Stephen Bronfman was a young boy when the Expos first arrived in Montreal. Like many baseball fans, he remembers how excited he was to attend games with his dad — the buzz of the crowd, the joy of a big win, the way a loss could feel like the end of the world. He was gutted when his beloved Expos left for Washington, D.C. after the 2004 season.
The early passion for the game still burns today, he says. It has helped propel him through seven years of ups and downs on his quest to bring Major League Baseball back to Montreal.
Bronfman is closer to that dream than ever. He’s Montreal’s point man in the unusual proposal to split the Tampa Bay Rays home games between the two cities. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg has praised Bronfman, and vice versa. So far, they seem to be on the same wavelength about where the deal goes from here.
Bronfman said he’s hopeful but realistic. He even enjoyed getting peppered with questions from reporters at a Wednesday news conference.
“I had the best time because I believe in (this project),” he said on talk radio afterward.
The Bronfman name may not be well known in these parts, but the family has a long and storied history in Canada, dating to when the clan fled the anti-Semitic pogroms in Moldova in 1889. In the early 1900s, much of the revenue at the family’s hotels in Emerson, Manitoba and later in Winnipeg flowed from selling liquor. The family, led by Stephen’s grandfather Samuel, began distilling and selling cheap booze, sometimes using fake labels like Johnny Walker instead of Johnnie Walker.
In 1924, Samuel founded the Distillers Corporation in Montreal. The family could make their product legally in Canada and then sell it to bootleggers trying to quench American’s thirst for liquor during the prohibition era. Money poured in. There were reports of an arrangement with gangster Meyer Lansky and never proven rumors of a connection to Al Capone.
“I don’t even know what street Canada is on,” Capone once quipped to a question about bootlegging.
The family went on to run the Seagram Company, with brands like VO, Crown Royal and Chivas Regal. Headquartered in Montreal, the company became the largest producer and distributor of distilled spirits in the world. In 2000, Stephen’s cousin Edgar Bronfman Jr. sold the liquor business in favor of the entertainment industry, a disastrous financial move that at one point cut the family’s $6.5 billion net worth to about $2.9 billion.
The family’s trials and tribulations have kept them in the news. In 1976, two New York men accused of kidnapping 21-year-old Samuel Bronfman II were convicted of grand larceny. In 2006, Stephen’s father’s second wife died after a car hit her in New York City. In the 2010 article “The Heiresses and the Cult”, Vanity Fair detailed how Sara and Clare Bronfman had given up to $150 million to NXIVM, a group their father referred to as a cult. In April, Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty for her role in a bizarre sex-trafficking conspiracy involving NXIVM.
Stephen Bronfman, 55, rarely speaks publicly about his family’s early history and has largely steered clear of the recent controversies.
He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but it doesn’t scare him either, said Karl Moore, a radio host and associate professor at Montreal’s McGill University, who has known Bronfman for about 15 years. He doesn’t need to be No. 1 all the time, coddled and catered to like some members of the business elite. Humility could be an asset as the two sides sort out how to share a baseball team.
In a 2006 article, Forbes magazine put it this way: “If the Bronfmans are Canadian royalty, Stephen Bronfman is the prince you’ve never heard of.”
Stephen Bronfman’s father, Charles, was the Expos first owner, giving the son a close-up view of the team during the early years.
The Expos played their first home game on a Monday afternoon in April 1969. More than 29,000 people showed up at Jarry Park, an outdoor stadium with a grass playing field. Workers were still shoveling snow and bolting in the seats as fans arrived, according to television news reports.
The Expos came back to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals 8-7. After the game, Stephen’s father “had to struggle through a back-slapping crowd to reach his car,” the Montreal Gazette reported.
Despite the early victory, the team was awful, losing 20 games in a row and eventually tying for the fewest wins in the league that season. Attendance averaged just under 15,000 a game, middle of the pack among the 12 National League teams. Rusty Staub was the team’s best hitter. A fan favorite, he’s still referred to in Montreal as “Le Grand Orange” for the color of his hair.
