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Steve Atanas Stavro, CM (September 27, 1926 – April 24, 2006), born Manoli Stavroff Sholdas, was a Canadian businessman, grocery store magnate, Thoroughbred racehorse owner/breeder, sports team owner, and a noted philanthropist.
Personal life and Knob Hill Farms
Born in the Macedonian region of Greece, Stavro immigrated to Toronto with his family when he was seven years old to join his father, who had come to Canada in 1927. He attended Duke of Connaught Public School, where he was given the name Steve, and Riverdale Collegiate Institute. He worked in his father's grocery store, Louis Meat Market, at Queen Street and Coxwell Avenue and left school after Grade 10 to work full-time.
In 1951, he and his family opened a new store across the street under the Knob Hill Farms name. Stavro said he took the name off a box of produce from California, although Knob Hill was also the name of a community in Scarborough, Ontario. By 1954, he was running his own grocery store at 425 Danforth Avenue while his older brother, Chris Stavro, managed the original store. By the late 1950s, Stavro was operating nine grocery stores and outdoor markets in Toronto. His father was diagnosed with cancer in 1956 and died in 1960.
In December 1963, Stavro opened his first food "terminal"—a forerunner of the big-box store—which featured low prices and no-frills service. It was located at Woodbine Road and Highway 7 in Markham, Ontario. Eight years later, he opened a second terminal in Pickering, Ontario. A 10,000 square-metre store at Landsowne Avenue and Dundas Street West in Toronto opened in 1975. Through the years, he opened nine terminals in the Greater Toronto Area and a 31,500 square-metre outlet in Cambridge, Ontario, which opened in 1991, billed as the world's largest grocery store.
In 1992, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. At the time, he was said to own a manor house on 100 acres (0.40 km2) in Campbellcroft, Ontario, a 49-room mansion on Teddington Park in Toronto, a palatial mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, 100 acres (0.40 km2) at Holland Marsh, and a 300-acre (1.2 km2) farm in Kentucky.
All Knob Hill Farms stores were shut down in 2000. In 2006, Stavro died in his home at age 78 after a heart attack. He was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery where he had built a tomb adorned with icons of many of his achievements including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Order of Canada, Knights of Malta, Order of the Masons and an equestrian statue of Alexander the Great.
Stavro and soccer
His first experience with competitive organized soccer was playing centre forward for the Duke of Connaught Public School in Toronto in the late 1930s. The team went on to become Toronto district champions. A devout soccer fan since his youth, he was honoured as a life member of the Canadian Soccer Association.
Over the years he was involved in the organization and management of the Continental Soccer League in 1959, the International Soccer League in 1960, the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League in late 1960, the United Soccer Association in 1966 and the North American Soccer League in 1968.
In 1961, along with industrialist Larry Myslivec and journalist Ed Fitken, Stavro formed the Toronto City Soccer Club which played in the newly created Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League, becoming president of the club. In that first season the team signed well-known British stars Stanley Matthews, Danny Blanchflower, Jackie Mudie and Johnny Haynes, while the player-coach was former Scottish international Tommy Younger. He continued to operate the team until January 1966 when he withdrew the team after the league refused to order the amalgamation of the three Toronto teams.
In 1966, he helped to form the United Soccer Association (USA) with teams from coast to coast across the United States and Canada. Each team in the league in that first season was represented by a well known overseas club, with Toronto City being represented by the famous Scottish team Hibernian. In December of that year the USA merged with the rival National Professional Soccer League(NPSL) to form the North American Soccer League. Later in 1967 Stavro made the decision to sell his professional rights in the NASL to fellow Torontonian Joe Peters who owned the Toronto Falcons.
However, he continued his involvement with soccer by staging international exhibition games at the old baseball park Maple Leaf Stadium, Exhibition Stadium and Varsity Stadium. Those games involved such famous teams as Manchester United F.C., Tottenham Hotspur, AC Fiorentina, Internazionale, Olympiakos, Glasgow Celtic and A.C. Milan.
Knob Hill Stable
Steve Stavro became a racehorse owner in 1965, buying three yearlings in partnership with lawyer Joe Kane. Kane got out of the business, and Stavro continued racing and breeding and as the owner of Knob Hill Stable based in Newmarket, Ontario, enjoyed considerable success. He usually named his horses after famous Macedonian heroes and battles.
In 1988, Stavros acquired a 300-acre (1.2 km2) farm in Kentucky and was used to train his horses during the winter.
