Game Plan: Behind the scenes with the Vancouver Canucks

We go behind the scenes with Vancouver Canucks COO Jeff Stipec and his team as one of Canada's top sports franchises prepares to host a matchup.

Credit: Grant Harder

We follow chief operating officer Jeff Stipec and his team as they prepare Rogers Arena for game night

*Editor’s Note: This article was written before Stipec and TC Carling departed from the Canucks organization

In a rare moment of downtime, Jeff Stipec gazes out on 18,000 or so empty seats that surround a massive sheet of ice. Soon the Vancouver Canucks will play host to defending Stanley Cup champions the Washington Capitals, and if Canucks Sports & Entertainment’s chief operating officer is nervous about how the third home game in the Canucks’ schedule will go, he’s not showing it as he sits in the press box.

“Tonight we’re going to have thousands of people here, and I look at this like one great big restaurant,” says Stipec, a graduate of St. George’s School in Vancouver and SFU who was an usher at the Pacific Coliseum (the Canucks’ home before they moved to Rogers Arena) in his 20s before running some of North America’s top restaurant chains, including Keg Restaurants. “We’re going to house everybody safely, we’re going to feed them, we’re going to entertain them, and then we’re going to send them home. It’s a pretty neat challenge.”

That it is. There’s still three hours to go before puck drop, and Stipec has worked every minute of that into his schedule as he hustles out of the press box to various game-day meetings.

The man who oversees the business side of a franchise that takes in about US$156 million in revenue a year, according to Forbes, has the vibe of a cool uncle. The former rugby player is genial and well-dressed, and he listens intently to what he hears. He also comes across as someone you don’t want to let down—his quiet disappointment would be much more deafening than a loud scolding.

Stipec leads some 950 staff on any given night, and if he doesn’t know all of them by first name, it’s hard to tell. As he makes his way through the bowels of Rogers Arena, stopping to greet everyone he sees (“When I was an usher, the guys that made an impact on me were the ones that knew my name and took the time to talk to me”), he’s sure to hit a few points.

He checks in on the food being served tonight in the club seats (pork tenderloin, braised short ribs and tuna tataki are the highlights). Hearing a curse word from around the corner, he pops in on another chef with a warm but stern “No f-bombs, OK?”

Stipec also visits the arena plaza to scare away any scalpers lurking on the premises: “They’re allowed to sell on the street, but just not on the property. I try to kill them with kindness.”

He then sits in on a pre-shift meeting with club seat servers where it’s revealed that last game, when a customer in another section was choking on his meal, one staff member leapt to action and performed CPR on the man.

Not two minutes after the meeting ends, Stipec has traversed the arena and found the server in question. He tells her he’s very proud of what she did before slapping two tickets to a Justin Timberlake show on the table.

Momentous occasion

Stipec introduced executive vice-president of hockey administration and arena operations TC Carling to a book called The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, by Chip and Dan Heath, at last summer’s National Hockey League draft in Dallas. The two subsequently came up with a challenge to their event staff: create 40,000 moments for customers over the course of the year.

“The book talks about how there’s only a certain number of times in your life where a moment happens, and we’ve all had them, good or bad,” says Carling, who started with the Canucks in media relations 19 years ago. “We have about 400 fan-facing employees each night. It varies based on the size of the show, but that’s a generalized number. And if each one of them did one thing per night to make your night better or anybody’s night better, you’d get to 400 a night, and we’ve got about 100 nights left in the year.”

It’s moments like the one in the club section that Carling and Stipec are talking about, and they get another example when a member of the security team hands Carling an envelope with a letter for Canucks centre Bo Horvat, thanking the forward for creating a moment for her own family after last night’s game. “It was a way to motivate staff and get them to feel like they’re pulling in the same direction, and it’s resonated really well so far,” Carling says.

Are you not entertained?

This season represents a big change for the Canucks when it comes to in-game programming, as the franchise tries to echo the efforts to engage hockey buffs in places like Nashville and Las Vegas. That means things like the Viking Clap, in which supporters are guided to clap faster and faster in unison while bellowing, and, in lieu of paid advertising,
Jumbotron features where Canucks players engage in staring contests and Pictionary-style games with younger fans.

