Trevor Linden has parlayed a stellar hockey career into an increasingly successful turn as a real estate developer and business mogul. Can the NHL front offices be far behind?
Trevor Linden stares into a freshly excavated hole filled with brown slurry on the corner of Herald and Government in Victoria’s Chinatown, a quizzical look on his face. Now a scrum of construction workers, foremen and architects gathers around the ex-Canucks icon. As they discuss how to stem the flow of groundwater into this crater so that foundation work on 601 Herald, the 27-unit condo complex slated to rise from this pit, can continue, Linden looks as comfortable with shoes in dirt and blueprints in hand as he did with a hockey stick in his mitts. After all, the man knows a thing or two about holes: as one of the most popular athletes Vancouver has ever known and captain of the perennially promising but often underachieving Canucks, number 16 more than once pondered the best way out of a deep, dark one. Nearly two years after his retirement, his poise on and off the ice still endears him to fans, and now, with his skate blades showing rust, he’s bringing a similar poise to the second phase of his life.
His meeting at the construction site complete, the 40-year-old leads me down the block to a trendy café tucked inside one of the neighbouring red-brick heritage buildings so we can talk. The heads of the lunchtime crowd swivel as we grab a table along the wall and Linden slings his black leather jacket on the back of the chair. His thick, curly dark brown hair is slightly salted at the temples, a quality that a mother would generously say gives her son a dignified look. Immediately, Linden is laid-back and conversational, without the slightest hint of the prima donna pro athlete. In fact the impression is exactly the opposite, one of humility instead of hubris.
As he reflects on his retirement from sports and entry into the world of business – as real estate developer, product pitchman and now, with his new Club 16 Trevor Linden Fitness facility in Coquitlam, health-club guru – the experience he shares sounds almost like a rebirth or a high-school grad flipping through a university calendar, albeit one with the resources and opportunities of a multimillionaire.
“For me hockey was really all I knew from the time I was five years old,” Linden says, as he sips a cappuccino. “When I stopped playing, I had to really think about what I was and what I wanted to do.”
Leaving Vancouver after his tenure with the Canucks wasn’t an option. His wife, Cristina, owns Basquiat, a fashion boutique in Yaletown. And although born and raised in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Linden – the middle of three sons – is now deeply rooted on the West Coast through friends, business deals and the proximity to the outdoors. The only question was, What would he do here in B.C.?
Trevor Linden with Canucks GM Pat Quinn
in 1989 after finishing second in the vote
for the Calder Trophy.
Early Trevor Linden
As a young man, Linden was a bright student, bypassing a hockey scholarship at Princeton to play for the Medicine Hat Tigers. Shortly after lacing up his skates for the Canucks in 1988 as an 18-year-old number 2 draft pick, he turned some of his smarts toward real estate investment, so by the time he reached retirement, the development business seemed a natural choice. Although it’s a well-trod path for many ex-jocks, unlike some others, construction and development are in Linden’s blood: his father, Lane, owns a road-building company in Alberta, and his younger brother, Jamie, is a construction contractor who worked with Linden on a condo project and a couple of Vancouver spec houses in the $2-million-plus range. Today Linden’s personal portfolio of properties includes homes in Whistler, a bungalow on Okanagan Lake and his main residence, a 3,500-square-foot house on Point Grey Road that he shares with Cristina. (“No kids, no dogs, no responsibilities,” he says, laughing.)
Along with a penchant for real estate, Linden has developed a keen interest in design and architecture, counting Vancouver builder Robert Fung as one of his urban redevelopment mentors. In 2006, late in his hockey career, Linden teamed up with another urban-design mentor, architect Howard Airey of the Airey Group, on a Point Grey residential and commercial project called West. Post-retirement his entrepreneurial endeavours have only accelerated to include the fitness business. This month Linden is slated to cut the ribbon on Club 16 in Coquitlam, the 20,000-square-foot, $1.5-million co-ed fitness club that’s a joint venture with Chuck Lawson, founder of She’s Fit! health clubs. Between Club 16 media appearances, Linden has been hopping ferries to Victoria to oversee 601 Herald, another Airey collaboration, while poring over plans for an upcoming townhome development in Kits, which will be his third real estate venture with the Vancouver architect.
