SPORTS WATCH

King Midas meets the Argonauts

What a wily move it was for Bruce McNall to bring in John Candy and Wayne Gretzky to market this new toy— Canadian football

TRENT FRAYNE March 11 1991
SPORTS WATCH

King Midas meets the Argonauts

What a wily move it was for Bruce McNall to bring in John Candy and Wayne Gretzky to market this new toy— Canadian football

TRENT FRAYNE March 11 1991

King Midas meets the Argonauts

SPORTS WATCH

What a wily move it was for Bruce McNall to bring in John Candy and Wayne Gretzky to market this new toy— Canadian football

TRENT FRAYNE

Here was this rich, chubby, 40-yearold coin collector and sports cashew, Bruce McNall, appearing at long last in the Toronto SkyDome, flanked by the moon-shaped movie comic John Candy and the nonpareil iceman, Wayne Gretzky, himself, telling this huge gathering of scribes and sports leeches and about a million television cameramen that he liked Canadian football and saw a glowing future for the team he had just bought, the Toronto Argonauts, and for the Canadian Football League itself, and just as he was saying those shining words, clunk!, down tumbled an oversized mock-up of Argo pennants that had been tacked to the wall back of Candy’s large, furry head.

Talk about symbolism. Wasn’t this just like the Argonauts and the CFL? At the precise moment when something good was finally happening to them, here comes disaster, this very emblem of the poor old Bottomless Boatmen scrunching to the floor.

And on the wall where the prop had been tacked, it could now be seen that it had covered a large framed photo of Marlene Dietrich, the onetime film siren, a full-length, horizontal shot of her reclining, her fabled legs silky and crossed provocatively.

John Candy turned casually to this distraction. “Marlene Dietrich has joined us, I see,” he said matter-of-factly. “A silent partner.” Now there was symbolism. Even as Candy had rescued an embarrassing moment, this infusion of new Argonaut owners could conceivably deliver the beleaguered Boatmen from their recent adversity at the gate. And of course, seats filled with behinds in the cavernous SkyDome would be bound to reflect positively on the whole league.

What a wily move it was for the unassuming Bruce McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings and other baubles, to bring Candy and Gretzky into his fold in this venture, permitting each to purchase 20 per cent of the $5.75 million he paid former owner Harry Omest for the franchise. Since McNall himself cannot

throw the touchdown passes that might help put the bottoms into those seats, he has brought in two of Canada’s highest-profile exports to assist him in the task.

McNall, of course, is the man who sold refrigerators to Eskimos by making hockey a sellout sport in southern California. To do that, he paid hungry Peter Pocklington $18 million for Gretzky, the onetime national treasure of the Edmonton Oilers. The deal was a graphic example of how McNall combines business with pleasure. “My businesses are really my hobbies,” he said. “If someone told me I could make $100 million in the plumbing business, I wouldn’t do it because I only get involved in things I enjoy.”

Now, he is engaging Gretzky and Wayne’s marquee name to help him market this new toy, Canadian football, and he has added the merry-faced Candy in a different marketing capacity. Candy’s buoyant personality and natural wit will be employed in television commercials and he will be a readily recognized halftime guest for football broadcasters in all the CFL cities.

How did Candy become part of this triumvirate? When the question is asked, Candy’s muffin face takes on bewilderment. “I called up

Bruce to congratulate him for being involved,” he said, frowning. “He advised me I was involved.”

As for McNall, he is a dumpy man physically, five-foot-nine and more than 200 lb., with an easy smile and a pile of black, shiny, combedback hair. McNall’s public manner tends to be charming and confident, with a little half-smile itching to play at the comers of his lips. He made a ton of money as a relative child through a fascination with ancient coins. At the age of 8, he started his own collection. “I couldn’t believe they were only a dollar apiece,” McNall said, “that something 2,000 years old was that inexpensive.”

So he began trading them, then selling the rarer ones for a profit and buying ever more rare ones. He recalls that when he was 14, he persuaded his grandmother to lend him $3,000 to buy a collection he had seen in a shop window and believed to be undervalued. “I begged her for a week,” McNall recalls. “When she gave me the money, my parents were furious.”

But then, he says, he turned around and sold two-thirds of the collection for enough to pay back his grandmother. McNall, who sometimes seems to grow confused over some of his early dealings, says that by the time he was 16, he was making about $60,000 a year and bought a brand-new Jaguar. As an undergrad at the University of California at Los Angeles studying ancient history, he remembers upgrading his car to a Rolls-Royce.

McNall says that an early client was one of the world’s richest men, J. Paul Getty, and through his association with Getty he met other rich collectors, including the American silver baron Nelson Bunker Hunt. He apparently paid nearly $300,000 for a coin called the Athena Decadrachm, struck in 460 BC. Within two months, he sold it for a profit. Later, he says, he paid $1 million to get it back and recalls that he sold again for $1.5 million.

Through Bunker Hunt, an owner of fast thoroughbreds, McNall got interested in horse racing. He bought the colt Trempolino a week before the horse won the classic Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the rolling Longchamp course on the Paris outskirts. In 1979, he opened a small film production company that during the late 1980s scored with Mr. Mom, Blame It on Rio, with Michael Caine, and most recently The Fabulous Baker Boys, a huge success, with Michelle Pfeiffer and the Bridges brothers, Beau and Jeff.

So one asks: from these lofty successes three time zones away, how come McNall knows about the Argonauts’ plight in distant Toronto and what is their appeal? The little smile makes its inevitable appearance. “Well, it’s not to make a lot of money,” he said. Then he added: “There’s a challenge to make a success of Canadian football just now when it’s struggling. One day, Harry Omest and I happened to be talking football—we’re on the board of the Hollywood Park Race Track in L.A.—and I said I had watched a couple of Grey Cup games on satellite. He mentioned his team, the Argos, and then he said, laughing, ‘Want to buy ’em?’ and I said, not laughing, ‘Sure,’ and here we are.”