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  • Tuesday, July 21, 1998

    Harry Ornest dead at 75

     LOS ANGELES (CP) -- Harry Ornest, a colorful entrepreneur who used to own the CFL's Toronto Argonauts and the NHL's St. Louis Blues, died Tuesday from complications of a stroke. The Edmonton native was 75.
     Ornest died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, where he had been since Sunday -- two weeks after celebrating his birthday, according to daughter Laura Ornest.
     "We're going to miss him," she said. "We were very proud of him."
     In recent years, Ornest was deputy managing director and the largest shareholder in Hollywood Park, the California race track.
     "Harry was a good friend, one of the great characters of this world," said Mike Finnigan, Hollywood Park's chief financial officer.
     Horse racing was just one of his loves.
     In addition to the Blues and Argos, Ornest also founded the Pacific Coast League's Vancouver Canadians minor-league baseball franchise in 1978. He refereed in the American Hockey League, was a linesman in the NHL and played minor-league baseball.
     "There were very few sports that he didn't know in detail," Finnigan said. "Mr. Ornest was a sportsman."
     Ornest, who made his home in Beverley Hills, Calif., had been a director of the track since 1988.
     He made his fortune in vending machines and went on to earn a humorous reputation as a notorious tightwad.
     Ornest owned the Blues from 1983 to 1986. He bought the Argos in 1988 and sold the team for $5 million to Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and the late John Candy in 1991.
     Ornest also was largely responsible for drawing enough attention to Steve Stavro's acquisition of Maple Leaf Gardens in the wake of Harold Ballard's death that the Ontario public trustee launched an investigation.
     Stavro was eventually forced to pay a bigger share price to acquire Maple Leaf Gardens, which owns and operates the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs.
     But Ornest was remembered fondly for far more by former employees.
     "It's a sad day for us all," said Argos coach Don Matthews, who coached the team under Ornest. "Working for Harry was a delight.
     "He was supportive and non-interfering. He was the perfect owner.
     "He also had a wonderful sense of humor and could make you laugh even at his stale jokes. He used to ask people he met for the first time, 'How old are you? I have neckties older than that.'
     "I really enjoyed my time with Harry and I'm saddened to that he's gone."
     The CFL head office echoed Matthews' sentiments.
     "Harry was a very colorful individual who brought color to everything he did," said league spokesman Jim Neish. "He certainly has a place in Canadian sports history and in the history of the Canadian Football League.
     "He will be missed by all who know him and had an association with him."
     Ornest ended his CFL association in 1991 when he sold the Argos, but he didn't stop making news.
     After unloading the Argos, Ornest and American actor John Forsyth got into a much publicized fistfight during a heated debate at a Hollywood Park board meeting.
     The CFL remained close to Ornest's heart. In 1996, he emerged as a member of Nelson Skalbania's 10-man group that purchased the B.C. Lions. But months later, Ornest downplayed his involvement, saying he was nothing more than an informal consultant to the new owners.
     "I've helped Nelson Skalbania because he's a friend," Ornest said at the time.
     Ornest is survived by his wife of 46 years, Ruth; daughters Laura and Cindy, sons Mike and Maury; and brother, Leo.
     
     



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