Toronto Maple Leafs - Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment
A long-time friend of Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, Stavro had served as a director of Maple Leaf Gardens since 1981, and he, Don Giffin, and Don Crump served as the executors of the Ballard estate following the latter's death. Stavro became Chairman of the Board of Maple Leaf Gardens and governor of the Maple Leafs in October 1991 following Ballard's death. That year, Stavro paid off a $20 million loan that had been made to Ballard in 1980 by Molson, who also owned the Leafs' bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. In return, he was given an option to buy Maple Leaf Gardens shares from Ballard's estate. Molson also agreed to sell its stake in Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to Stavro. That deal closed in 1994, and shortly after Stavro bought Ballard's shares from the estate for $34 a share or $75 million. The purchase was the subject of a securities commission review and a lawsuit from Ballard's son Bill, but the deal stood.
In contrast to Ballard, Stavro was a somewhat reclusive man who hated the spotlight, and largely left the Maple Leafs in the hands of the hockey operations staff. The first period of success was led by general manager Cliff Fletcher. In 1992–93, the Maple Leafs had their first winning season in 14 years, coming within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, and again made the Conference Finals the following season. During the tenure of head coach and general manager Pat Quinn from 1999 to 2002, the team was an annual contender, clinching a Northeast Division title, the first two 100-point seasons in franchise history, and two Eastern Conference Finals appearances. However, Stavro's legacy was somewhat tainted when he vetoed the Fletcher deal for Wayne Gretzky. Said Gretzky, "Toronto was my first choice. It was really where I wanted to go. But Cliff came back and said he had taken it to the owner, and the owner nixed it."
Maple Leaf Gardens, Limited was renamed Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 1996, with the acquisition of the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association after establishing a partnership with Larry Tanenbaum. The partnership enabled the Leafs and Raptors to share the new Air Canada Centre rather than building two separate venues. However, Stavro and Tanenbaum were said to have a poor relationship, as Tanenbaum disputed a report that claimed that Stavro saw him as a favored son. A Globe and Mail Report on Business magazine article also alleged that Stavro would worry about minute details such as hot dogs. The owners' lounge at the Air Canada Centre was modeled in a Scottish theme with dark wood panels while Stavro was chairman; his successor Tanenbaum had the room remodeled to a white modernistic style with some insiders saying that the change was made because the old room reminded him too much of Stavro.
Stavro was also known in the local Macedonian community to have a friendly competition with fellow self identified "Macedonian" Mike Ilitch who owned a rival NHL hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings. Stavro's Knob Hill Farms sponsored a hockey team in the Metro Junior A League in the 1962–63 season. The team and the league folded after the end of the season.
Stavro stepped down as Chairman of MLSE in 2003 in favour of Tanenbaum, as part of a restructuring plan that also saw him sell his majority stake to the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Jim Leech, OTTP Senior Vice President of Private Equity (also known as the Teachers' Merchant Bank), had orchestrated the deal after the closure of Stavro's Knob Hill Farms grocery chain, giving rise to rumours that the financial state of MLSE could also be affected. Stavro received a luxury box as part of the deal, which caused some controversy as several disabled season-ticket holders were displaced without notification.
- Honorary lifetime director of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair
- Honorary director of the Ontario Jockey Club
- 1993, TOBA Award as North American Thoroughbred Breeder of the Year
- 1992, Order of Canada
- 1992, City of Toronto Award of Merit
- 1992, Beth Sholom Brotherhood Humanitarian Award
- 1991, Ellis Island Award of Distinction
- 1988, Decorated Knight Commander, Knights of Malta
- 1987, Man of the Year, Kupat Holim, Canadian chapter
- 1985, Canadian Award, John G. Diefenbaker Memorial Foundation
- 1980, The Knight of the Golden Pencil Award, Food Industry Association of Canada
Stavro was a director of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a member of the Executive Committee of the Economic Council of Canada, a trustee of the Ontario Jockey Club, and honorary campaign chairman of Toronto East General Hospital Emergency Critical Care Fund (1987–89).
Stavro was a founding sponsor of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and a member of its advisory council, founding member of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, corporate member of 4-H Canada, member of the board of directors of the John G. Diefenbaker Memorial Foundation, member of the advisory council for the Equine Research Centre, member of the Jockey Club of Canada, member of the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society, and a member of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) of Lexington, Kentucky.
- Date-by-date story of Gardens takeover fight," Hamilton Spectator, November 11, 1994, p. C15
|Principal owner, Toronto Maple Leafs
1991–2003 (as Chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment after 1996)
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment