A multimillion-dollar rendezvous

HAL QUINN February 9 1987

A multimillion-dollar rendezvous

HAL QUINN February 9 1987

A multimillion-dollar rendezvous


It began quite innocently. Thinking ahead two years to his role as host of the 1987 National Hockey League all-star game, Quebec Nordiques president Marcel Aubut decided to do “something different, something special.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan had just concluded their 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City. And there were rumors around town that an international commercial tribunal might be established in one of North America’s oldest cities, making it something akin to a New-World Geneva, the site of major treaty signings. In that heady atmosphere, Aubut began thinking of the all-star game as “an international event combining sport and culture.” Next week Rendez-Vous 87, the result of Aubut’s dream—and two years of globe-trotting, cajoling and organizing—will unfold inside and outside the historic stone walls surrounding the old Quebec capital.

Traditionally, the NHL suspends its seemingly interminable schedule for two days in February as its elite players stage a game to raise money for the players’ pension fund. But this year’s hiatus will be part of a weeklong multimillion-dollar cultural festival highlighted by a two-game meeting (Feb. 11

and 13) between the league’s all-stars and the Soviet national team. RendezVous 87 has evolved into an extravaganza, bringing together some of the world’s top names in business, fashion, cuisine, music and sport. Among those sharing the spotlight: Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca; fashion designer Pierre Cardin; Canadian, U.S. and Soviet chefs; members of the Bolshoi Ballet; Gordon Lightfoot; U.S. rock band Chicago; Canada’s Juno Award-winning Glass Tiger; and the U.S.S.R.’s Autograf. And Reagan and Soviet President Andrei Gromyko are expected to appear—via videotaped messages. Said Aubut: “It is a festival for the people who prefer sport to culture, and for those who prefer culture to sport.”

Indeed, for hockey fans there will be the renewal of an emotional rivalry. Said Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association: “There are three hockey powers in the world: the NHL, Canada and the Soviet Union. Any time two of them meet, there is going to be a lot of interest.” That interest was heightened when the league decided to allow fans to select six members of the all-star team. Predictably, there were aberrations such as their choosing Pittsburgh Penguin Mario Lemieux at centre ahead of

Wayne Gretzky, the league’s highest scorer and arguably the world’s best player. And the preliminary 27-man roster excluded the league’s fourthleading scorer, Minnesota North Star Dino Ciccarelli. Explained Cliff Fletcher, one of eight NHL general managers who with all-star and Montreal Canadiens coach Jean Perron selected the rest of the team: “We did not necessarily want an all-‘star’ team. We wanted a team with the right chemistry.”

The selection of the NHL’s team typified the problems that at times threatened Aubut’s dream. To make it work, he first had to convince the league to accept three radical proposals. Aubut, a 39-year-old lawyer, wanted to suspend the all-star game format, create a fiveday break in the NHL schedule and play the Soviets. Said Aubut: “When I went to [NHL president John] Ziegler with my conditions, he asked me, ‘Are you serious?’ I said that I was. He said that he would support my proposal if I could convince my colleagues.” After private meetings with all members of the league’s board of governors, Aubut tabled his plan at their annual meeting in February, 1986. Said Aubut: “I knew the result before I went in. There were four abstentions—because of personal feelings about the Soviets—and no votes op-

posed. Then I said to myself, ‘Well, now I have to do it.’ ” Aubut formed a nonprofit corporation which eventually employed 130 people. He signed seven major corporate sponsors—Imperial Oil Ltd., Carling O’Keefe Ltd., Chrysler Canada Ltd., Coca-Cola Ltd., Air Canada, Bell Canada and the Desjardins Caisse Populaires Movement—which contributed $6.1 million in cash, goods and services. Aubut, who received the Order of Canada last year, negotiated a $l-million grant from Ottawa. The province added $1.5 million, and Quebec City contributed $360,000. Charities will receive any profits.

Still, Aubut’s vision had critics. Some claim that the festival is inaccessible to all but a favored few. Said Aubut, responding to the criticism: “We have something for everyone, rich

and poor. We are creating a meeting of three major cultures with a theme of peace, in a festival of sport and art. And the publicity for Quebec and the economic benefits in tourism alone will go on.” Indeed, the U.S. TV show Good Morning America will broadcast a daily segment from Quebec City, and 500 journalists, including TV crews from West Germany and Japan, will cover the event.