At an earlier meeting, Stipec urged the leaders of different departments to make sure they were engaging with customers and getting feedback on the new additions.

Back in the arena, game preparations are starting, with the entertainment crew trying out the introductions and content displays on the ice and scoreboard.

The overhead lights go dark while shots of Canucks scoring and making plays roll on the Jumbotron. The video and sound run as planned, with just one hitch: the Boston Bruins logo figures heavily, but the Canucks are playing Washington tonight. 

“That’s why we do rehearsal,” Ryan Nicholas, senior director of game entertainment and content, says with a chuckle. “Most of the time” his job comes with a hectic work environment, he adds.

Asked for some horror stories, Nicholas shares a few from his five years with the team. “We’ve had some issues before where a projector has lost sync with everything else,” he recalls. “The whole show is doing something, and the ice is doing something completely different. Or a loading screen is [projected] on the ice. That happened a long time ago.

“But luckily that’s few and far between,” Nicholas says. “A lot of things we notice but a fan wouldn’t notice, because their senses are being bombarded. So to us it’s, oh, that’s a half-second out, whereas a fan isn’t going to see that.”

Not missing the Aramark

While the content side of the experience is a work in progress, Stipec has developed the team’s food program since he first arrived at the organization in 2014 as VP of hospitality. The Canucks cut ties with food and beverage giant Aramark Corp. at that time, giving him free rein.

The result is one of the only arenas in the NHL that self-operate hospitality. Luckily, Stipec’s first hire, executive chef Robert Bartley, came from one of the few venues to do the same, Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena (formerly the Air Canada Centre).

“We had the opportunity of interviewing close to 5,000 people and hiring about 2,000,” Bartley says. “So it was a lot of heavy lifting at the beginning but very cool to have the opportunity to start something completely from scratch. And listening to our ownership, it makes a lot of sense to have the hospitality department all under the same umbrella as the ticketing department, as the hockey team. That way you have one vision, even through hot dogs.”

As for that arena staple, Bartley likes to keep things fairly simple, even as the menus around the arena explore everything from hand-rolled sushi to prime rib. “The first year was about making the hot dog hot and making the beer cold,” he says. “Then it was about building an infrastructure that we could grow and develop on. But we have to do the basics right.”

That’s what it comes down to for Stipec, too. As complicated as running a huge venue like Rogers Arena can be, it’s also about the little things. Once the gates have opened an hour before game time, Stipec tries to do as he says and create a moment. He heads up to the 300 level—where the cheap seats are—and seeks out a couple of young fans.

“I like to ask them three questions about the team, and if they get them right, I give them one of these,” he says, brandishing two game-used pucks. “I feel like it’s something they’ll remember.”

Lacrosse Purposes

The Vancouver Canucks organization acquired a National Lacrosse League team in June. Can it turn the ailing franchise around?

Canucks Sports & Entertainment is hoping that its purchase of the Vancouver Stealth lacrosse club will bring more fans to Rogers Arena on days when the hockey team is off. With the rebranded Vancouver Warriors starting play at their new home in December, that remains to be seen.

Although it’s Canada’s national sport, lacrosse wasn’t quite working at the Langley Events Centre. The Stealth posted the worst average attendance among National Lacrosse League teams in 2017-18 en route to a 2–16 record that put it last in the standings. In five years in Langley, the team finished above the bottom in attendance just once. That season, it posted the second-worst mark. 

But Canucks chief operating officer Jeff Stipec thinks lacrosse can find an audience at Rogers. “There’s five teams in the NHL that have lacrosse teams, and they made it really easy for us to understand the business model,” Stipec says. “We spent a lot of time with Calgary and Colorado, and they were great partners in sharing with us how they’ve turned it into a success. We like that NHL/NLL model, where you can have that same engine driving two businesses.”

Stipec even sees potential for the company’s hockey operations to learn something from the new franchise.

“I think we’re going to try some wild things in lacrosse, and we’ll see how it works and see if it would work at the hockey games,” he says, noting that lacrosse is a grassroots sport. “But we’re going to push the envelope. In Calgary, their line is ‘Come for the party, stay for the game.’ The price point is attractive–in that $25 range, a little cheaper for groups. I think we’ll be able to attract a lot of people that’ll say, hey, let’s head over to Rogers for a game on Friday or Saturday night.”