For Victor Cui, the team is the thing.
He knew it the first time he walked into Commonwealth Stadium as a 12-year-old kid. He knew it as a young man of eighteen when he joined the naval reserves.
And he certainly knows it now as president and CEO of the Edmonton Elks.
Cui, the sports promoter and founder of the wildly successful mixed martial arts colossus known as ONE Championship, is bringing his formula back home, looking to revitalize a team he’s adored since he was a youngster.
His philosophy is simple, really, though it forms just the basis for the hard work that must come next.
“Find the friends and colleagues to surround yourself with,” Cui says, “that allow you to be this unstoppable force in whatever mission you choose to take on.”
The 50-year-old sounds energetic and excited, which is saying something considering that I’d gotten him on the phone late in the afternoon, and only after hours and hours of interviews, one right after the other. “I’m on a treadmill,” Cui says, brightly, and you get the sense he really is enjoying it.
Cui talks about building a team of individuals who empower each other every step of the way. He explains the notion of “force multiplied,” something he learned while serving as a naval reserve. It can perhaps be best described using the well-known saying about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
It is a philosophy that is coming full circle for Cui, in a way. It may not have been born, for him, at the first football game he ever saw live, but it sounds as though it took its first steps there.
Cui thinks back to his father taking him to Commonwealth Stadium, back in 1984. Victor was 12 and, as you’d expect – and can probably relate to – that first time left an indelible mark.
“I remember the first time that my dad bought me a jersey and I put on that jersey,” Cui recalls of his initial tether to the green and gold. “When we came back to the city and came to a game. And it was a magical transformation.”
“It’s this amazing feeling when you walk into a venue with 30,000 other people and you all celebrate together,” he continues, voice rising in wonder. “You all cry together. You all sing together. You all jump up and dance together.”
Cui then pauses and collects his thoughts, filtering the memories into three short sentences of philosophy and self-realization.
“Sport unifies everybody in this magical way. And that’s what the team did for me. And, that’s what football does.”
Cui says he didn’t have much of a chance to play organized sports between the ages of 6 and 12, saying there weren’t a lot of opportunities to get involved in that while his family was living in Africa. They’d moved from Edmonton during those years, Cui’s father taking on an overseas job for the Canadian government, as an engineer.
Upon their return, though, that magical night at Commonwealth brought to Cui a kind of awakening, where he says his desire to be part of something bigger than just himself was kindled.
“This was my first introduction to this concept that you can don a uniform,” he says. “Be part of something greater than you.”
That night also made him want to play football. And he tried.
At his high school, he made a bid to stick with the the junior football team, as a receiver. That was a no-go. “That was the first time I had put on a helmet and pads and ran,” says Cui, “which is a very different experience than running and catching a ball without it.”
Standing just 5’4”, Cui took inspiration from an Edmonton superstar, hall-of-famer Henry “Gizmo” Williams, who, at the time, was in the prime of doing what he did best – make special teams tacklers look silly – and shifted his sights to trying to make it, instead, as a punt returner.
“I thought, oh, that must mean that there’s something I can do,” Cui says, comically, of watching the diminutive Williams dominate on special teams. “But I was wrong.”
This then, became a pivotal time in Cui’s formative years, setting him on a path towards his career as a promoter, a marketer and a builder.
“I realized that God had given me this desire to be an elite professional athlete,” Cui says, setting up the punchline. “But as a
part of his joke to me, he decided to not give me any of the physical attributes or skills or talent required to actually achieve that.”
“That started me on my career of ‘well what else can I do?’ in sports.”
Inspired by the concept of team he’d first realized on that night he’d gone to Commonwealth, but with no shot at feeding the desire on a football field, Cui sought to explore it elsewhere, and he did not have to go far, it turned out.
Across the street – literally – from the Cui family home in the Castle Downs area of Edmonton, was a Canadian Forces base known as the Griesbach Barracks. When he was “fourteen or fifteen,” Cui crossed the street just to check things out.
“I just randomly walked in there and and I don’t know even how I ended up joining the cadets,” says Cui, grasping at a few wisps of memory. “I just started going there and would go there every week to march and go on parade.”
He must’ve liked the marching. Or maybe it was something else altogether. “I had always been drawn to teams and organization and structure,” says Cui. He’d liked what he’d seen of the team concept at Commonwealth. And he liked what he experienced as a cadet. At the age of eighteen, he decided he wanted more of that and he joined the Canadian Naval Reserves with HMCS Nonsuch, in Edmonton.
“That was one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” Cui says, earnestly.
“The military takes young, arrogant, self-centred 18-year-old men and breaks them down and teaches them the value of being part of something bigger; that how, when you combine forces with everybody else, you can accomplish things that you could never do on your own.”
“Sounds a lot like football,” I say to Cui. “Absolutely,” he replies.
“It’s not until you join an organization, sports, military, anything like that, that puts you through hardship, that you get the sense of the magic of teamwork,” he says.
And also a sense of the idea of “force multiplied,” which Cui says he gleaned from his naval captain at the time.
“(He) always said that, when you’re building a ship or a team, don’t build it so that the parts of one plus one equals two. Build it so that one plus one equals three. And then you’re forced multiplied, right?”
Force multiplied. I sense a new Elks’ hashtag brewing.
But it is more than just a catchphrase for Victor Cui, who aims to bring the architecture of what he’s built elsewhere back to Commonwealth Stadium.
Where it kind of got started in the first place.
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