Over the years, the team added more talent — slugger Andre Dawson, catcher Gary Carter and speedster Tim Raines, who all ended up in the Hall of Fame. Larry Parrish blasted 30 home runs for the exciting 1979 Expos, and pitcher Steve Rogers won 19 games with a 2.40 earned run average in 1982, good enough to garner the second most votes for the Cy Young Award, given to the league’s best pitcher each year.
The elder Bronfman sold his shares in the team in 1991.
Stephen Bronfman did not speak with the Tampa Bay Times for this article, which is based on previous news reports and what he has said at recent public events, news conferences and on talk radio shows.
In recent years, as Bronfman has tried to bring baseball back to Montreal, he’s spoken longingly about growing up with the Expos — meeting players, reading box scores, the move to cavernous Olympic Stadium.
He wants a new team so that the next generation of youngsters — and adult fans — can make similar memories. It’s why he’s so excited about the Rays deal.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for, and I hope it’s what people in the city have been waiting for,” he said on a TSN 690 talk radio program Wednesday.
Bronfman has said that he wasn’t interested in business as a young man. He’d seen his father come home from work everyday in a suit and tie and didn’t think it was for him.
After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1986, he worked in the Expos' marketing department for a short time. In 1990, he enrolled in Montreal’s Concordia University to study geology, but the business bug was starting to take hold. He landed at Claridge, the boutique investment firm started by his father a few years earlier.
“I began to realize that the stuff done before me was pretty important and interesting,” he told Forbes magazine.
He had some early successes and ascended to the top job in 1997. Claridge has been involved with some well-known brands including Cirque du Soleil, Dick Clark Productions, gluten-free food maker Glutino and SunOpta, the organic food company. Bronfman’s firm teamed up with renowned concert promoter Michael Cohl to produce tours for the likes of Madonna and the Rolling Stones, and musicals including the award winning Spamalot.
The grandchildren of wealthy patriarchs often give or fritter away the family money, Moore said. Bronfman is adding to his family’s wealth.
“He’s a business success in his own right,” he said.
As the Liberal Party’s chief fundraiser, Bronfman helped get Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau elected in 2015. He attended Trudeau’s wedding in 2005 and the Trudeaus have visited the Bronfmans’ farmhouse near Mont Tremblant, Maclean’s magazine reported. Bronfman attended the state dinner that President Barack Obama held for Trudeau at the White House.
Bronfman has had some setbacks. He and a group of investors failed to keep the Expos in Montreal in the early 2000s. He also lost out on a bid to buy the venerable Montreal Canadiens hockey team in 2010.
In 2017, he was caught up in the Paradise Papers scandal. The leaked bank documents indicated that Bronfman and many others had used offshore tax havens to shelter money, which is often perfectly legal. Bronfman denied any wrongdoing, and the controversy appears to have blown over.
At the Wednesday news conference, Bronfman looked tanned and fit, dressed in a navy blue jacket, light blue shirt and no tie. He moved smoothly between English and French, in a city where that matters.
Most of the Bronfman family have left Montreal. The fact that Stephen stayed and prospered has bolstered his credibility with the community, Moore said. He’s an anglophone married to a francophone raising four children in both languages. He and his wife have given away millions of dollars to educational, cultural, environmental and Jewish groups through the Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Family Foundation.
“Montreal is a city with four million people, but the Bronfmans don’t get lost in the noise,” Moore said. “He’s definitely a big fish is a medium sized pond.”
Bronfman has described himself as an optimist. He feels there is momentum behind baseball returning to Montreal, whether it be the Rays deal or another one. He and his partners have identified a downtown site for a new outdoor stadium. Now comes the hard work of crunching the numbers to see if the idea makes financial sense, and convincing the city, the province of Quebec and the residents that it’s worth the risk.
He hopes the deal gets done, so that he can attend opening day with his 88-year-old father.
Contact Graham Brink at email@example.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.