Sowing soccer dreams on the prairie

From pro player to pro owner: Joe Belan looking build a soccer team and industry in Saskatchewan

By Matthew Gourlie

REGINA — The day after Joe Belan graduated from high school he moved away from home for the first time to begin his professional soccer career.

At the time he had no idea that career would last less than four months.

Now, 25 years after the Canadian Soccer League folded, Belan and his business partner Grant McGlaughlin are trying to give young soccer players in Canada the opportunity that he was able to taste only fleetingly.

“It was a great experience. It was a step above in terms of competitiveness what I was used to,” said Belan who said his international experience helped bridge the gap when he joined the CSL’s Winnipeg Fury. “My second game was in Vancouver at Swangard Stadium playing against Dominic Mobilio and John Catliff. I was marking Dale Mitchell. So that was a great introduction and a baptism by fire because I was only 18 at the time. Being in that type of competitive environment just made you a better player.

“You can certainly see the impact something like the Canadian Premier League can have on young players where they’re surrounded in a professional environment by good players. That just makes you better as a player.”

The final CSL game would be played at Swangard. After winning the first game of the final 2-0 in Winnipeg, the Fury stunned the four-time-defending-champion Vancouver 86ers with a 1-1 draw in Vancouver to claim the 1992 Mita Cup.

In the six-year history of the CSL it was the only game Winnipeg didn’t lose at Swangard against the 86ers.

By the end of its run, the CSL and its teams weren’t always being run in a professional manner.

Joe Belan

Joe Belan with the Ontario provincial team.

“I was a little bit oblivious to that. When you’re that age, you don’t really focus on the stuff that’s behind the scenes, the off-the-field stuff,” said Belan before adding that it was impossible to miss some of the league’s struggles. “You certainly saw signs where you heard players were not getting paid. There was some uncertainty around the middle of that 1992 season whether that would be the final season.

“There were cracks in the armour that were already starting to show.”

When Regina’s Kevin Holness crossed to captain Steve Millar to head in an equalizing goal in Vancouver, the Fury scored a massive upset. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

The Fury featured three members of Canada’s 2000 Gold Cup winners — Carlo Corazzin, Paul Fenwick and Pat Onstad — plus Canadian internationals Holness, Peter Sarantopoulos, Ian Carter and Fury legend Tony Nocita.

Corazzin was 20 and scored 10 goals that season, while Fenwick was only a year older. They’re a great example of how the CSL was able to help nurture young talent.

Belan saw playing in Winnipeg as a means to an end.

“At the time I joined the CSL I had a four-year program to look forward to leading up to the 1996 Olympic team,” said Belan while wearing his old white long-sleeved Canada jersey with his No. 6 on the back. “That was really the objective. Beyond that I wasn’t contemplating any type of professional career.”

That’s hard to imagine now for someone with Belan’s CV. Born in Port Colbourne, Ont., he had a breakthrough at 14 that saw him chosen for a regional team and then the Ontario provincial team. From there he represented Canada at the under-17 level and captained the under-20 team while playing for the strong Scarborough Maple Leafs program.

He was the first overall pick in the final CSL draft by the London Lazers, but his rights were dealt to Winnipeg while he was still finishing high school.

He played in the 1991 PanAm Games in Cuba and the 1995 FISU World University Games in Fukuoka, Japan, but when Canada failed to qualify for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Belan hit a crossroads.

During that Olympic cycle from 1992-96, he had earned a Business degree from the University of Western Ontario.

“Fortunately I took my mom’s advice, which was: ‘Stay in school while you’re playing soccer. You’re only an injury away from ending your career,’” Belan said. “That was the best piece of advice I got from my mom.”

So, at 22, instead of trying his luck at Filbert Street or anywhere in the footballing world, Belan instead headed to Wall Street. It was clearly a wise decision.

Joe Belan

Joe Belan

Belan is the chairman of Novatrek Capital, which he founded in 2013. Novatrek is an investment firm primarily focused on the mining and industrial metals sectors. He worked for Goldman Sachs in London as the head of metals, mining and steel in investment banking before serving as managing director for Pala Investments in 2006. He lives in Zug, Switzerland with his wife and three children.

McGlaughlin is a lawyer with Goodmans in Toronto where he is the co-head of Goodman’s Mining and Natural Resource Group. He and Belan worked together on a deal eight years ago and have remained friends since. McGlaughlin played basketball at University or Regina from 1989-93 where he was a two-time academic all-Canadian.

It was Belan who first became involved in the CPL when a mutual friend gave CPL president Paul Beirne his name.

“Our first meeting was less than 30 minutes because I had another commitment in Toronto. But I said to Paul ‘it sounds interesting, but send me all of the information and all of the financial models,’” Belan recalled. “We started to look into that and do our due diligence and we got comfortable that this business plan would be quite strong and that really led to our decision.”

Belan was interested, but the question became which market was the right fit. Hamilton and Winnipeg were well into the process with their CFL stadiums and ownership groups.

“There were some cities that were not available. There were others where it was up to decide if we really wanted to explore those markets or not. We made the commercial decision that Saskatchewan looked very interesting as a market and was something we wanted to research and investigate,” Belan said. “Very quickly we decided that Saskatchewan would be the place where we would really love to have a team One of the first things I did was contact my good friend Grant McGlaughlin, who is a Regina native.”

Belan asked McGlaughlin point blank what he thought about soccer in Saskatchewan and McGlaughlin said that as he grew up in the ’80s and ’90s he only maybe knew one or two people who played it seriously.

