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Former ‘Yotes president LeBlanc talks CFL, cannabis and Arizona memories

Coyotes President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc, left, and majority owner Andrew Barroway, right. (Photo by Kristina Vicario/Cronkite News)

It has been 14 months since Andrew Barroway completed his buyout of the Arizona Coyotes’ minority owners. Former team president Anthony LeBlanc has not been idle.

LeBlanc and former Coyotes co-owner Gary Drummond are in discussions to bring a Canadian Football League franchise to Halifax, Nova Scotia, he has entered into the Canadian cannabis industry as CEO of Modern Leaf, and he is spending as much time as possible with his 5-year-old daughter, Bella, meaning he is splitting time between Halifax, Toronto and his hometown of Ottawa.

ArizonaSports.com caught up with LeBlanc last week for his thoughts on his new ventures, his thoughts on the direction of the Coyotes and the long view of his four-year tenure with the franchise.

How was the idea of pursuing a CFL franchise hatched?

It’s difficult for a guy like me to sit around and read magazines all day, so Drummer [Drummond] and I are having some fun with the Canadian Football League and it’s moving along nicely. What we’re doing now is we’re working closely with the Halifax Regional Council to formulate what a final overview of a stadium deal would look like. The hope is to get that wrapped up no later than the fall. We’ve been working closely with them and the province of Nova Scotia and there’s a heck of a lot of momentum.

People seem to really want this but at the same time, I learned an awful lot in a host of areas in my time with the Coyotes so we’re being thoughtful in our approach and the manner in which we’re working with these public entities.

Why football?

It’s multiple things but first off, I love football. I’m a New York Jets fan and I’m a big fan of the CFL. I had obviously looked at the Coyotes a number of times dating back to 2010 and before I got introduced to [deceased former Coyotes owner] George Gosbee, I was actually starting to talk to a couple guys in the CFL about a team in Halifax. When we got involved in the NHL, throughout, I always kept my eye on it because I think it’s a great league and that region is very near and dear to my heart because that is where my family is from. It’s always been a mystery to me why that region doesn’t have a football franchise.

When it was apparent we were moving on from the Coyotes and Drummer and I were going to be on the unemployment line, we started talking about what we were going to do next. We realized we had been bitten by the sports business bug and really enjoyed being a part of it so I suggested to Gary, ‘Why don’t we look at a CFL franchise for Halifax?’ Gary is from Saskatchewan. If there is a franchise in the CFL that is a prototype for what you want to be from a business standpoint, it’s the Saskatchewan Roughriders, so he said, ‘Great, go figure out how to do it.’

My first contact was [former Coyotes GM Bobby Smith], the owner of the Halifax Mooseheads. I reached out and we got together in Scottsdale. He thought it was a great idea and it turned out his cousin was the former chief administrator of the Halifax Regional Municipality, Richard Butts. That’s how this all started. We started exploring and the next we knew, we were sitting down with the mayor [Mike Savage] and then the premier [Stephen McNeil] and all of the local officials and it has taken on a life of its own.

What’s next in that venture?

The next steps are to put together a plan in conjunction with the administrative staff of the regional municipality and the province. Hopefully, it’s one they endorse and bring back to their respective elected officials. The onus is on us to put together a package that minimizes risk for all parties. That’s what we’re focused on. The other thing we have to do – and this is when I start getting cold sweats thinking about the arena stuff with the Coyotes – we’re down to three stadium sites for the team. We’ve got to finalize the site and this will happen sometime this month. I feel like I already did my bachelors in sports business management in my four years with the Coyotes. The good news is it has brought some credibility that we did that in less than easy circumstances.

You are also embarking on a venture in the cannabis business. Why?

This is when people kind of look at me sideways from down in the U.S, but cannabis is going be legalized here on Oct. 17 across Canada. I’m helping a good friend of mine with a cannabis venture that he has so we’ll see where that goes. I’m probably splitting my time 50/50 between the two ventures. It’s been busy, but I love it.

