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EXCLUSIVE: Irwin Simon embracing opportunity to be part of Cape Breton Screaming Eagles ownership

Irwin Simon, right, stands with Gerard Shaw, president of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, following the team's practice at Centre 200 on Monday. Simon will be introduced as part of the Screaming Eagles ownership group at a press conference, scheduled for Tuesday at noon at Centre 200 in Sydney.
Irwin Simon, right, stands with Gerard Shaw, president of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, following the team's practice at Centre 200 on Monday. Simon will be introduced as part of the Screaming Eagles ownership group at a press conference, scheduled for Tuesday at noon at Centre 200 in Sydney. - Jeremy Fraser

Press conference set for noon Tuesday at Centre 200

SYDNEY, N.S. — Irwin Simon has always had a passion for hockey and dreamed of one day owning his own franchise.

Simon’s dreams will become reality Tuesday at noon when he’s introduced as part of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles ownership group during a press conference at Centre 200 in Sydney.

“It’s more of a dream to own the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles,” said Simon in an exclusive interview with the Cape Breton Post on Monday.

“I was with someone last night (Sunday) that owns the New Jersey Devils and I told them what I was doing, and they said ‘what?’ but they don’t understand the connection I have with Cape Breton and where I come from and what I want to do here — they will never really know.”

Local sports fans first heard the name Irwin Simon in September when news broke, days before the Screaming Eagles home opener, that Simon was interested in being part of the club’s ownership.

“When I came to visit here in June, I heard there may have been an opportunity with the Screaming Eagles,” said Simon, with a smile. “I pursued it, they approached me and they (the shareholders) said they’d be interested in selling me a big percentage; I was happy.”

Simon was born and raised in Glace Bay, attending Central School and Morrison School, while also playing hockey at the peewee, bantam and midget levels.

His father owned a “little store” on Union Street, which is where Simon discovered his love for the food industry.

Following his time at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Simon moved to New York City in 1983 and began working with Häagen-Dazs, an ice cream company, and later went on to work for SlimFast, before being fired by the company in 1992.

Simon found himself as an unemployed Canadian living in the United States without a green card or visa.

“With all I had learned at Häagen-Dazs and SlimFast, I learned about brands and I was always interested in the food business … my objective was to start a healthy food company in 1993,” said Simon.

“I had very little money and a lot of people thought I was crazy to start a healthy food company with all of the big food companies out there. I took all the money I had saved in working and I went out and started to buy companies and raised a bit of money.”

Over the past 25 years, Simon was able to help grow the largest natural organic food company in the world, Hain Celestial, with close to 10,000 employees and 40 operating plants around the world.

In June, it was announced Simon would be stepping down as the CEO of Hain Celestial.

In recent years, Simon has invested in the sports community in Canada, purchasing the St. John’s Edge of the National Basketball League of Canada, a club which plays out of Mile One Centre in St. John’s, N.L.

Simon also owns a percentage of the Newfoundland Growlers of the East Coast Hockey League, a team also based out of St. John’s.

“This is my first entry into the junior hockey league and I think if you come back and look at junior hockey, it’s the gateway to the NHL and this is where the future of the NHL teams is,” said Simon, who will continue to live in New York.

“There is some great hockey to watch here in Cape Breton and what better to watch than the future stars of tomorrow?”

Since the team moved to Cape Breton in 1997, the Screaming Eagles have never won a championship and have only reached the semifinals twice — both under former head coach Pascal Vincent.

Since 1997, Screaming Eagles fans have seen the Hull/Gatineau Olympiques, Val-d’Or Foreurs, Rimouski Océanic and Saint John Sea Dogs, who entered in the league as an expansion team in 2005, all win three President Cup titles each.

“Cape Bretoners deserve a winning season. For 22 years, we’ve never won. We have to win,” said Simon, who has four children, all of whom never played hockey. “What we have to do is put a winning team on the ice.

“As I said to Gerard (Shaw) today (Monday) … first round, second round, and third round, I’d be very happy if we won this year, but my goal is to get to the third round of the playoffs this year and that would be a very successful team.”

Through the first 10 home games this season, the Screaming Eagles’ overall attendance number stands at 22,912. Meanwhile, through the first 10 home games in 2017-18, Cape Breton had an overall attendance number of 27,077.

“There is a lot of dollars now that have to come in here and take this team forward,” said Simon, noting he has learned a lot about brands, creating vibes, energy and value over the course of his career.

“Whether it’s investing in marketing and bringing out spectators or whether it’s investing in a new look for the team, investing in the offices, investing in infrastructure to build around the team, we need to get spectators to come to the games.”

In recent weeks, there has been speculation of Simon’s interest in purchasing Centre 200, which is currently owned by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality and where the Screaming Eagles play.

Simon didn’t confirm or deny the speculation.

“I think first and foremost is getting the Screaming Eagles behind us, but what I will say, there is a great facility here that’s probably underutilized with lots of opportunities,” said Simon.

“Halifax has the Memorial Cup this year, there’s no reason, whether it’s in three years or six years, the Memorial Cup can’t be here (in Cape Breton) one of those years.”

Simon, who arrived in Cape Breton Monday afternoon, had an opportunity to watch the Screaming Eagles practice.

“I saw the team today (Monday) and they look really good,” said Simon.

“I’ve been around a lot of NHL teams, I have a lot of friends that own NHL teams and I’ve been around a lot of AHL and East Coast teams, so I do know good hockey and watching them practise today for a little while, there is potential there.”

When asked about relocation possibilities, Simon made it clear the Screaming Eagles organization will not leave Sydney.

“I had no interest (in moving the team) from day one and that’s something that I stipulated that this team will not move,” said Simon. “I have written that into the shareholders agreement and the contract, this team will not move.”

Related: Cape Breton Screaming Eagles sale in the works

Simon hopes to utilize his connections in the hockey community to help the organization moving forward.

“Growing up here (in Cape Breton) was great, I learned a lot of good lessons here that have contributed to a lot of my success and I look forward to winning with the community.

“This is our team. It’s not my team and I never want it to be my team. We will build this together — this is the community’s team. This has to be a Cape Breton team, not just a Sydney or Glace Bay team, we have to bring the whole Cape Breton Island around this team.”

Simon has a message for all Screaming Eagles fans.

“I want to thank the community for their support and their patience. I’m going to look to the community for their input on how to improve and what we have to do to put a winner here,” said Simon. “I can’t wait to hold that trophy up when we win.”

jeremy.fraser@cbpost.com

Twitter: @CBPost_Jeremy

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