Hockey

For Seattle NHL owner Mitch Garber, it’s always been sports first

Looking out his expansive office windows atop this city's bustling downtown core, one of the owners of a future Seattle hockey team nearly 2,300 miles away described the naturalness of that journey.

For sports-fan-turned-lawyer-turned-businessman Mitch Garber, 54, owning a piece of an NHL team is something no pure-blooded Montrealer could possibly turn down. It's just that when you happen to be the chairman of the famed Cirque du Soleil, one of multiple companies owned by Seattle NHL team managing partner David Bonderman, the chance at being offered said piece becomes a lot more real than it does for the average Joe, or Jean-Claude.

"It's not a cliche that I grew up in Canada and in Montreal, so I have hockey in my blood," said Garber, who still plays recreationally twice a week. "Everyone who's ever lived or been to Montreal knows that's the religion in Montreal. And I love business. I've just been very fortunate to be involved in business with David Bonderman since 2008 and he's been a great friend and a great mentor. When he gave me an opportunity to play a small part and be in the group with him, I jumped at the opportunity. I didn't even think about it. I was very grateful."

His closeness working with Bonderman gives Garber a perspective on the billionaire that not a lot of the other Seattle team owners have. And Garber's takes on personal fandom, fan loyalty, the NBA returning to Seattle and the heartbreak of having a team poached by another city are something jilted Sonics devotees could easily find common ground with him on.

Garber was quick to mention several times that he isn't looking to overshadow the other Seattle owners, insisting he's just one of many and that the Seattle NHL show belongs to Bonderman and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer, as well as a team of locally based owners he'll meet with in Seattle next week.

But Garber is somewhat different from your typical North American owner in that for him, it's always been about sports first and the business world second. He'd worked part time on sports-talk radio both solo and with longtime Montreal host Mitch Melnick for years in the 1990s and they did a popular "Sports Hot Seat" cable television show together as well before any fans figured out Garber was actually a corporate lawyer.

As a boy in the early 1970s, he'd fallen in love with baseball and the fledgling Montreal Expos, who broke his heart in relocating to Washington, D.C., in 2005. He'd scored their games from home as a child, then as a season-ticket holder with a partner at his law firm and also from the Olympic Stadium press box, where he'd mingle with beat writers and gather tidbits for his radio shows.

Naturally, Garber is now helping lead the charge to revive the Expos in a group headed by his "very close friend" in billionaire Seagram's liquor heir Stephen Bronfman.

In doing so, he keeps in mind daily how it felt losing that team.

"There are two opportunities for baseball in Montreal – the first is the relocation of an existing franchise and the other, obviously, is expansion," Garber said. "And since Major League Baseball is not currently contemplating expansion, to my knowledge, there's a lot of talk about the relocation of a team and certainly a lot of talk about Tampa.

"As a baseball fan who suffered watching a team's attendance and support dwindle, and watching an ownership group move that team out of Montreal, I don't wish that on any city. So I don't want to be part of a group hoping that a team fails in a city so that we can get the team."

Garber understands that the Tampa Bay Rays relocating could be the only way to bring a team back to Montreal. But he's sticking with extolling how Montreal "is on the biggest economic upswing we've been on the last 40 years" and letting Major League Baseball decide what it wants to do.

He empathizes with what fans in Seattle went through losing the Sonics. And he can't see why the NBA won't return to play games at a redeveloped KeyArena, a project he also has a financial stake in.

"I think Seattle is a great sports town that's missing two major sports league teams – hockey and basketball," he said. "So it's great being a part of bringing one of them to Seattle."

He doesn't want to wade into the NBA part of things too formally, though he's certain Bonderman – part owner of the Boston Celtics – would make a great Seattle basketball owner as well.

"It all starts with solid ownership," he said. "And with David Bonderman, you'll have the most solid owner you're going to have in all of professional sports. He'll be the .0001% of quality, committed, decent owners."

Bonderman changed Garber's life – to where he can now afford the minimum $5 million NHL minority owner buy-in price without blinking – when they met just more than a decade ago. The late Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Dickie Moore had once told Garber amid their many conversations that it was better to be lucky than good.

And Garber knows luck played a key role in emerging from a humble upbringing.

His restaurateur father had been the first person in North America to deliver pizza to homes, but suffered from depression and later went broke. Garber was nonetheless afforded a private Jewish high school education funded through donations to students by Montreal's Jewish community. He pursued a law degree and career in Canada, helping broker a 1996 deal to revive the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes by moving the league's former Baltimore Stallions franchise to his hometown ahead of the NFL going back to Maryland as the Ravens.

By 1999, he'd left law and sports-radio hosting for good and helped create SureFire Commerce Inc., an online payment processing start-up company. From there, he moved into the online and social gaming word, becoming CEO of Party Gaming LLC in 2006 and watching it become the world's largest interactive gaming company.

He joined Bonderman's TPG Capital in 2009, becoming CEO of Caesars Acquisition Company – which controlled six casinos and hotels – and of Caesar's Interactive Entertainment and its renowned World Series of Poker. By 2011, he'd helped Caesars acquire the Israeli start-up social gaming company Playtika for roughly $100 million, then saw it flipped in 2017 for $4.4 billion to a Chinese consortium.

Garber's personal cut from the sale wound up being $210 million, giving him enough money to buy in to hockey and baseball teams, donate $1 million annually to charity and pretty much do what he wants.

Though on this particular day, he was hustling around the office with nary a spare moment. The next day was Cirque du Soleil's annual board meeting and Bonderman was flying into town for it.

With it also being Grand Prix weekend in Montreal, Garber was prepared to chaperone his boss wherever he wanted to go in town. Just like he's prepared to contribute in any role he's told to play on the hockey team.

Garber's skillset might be vast, but he knows others on the NHL Seattle ownership group – Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy for one – are equally, if not more adept in the online realm and have their own specialties as well.

"I think every businessperson in the group will bring a certain perspective on things," Garber said. "I see that David has gone out and gotten an eclectic group of businesspeople headlined by a very strong Seattle-based group.

As for things he can add: "There's so much ahead of professional sports in terms of online marketing and online sales. Sports betting, fantasy. The future is long and certainly those things are going to play an important role in the future."

What that role will be has yet to completely shake out. But for the diehard fan and former sports-talk show host that now gets to be a team owner, he'll take whatever he can get.

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