Among Aubut’s challenges, getting the Soviet national team to play was one of the easiest. Ziegler and Eagleson met with Soviet sport officials at the 1986 World Hockey Championships in Moscow in April. One subsequent meeting sealed the agreement. Said Eagleson: “The first time we made a deal with them in 1972, the contract ran to about 140 pages. This time, the whole thing was on a page and a half.”

Negotiations with Soviet fashion designers, chefs and artists necessitated two Moscow trips for Aubut. And the Soviet bureaucrats proved easier to deal with than the agents and egos in the West. Said Aubut: “Some of the demands were unreal. The chefs and designers all wanted to prepare the main dish or have their show at the top of the list. It was incredible.”

Not the least of the demands came from the all-stars. Last December Eagleson threatened to pull the NHL players out of the games if the league’s tickets—for players’ families and friends, and team and league officials—were not upgraded. Eagleson demanded—and re-

ceived—500 seats for each game in the 15,399-seat Colisée. All the tickets, 125 of them box seats, are in the first 27 rows. The 10,500 Nordiques season-ticket holders were given priority, leaving only 500 tickets for each game, priced between $14 and $40, for sale to the general public. But to mollify the players’ association’s demands, many Nordiques subscribers were persuaded to give up their seats.

Once under way, the Rendez-Vous activities will merely amplify the always festive and often raucous Quebec Winter Carnival (Feb. 5-15). Among the added diversions will be the opening variety show on Feb. 8, featuring Quebec singers Robert Charlebois and Ginette Reno, Julian Clerc and Etienne Daho of France, the Red Army Choir,

and Bolshoi Ballet stars Nino Sorokina and Yuri Vladimirov. All 900 seats are reserved for invited guests, but the show will be telecast that evening by Radio-Canada and at a later date by France’s TFl.

But TV viewers will not witness the sumptuous gourmet dinner on Feb. 9. More than two-thirds of the 1,500 places are reserved for the all-stars and their wives, NHL governors and their wives, sponsors, politicians and diplomats. The remaining 400 places, at $350, are sold. Fussed over by 225 waiters, guests will sample 10 courses including smoked trout, beaver consommé and filet of bison. While they dine, eight giant TV screens will show videotapes of the 30 chefs—from the Soviet Union, the United States and Canada—preparing the feast.

The diners will miss the simultaneous concert at the Colisée featuring the 200-member Red Army Choir—including choir, orchestra, 60 dancers and acrobats. But the dinner tickets provide entry to the International

Gala on Feb. 10. Hosted by Canadianborn TV star Alan Thicke, the program—which the CBC will televise later this month—includes Gordon Lightfoot, Ginette Reno, the Bolshoi dancers, Canadian composer David Foster and the Red Army Choir. Earlier in the day, 2,500 businessmen will sit down to their $100-a-plate lunch and listen to Lee Iacocca. The following day, before the first hockey game, Mila Mulroney—expected to be wearing a Cardin original—will host an invitation-only brunch, featuring a 30-year retrospective of Pierre Cardin’s creations. The public, for $30, may view the show in the afternoon.

And then, on Feb. 12, an international fashion show will feature the spring and summer designs of Que-

bee’s Jean-Claude Poitras, Toronto’s Emily Zarb, Italy’s Enrico Coveri and France’s Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others. That night, while the rock bands perform at the Colisée, a parade of NHL team floats will wind through the city. The hockey teams face off again on Friday the 13th before a Sunday-evening variety show marks the conclusion of Rendez-Vous 87.

Until then, and until the festival’s ledgers are closed off, Aubut’s critics can enjoy their moment. Perhaps their forecasts of a rendezvous with deficits are accurate. But there is still the chance that all of Aubut’s dream may come true. On the eve of the culmination of his two-year quest, he can finally afford a reflective moment. Said Aubut: “Everything I do is a little excessive. This project, like every dream, comes from the air. But we have done it. And it will be something different, something special.”