George Gund III has passed on, but his legacy of supporting ice hockey in Sun Valley is lasting, according to Sun Valley Suns coach and general manager John Burke.Businessman, philanthropist and sports team owner Gund died of stomach cancer Tuesday at his Palm Springs (Ca.) home. Gund, 75, financed the building of the Sun Valley Indoor Ice Rink in 1974.
“George built the hockey community here and funded the Sun Valley Suns hockey team for 20 years,” said Burke, who has been involved as player, coach and manager for the Suns since 1975 and considered Gund a good friend.
“From Day One of the Suns, we considered George the ‘owner.’ We still do. His death saddens me. I loved him and will always remember that big smile. If it weren’t for George, there wouldn’t be a hockey community here. He created a bit of Sun Valley history.”
Burke said the Suns plan a tribute to Gund before today’s hockey game against the Las Vegas (Nev.) Hookers at 7 p.m. at the house that Gund built—Sun Valley Skating Center. Suns’ players will wear the No. 3 number Gund wore on several occasions when he skated with the Suns. The numbers will have a black patch.
Said John Heinrich, organizer of the Senior “A” Hockey League that plays for the Gund Cup championship each year, “It's been a 30-plus year tradition to play for Gund Cup. We all appreciate what he has contributed to our league and will honor him forever.”
Gund was a “Renaissance man,” according to Burke. He was best known for being the original owner of the San Jose Sharks franchise of the National Hockey League, but his interests ranged far and wide.
He was a trustee emeritus of the Cleveland Museum of Art, a national trustee of the Cleveland Orchestra and an original supporter of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
In addition, Gund was the longtime chairman of the San Francisco Film Society who was a regular at film festivals across the world. He was known to watch as many as 12 films a day and also for his associations with filmmakers.
Burke remembers a time when he and Suns teammate Mark Broz were invited by Gund to a film screening in San Francisco—where Gund insisted Burke and Broz be introduced to the crowd like they were well-known celebrities.
Gund’s family emigrated to the U.S. in 1848 from Germany and first settled in Illinois, before moving to LaCrosse, Wisc.
There, George’s great-great grandfather founded the John Gund Brewery. Born in 1888, George’s father George Gund II closed his father’s brewery in Cleveland at the start of Prohibition in 1920 and became a successful businessman in banking and real estate.
George Gund III was born in Cleveland in 1937, eldest of six children in a prominent family. Not overly successful in a series of boarding schools, Gund was 18 when he enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1955.
According to his younger brother Gordon, the military gave George his first adventures in what became a life of travel and wide-ranging experiences. The military introduced Gund to San Francisco, where he became a Marine by day and beatnik by night. For years he maintained an apartment in the North Beach area and loved exploring the area.
Only after his father passed away in 1966 at the age of 78 did George learn the extent of his family’s fortunes. He served on the board of the George Gund Foundation, which was founded by his father in 1952.
He dedicated himself to the development of several professional sports teams, particularly ones playing hockey. For 30 years, George and his brother Gordon Gund owned hockey teams and a basketball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. They owned the Cavaliers from 1983-2005 and drafted LeBron James out of college in 2003.
But George’s love wasn’t basketball, it was hockey. He enjoyed associating with hockey players and was known for donning skates and playing with the teams he owned.
In 1975, shortly after helping finance the construction of the Sun Valley Indoor Ice Rink, Gund acquired a minority interest in the National Hockey League’s California Golden Seals, which became the Cleveland Barons before merging with the Minnesota North Stars based in Minneapolis in 1978.
The North Stars were successful in the 1980s, but started having financial problems and the Gund brothers considered moving the team to the Bay Area. Helped by North Stars team president/general manager Lou Nanne, George arranged a complex deal.
He paid the league $50 million for a Bay Area franchise, and sold the Stars for $38 million, in essence getting a new team, in a newly-built arena and bigger city, for an expenditure of $12 million. Gund contributed another $30 million of his own money to a redesign of the $162 million new arena.
The San Jose Sharks played their first game in Oct. 1991 and the Gund owned the team for the next decade. Two months after the team debuted, free-spirited owner Gund took the entire team to Sun Valley for the New Year’s holiday. After his death Tuesday, San Jose city officials praised Gund for taking a chance on San Jose and envisioning its potential as a major sports city.
Gund was also a major contributor to USA Hockey. In 1996 he received the Lester Patrick Award from the National Hockey League for his contributions to the game.
An inveterate traveler, Gund would often pick up on a moment’s notice and travel great distances to watch hockey and other sports games.
Burke remembers Gund financing Sun Valley Suns trips to Japan and to Europe during the 1980s. Burke said he traveled to Cleveland with Gund for a hockey game and, once there, was thrilled to be introduced to the arena manager—who happened to be Burke’s boyhood idol, Rich Rollins of the Minnesota Twins baseball team.
Referring to Gund’s treatment of the Sun Valley Suns senior men’s hockey team in the remote Idaho resort, original Suns player Burke said, “He treated us like we were his favorite organization.”
Gund had a tremendous vest for life, but preferred keeping a low profile and didn’t like the limelight. He said that a person should be mentioned in the newspapers only three times in his life: When he is born, when he is married and when he dies.
He was known for his bushy eyebrows and his love of cigars.
George is survived by his wife, documentary filmmaker Lara Lee; his son George Gund IV; his five siblings, Gordon, Graham, Geoffrey, Agnes and Louise, and his former wife, Ketchum resident Theo Gund. Preceding him in death was his son Greg Gund in 2005.
Plans are in the works for a public memorial at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The family asks that any donations be made to the San Francisco Film Society, the Western Folklife Center, the Sierra Club, the National Museum of the American Indian, or the USA Hockey Foundation.
(Editor’s note: Portions of this account came from reports in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News newspapers, and Cleveland.com.)