MONTREAL — The lengthy Montreal Alouettes ownership saga that ended abruptly on Monday began with a conversation at a Grey Cup party in late November.
At a small gathering hosted by new owner Gary Stern in his basement, one of the guests — Dale Lastman, governor of the Toronto Argonauts and the new chair of the CFL’s board of governors — casually mentioned the Alouettes’ ownership situation.
Stern recounted that both he and his father-in-law Sid Spiegel weren’t aware but very interested, setting talks in motion with the league.
Fast forward less than a month and the CFL announced Monday that businessmen Spiegel and Stern of Toronto-based Crawford Steel are the franchise’s new owners, ending the league’s management of the Alouettes that began last May when American Bob Wetenhall sold the club to the league.
The announcement ended months of speculation regarding the Alouettes’ ownership situation that included reports of various potential interested groups and individuals.
"Dale and Gary have been lifetime friends," said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. "It was an introduction that was made because of a conversation at a Grey Cup party which has some great irony to it."
Ambrosie had no idea who the pair were, but was immediately impressed with Stern and Speigel when he showed up at their office.
"We did a transaction in about three-and-a-half weeks from start to finish," Ambrosie said.
Ambrosie said the Alouettes situation was challenging given the club’s state of affairs. Between seven and 10 groups expressed interest in owning the club and tried to secure investors, sometimes by trying to work with each other.
But Spiegel and Stern emerged from the pack because they didn’t need to rely on other groups.
"Sid and Gary had been working together for 40 years, they didn’t have to figure out how they were going to do this together, that part for them was easy," Ambrosie said.
That allowed the new owners to focus on understanding the business and how they could grow it in Montreal.
Spiegel is the founder and chairman of the board of Crawford Steel while Stern is the company’s chief executive officer. Their previous investments in Quebec include steel plants in Longueuil and Rouyn-Noranda and real estate holdings.
Crawford Steel is a privately held company founded by Spiegel in 1944.
S and S Sportsco, a company owned by Spiegel and Stern, is listed as the club’s owner.
Spiegel couldn’t be present Monday, but Stern assured they are ready to commit to the city and the province.
"We saw this as a challenge, but the kind of challenge that can also be fun," Stern said. "It was the right opportunity for us that came at the right time in our lives."
Stern was asked why the pair chose to target the Alouettes and not the Argonauts, who were for sale a few years ago.
"It’s difficult, please take it the right way and If I say it the wrong way: the Argos suck," Stern said. "Can I say that?"
Stern said investing in Montreal was an easy decision.
"We’re here, we’re funding it, we believe in it, we believe in the passion and this football team is going to be a great football team that everyone can support and be proud of," Stern said.
The Alouettes were founded in 1946 and have captured seven Grey Cups, the last coming in 2010. The franchise is the last in the CFL to capture consecutive league titles (2009-10).
The Alouettes finished second in the East Division standings with a 10-8 record last year. Montreal, under rookie head coach Khari Jones, reached the CFL playoffs for the first time 2014 before losing 37-29 to Edmonton in the conference semifinal at Molson Stadium.
Montreal’s on-field resurgence came after Jones became interim head coach a week before the start of the regular season when Mike Sherman was abruptly dismissed. Then in July, GM Kavis Reed was dismissed by the club.
Jones said Monday that he was struck by Stern’s passion in his initial discussions with the new boss and likes that his expectations are high. Above all, Jones said he was happy to have the ownership situation resolved.
"It’s one of those things when you have things hanging over you, it takes the story away from the story on the field," said Jones, who signed a three-year contract extension with Montreal shortly after the club’s playoff ouster.
However, a priority for the new ownership will be filling two distinct positions — a full-time GM and team president, one who speaks fluent French.
"Our first priority is putting in place a new general manager and a new president who can make the right football and business decisions," said Stern, who’ll serve as Montreal’s lead governor. "We do tremendous business in Quebec and we have great respect for the province.
"We want to build this organization the way we have built our businesses: by putting good people in place and supporting them as they do their jobs, while working with great partners and understanding the market."
The emergence of Spiegel and Stern as Alouettes owners is very surprising given brothers Jeffrey and Peter Lenkov — Montreal native now living in Los Angeles — were long said to be front-runners for the franchise. There were also indications that Claridge Inc., a private investment firm with headquarters in Montreal, could partner with the Lenkovs as co-owners of the club.
But there’d been persistent talk both Lenkovs had withdrawn from consideration. And then last week, Alouettes president Patrick Boivin left the club, further suggesting the club’s ownership quest had taken a major turn given Boivin’s father, Pierre, is the president/CEO at Claridge.
"That was a decision we made at the CFL, at that time we were the owners of the team," Ambrosie said of the Boivin departure.
"But sometimes the answer is you just want a fresh perspective … to give Gary the opportunity to chose his own person, the person they would want to lead them into the future."