“He did say that one of the things you have to know about Saskatchewan is that the people are hard-working, they love their sports and if they get behind their team, they’re behind it 100 per cent,” Belan added. “The key is developing a good team and a good product and if you are there and you’re committed to the people of Saskatchewan and the community then they will reciprocate.”

In March Belan and McGlaughlin came to the province on a due diligence trip with Beirne “to see whether or not this was something, as a proof of concept, it would work. And we think it does.

“We did some more work, research and study and here we are a few months later and we’re talking about much more details about a team, a stadium and a bigger project that goes beyond just a CPL franchise, but creating an industry of soccer both in Saskatchewan and across the country,” Belan said.

Belan and McGlaughlin are looking to add some strategic local investors from across the province to be part of the ownership group. Belan didn’t have a fixed number in mind, but also noted they weren’t going the LAFC route of having 20 owners either. Not only would they bring a skill set to the group, but Belan feels it’s important that current Saskatchewan residents be part of the group behind the team.

“When I say strategic it’s not only bringing capital — we have the capital to do this, that’s not the issue. The issue is: who are people who believe in this project long term and who are going to contribute in other ways beyond just bringing capital to the team,” he said.

Belan and the ownership group is not just looking at job creation, they’re also looking at stadium creation. Belan envisions an 8,500-seat stadium with VIP suites in either Regina or Saskatoon to house the team.

“To me the stadium is so critical to the experience of watching a soccer game,” Belan said. “For me having a proper venue to watch the sport is really important. Because it goes beyond just watching the game. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the connection with the community and the social network that builds. The only way you do that is with a proper soccer-specific stadium. We think that is a critical element to have in place in order to make soccer successful and ultimately to create a soccer culture.”

Toyota Field San Antonio

Toyota Field in San Antonio.

He said they are in the advanced stages of finding a location to build their “permanent modular stadium” at a cost of between $15-20 million. He said the closest comparable stadium in North America is Toyota Field, home of the San Antonio Scorpions of the NASL.

“The attractiveness of a modular stadium is that it allows you to grow in the stadium as you attract more fans to your sport and to your team. The other positive aspect is that it is very cost-effective,” Belan said. “It will have a very professional look to it.”

Belan recently visited a similar facility, the Brita Arena in Wiesbaden, Germany, home to SV Wehen Wiesbaden in the German third tier. That stadium was built by Nüssli from Switzerland, the same company that Belan is working with. Nüssli was also involved in building Empire Field in Vancouver which housed the Whitecaps and the B.C. Lions while BC Place was renovated.

While there are many criteria that will go into whether Saskatoon or Regina end up being the home of Saskatchewan’s first CPL team, finding a suitable location to build the stadium is at or near the top of the list.

“I’m feeling very positive about it because I think people see the benefits of the stadium and that it goes beyond soccer,” Belan said. “It’s about economic contribution to the city. It’s about (central business district) redevelopment, especially in place like Saskatoon where a downtown stadium would be quite transformational to the downtown. Similarly here in Regina, you have Mosaic, but it’s a little bit outside of the downtown core.

“When you look at stadiums and case studies across both North America and the world, there is very strong empirical evidence that shows that downtown stadiums can help revitalize the downtown core.”

The stadium would have a bubble that would enclose the playing surface in the winter months and allow community groups to use it all year. Belan said he has had very constructive discussion with people involved with rugby in the province and they would love to work with them. He added that for growing sports like rugby and field lacrosse, the small stadium is “an elegant solution” to give them facilities to allow their sport to grow.

Mosaic Stadium-FB

New Mosaic Stadium in Regina hosted Spain’s Valencia and the NASL’s New York Cosmos in a friendly on Soccer Day in Saskatchewan on July 22, 2017. photo courtesy of Greg Bamford/facebook

Belan declared his desire to bid to host World Cup games in 2026 at New Mosaic Stadium a day before it hosted a friendly between Valencia and the New York Cosmos. A flew blocks away Taylor Field is still largely intact and offers plenty of space for a stadium and other development.

When asked about the Taylor Field site, Belan said “all options are on the table.”

The ownership group has made no secret about their desire to be ready to play by 2019. That can only happen if a stadium site is secured within the next 6-9 months.

“We want to work collaboratively with the municipalities — both in Regina and Saskatoon — to come up with a solution that is really a win-win,” Belan said. “So we’re not coming in to saying we have specific idea. Our approach has been much more ‘here are our ideas, let’s hear how this fits into your plans.’ I would say that the feedback from the province and both municipalities has been extremely constructive. Because they look at the benefits of this they make it clear what kind of positive impact this is going to have on either of those cities and on the province as well.”

The ownership group has brought former Saskatchewan Rush president Lee Genier on board. The Rush have been a massive success at the gate and on the floor in the National Lacrosse League. While no one is going to compete with the Saskatchewan Roughriders for sports supremacy, Belan is confident a soccer team can find become part of the sports fabric in Saskatchewan.

“Soccer is going to offer a different kind of atmosphere compared to what the Rush offer in Saskatoon and what the Riders offer here in Regina. We’re making sure we fill a niche here in the sporting landscape. We really want to be part of that,” Belan said.

“I think fundamentally it’s a province where people really enjoy their sport and they enjoy community. I think if you can combine the two, it doesn’t matter what sport you have, you’re creating a really good event with atmosphere people will certainly flock to that.

“We’ve very, very encouraged by the feedback and response we’re getting from people across the province for a CPL franchise here.”

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