How has your time with the Coyotes informed your current CFL venture?

You can fill a room with regrets and mistakes I’ve made throughout, but if you don’t learn from those what’s the point? We didn’t do everything perfectly. There are some things I am really proud of that we accomplished during our time with the Coyotes but obviously the arena file is one that didn’t go the way we hoped. I hope that [Coyotes President and CEO] Ahron [Cohen] and [arena consultant] Mitch Ziets and Andy and the crew can get it. I know they are working hard on it from everything I have heard through the media.

Do you have any regrets?

Our interactions with Glendale, at times, were less than friendly and I don’t think that was helpful. We felt that it was really important that we get something done quickly and probably my biggest regret is that we went out and announced something prior to it being fully baked. Having that said, I do look back and we did have a decent agreement in place that was announced but obviously it was premature to say the least, and that has really been the part that I have learned the most with regard to our endeavors we’re focusing on now with the Canadian Football League.

It was obviously different circumstances with everything that had happened in Glendale. We were concerned about the future. We wanted to ensure that people would continue to buy tickets but as I look back in retrospect, it still wasn’t the right way to go about it. The existing crew with the Coyotes is doing exactly what they should, which is working in the background, doing what they need to do and keeping things under wraps. That’s what we’re trying to do, too.

Obviously, now we’ve moved to a more public setting with council instructing the chief administrative officer at the Halifax Regional Municipality to go back and structure a deal or see it if makes sense and report back to council so things will become considerably more public in this endeavor, but it’s the right time. We’ve been working on this for the better part of a year.

What runs through your mind when you think about the deal you thought you had to build a stadium on Arizona State University land?

It was certainly a surprise the way it went down. I was cooking dinner for my then 4-year-old daughter and I have a practice of keeping my iPhone away from me when I’m doing things like that, but I wandered over while she was eating her dinner and looked at my phone and I had a missed call and it was voicemail saying, ‘We’re going to be announcing we’re cancelling the deal with you guys.’ I got broken up with over voicemail. It certainly changed my Friday night but at the end of the day, I still look at that as a life experience and a business experience. We probably should have kept it much more quiet than we did, and Ahron and the crew have learned from that for sure. So have we.

What are your good memories of the Coyotes?

First and foremost, I think back to working with George and the team of owners. I said this to a number of people after George’s tragic passing, while I take some credit, I give more credit to George for this: we saved the franchise in Arizona and I’m very proud of that.

There were some difficult and trying times, but I got to meet some of the most incredible people I have ever known. I didn’t know George Gosbee until Daryl Jones introduced us in Feb. 2013, but I miss him dearly and still question what the heck happened there, but getting to work with Daryl and George and Avik [Dey] in the beginning, and then a great group of owners, sometimes I have to pinch myself talking about sitting with Shane Doan and Dave Tippett and in the Board of Governors meetings and getting to know Gary Bettman and Bill Daly and so many others like Senator John McCain. As a kid from Thunder Bay, Ontario, it blows my mind. It was incredible.

We’re also proud of some of things we were able to accomplish on the business side. Probably the biggest one was moving the Springfield Falcons to Tucson. I think that was a really important thing for the franchise and I’m sure it has been a huge benefit to that franchise. At the end of the day, we were the people who were able to keep hockey in Arizona. Now we’re sitting back and wishing Andy nothing but the best of luck. The biggest regret is it went by so friggin’ fast. I don’t remember university going by that fast.

What do you think of the direction of the franchise?

The former owners exchange fairly frequent emails and I can’t wait for the season to start. I think John [Chayka] has done a tremendous job, although he’d be the first one to say it has been the whole staff and coach [Rick] Tocchet. I’ve moved on but I admit it was difficult. We closed the transaction right around draft day and it was tough watching and not being involved. It took some time but now that we have, we’re just loyal fans. We can’t wait to see what these guys can do. It’s going to be an exciting team to watch. We’re still tremendous fans of the team. It’s still a challenge not referring to it as our team.  We’re super excited about the season coming up.

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