as 49.9 per cent of the Triple A baseball team, the Vancouver Canadians. Barely pausing for breath, last month he entered a $12.25-million bid for the sad-sack Seattle Mariners, the worst team in baseball, while at the same time talking of bringing an expansion National Basketball Association team to Vancouver.
The Skalbania dealing is all done in the dazzling zip-zip style that leaves traditional businessmen, attuned to the droning rhythms of corporate lawyers, face down in the dust. Bearded and as leanly ascetic-looking as the distance runner he is, Skalbania pauses between phone calls sketching financing formulas as intricate and fragile as a DNA helix; ‘Tm a day-to-day guy; I’ve got no game plan.” The reason for the move from land to locker rooms, he says, is a combination of business and romance. The cost of money had become too onerous and there are considerable tax advantages to sports. On the $16-million Flames deal, for example, there is up to $12 million depreciation allowable. Besides, he says, “I haven’t fallen in love with inanimate buildings.” He is, however, something of a closet jock, running up to 70 km a week and playing enough racketball to warrant donating $200,000 to the Vancouver YMCA to build two courts, on the condition that one be reserved for him for an hour every day.
As in his real estate, he turned over a reported $600 million worth in 1979— Skalbania sports deals are lightning fast. Like Sammy Glick without the guile, Skalbania will do a deal on a restaurant napkin. He sold his half of the
Edmonton Oilers to Peter Pocklington over lunch, for a Krieghoff painting, two Rolls and one of Mrs. Pocklington’s rings.
But even as Skalbania has migrated from business to sports pages, he remains as valuable a fixture for Vancouver gossip columnists as Sinatra is for Earl Wilson. The items tumble out: the poor Polish-Canadian kid buys not one but three mansions on Vancouver’s exclusive South West Marine Drive; he throws his own 41st birthday party with 180 bottles of champagne; he flips a coin for a $10,000 cheque to charity; his $10,000 winner-take-all racketball game with local millionaire jock Herb Capozzi. Among other business heresies, Skalbania disobeys the commandment Thou Shalt Not Do Business With Family, installing pretty 21-year-old daughter Rozanda as president of the New Westminster Bruins, and new wife, Eleni, as manager of his Georgia Hotel in Vancouver.
Refreshingly, his frankness has got him in trouble with more tight-lipped business associates and Skalbania has become increasingly media-shy. He bridles at suggestions that he is spreading himself too thin, but acknowledges that he tends to “probably do too many deals.”
At week’s end, Skalbania’s move on the Mariners was on hold after the
club’s owners asked the American League for a report on the circumstances of Skalbania’s 1978 sale of the Indianapolis Racers. Skalbania had dumped the hockey club after losing $2.5 million trying to keep it alive. A $20-million class-action suit on behalf of Racer season-ticket holders was subsequently filed. Despite the unwelcome public scrutiny of the sporting life, Skalbania remains undeterred. “I’d much rather make money running hockey club,” he smiles, “than make it running a shoe store.”
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