Trevor Linden the businessman
The journey from hockey star to business mogul isn’t entirely seamless, yet Linden’s natural business acumen has so far spared him the disastrous investments that befall many athletes sitting on a mountain of cash after retirement. Sports and business are different animals. The life of a pro athlete is one of grinding, repetitive routines. You train hard for the first exhibition game, then slog it out with the hopes of reaching that post-season holy grail. Depending on how that goes, you then take a month or so off after the playoffs to recuperate, then hit the repeat button – year after year after year. Goals are clearly defined: you either win or you lose.
Real estate development, distilled to its basic elements, is still a game of winning or losing but at times has much more ambiguous benchmarks, says Linden. Financing might be in place, but then a project gets bogged down with city planning staff or the economy tanks. And the development track record of ex-hockey players is spotty. Last March Len Barrie’s ostentatious Bear Mountain Resort in Langford was given creditor protection with Barrie canned as CEO. Geoff Courtnall’s joint venture with Pamela Anderson to build luxury condos in Ladysmith has been benched indefinitely. Clearly, being able to top-shelf pucks and deliver crushing bodychecks doesn’t necessarily translate into real estate success. In comparison, Linden is a cautious investor. He doesn’t go for discretionary-income-driven, golf course-style recreational developments – too risky for his nature. He prefers instead Yaletown-esque projects where you can “walk out the front door and go for a coffee.” Places, he says, where “real people” live – that is, real people who can afford half a million dollars for 800 square feet.
“I really enjoy pulling a project together with all the different elements of design, financing and permitting. But in the business world, the results aren’t as frequent,” Linden says. “They’re less tangible, and you may not reach a goal, say, three times a year, the way you do in hockey. At first that was kind of frustrating for me.”
If business goals are what Linden is after, then he’s reached a few modest ones lately. As of the end of November, 601 Herald’s one- and two-bedroom suites, which start at $249,900 and $419,000 respectively, were more than 35 per cent pre-sold after nine months on the market – enough, says Linden, to ensure completion of the project. The high-end furniture store BeSpoke Design Ltd. signed a lease to move into the 1,600 square feet of ground-floor commercial space at 601 Herald. And as for Club 16, 200 people bought memberships in the first four days of sales last September at a rate of $14.99 per month, each with the added enticement of an autographed Linden photo.
Linden at the Pacific Coliseum in 1989,
in his rookie year as a Canuck.
Trevor Linden, learning to lead
Yet friends and associates say Linden carries forward much more than a well-practiced signature from his days on the ice. As one of the NHL’s youngest captains, he learned to lead a locker room full of high-paid egos with his hard-work ethic and still tops the franchise in all-time points. Through the Trevor Linden Foundation, he donated more than $600,000 to cancer research and became a fixture at Canuck Place and Ronald McDonald House. In 1998, during Mike Keenan’s fraught tenure as head coach, management traded Linden away to a forgettable three-year tour of duty with the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. When the Canucks reacquired him in 2001, fans welcomed him home like the Second Coming. His stressful stint moonlighting as president of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), when players battled owners over salary caps, culminated in the bitter 2004-05 season lockout during which many fans criticized the astronomical salaries of the pros. The experience was a character-building crash course in communication and brass-tacks negotiating, adding layers to Linden’s skin. In this light, it’s not a huge leap going from the Canucks locker room or NHLPA boardroom to an Atco trailer with an architect, a project manager and tradespeople – different players but still a team.
Linden is fond of saying that he grew up with Vancouver and that Vancouver grew up with him, and accepts the attendant fame and celebrity as an easy price to pay for a lengthy and lucrative hockey career. Whether or not he’s entirely comfortable with the notion, Trevor Linden is a brand in B.C., and he’s not above capitalizing on it. In the early days of his career, he and Wendell Clark were shills for Chunky Soup. Recently, he has become the spokesperson for Clearly Contacts, which netted this slag from an anonymous vancitybuzz.com blogger: “Nobody believes for a second that Trevor wears $38 glasses. This is cheaper than cheap. Trevor sold out.” With fame, it seems, comes public judgment. Still, Linden says he has turned down countless more offers than he’s accepted to link his brand with another. For him, he says, the business proposition has to be the “right fit.”
Trevor Linden breaking ground at his 601 Herald condo development in Victoria.
That’s why when Chuck Lawson began thinking about launching a new fitness club he initially shrugged off suggestions from a friend that he enlist Trevor Linden as a partner. What were the chances? Then he thought about it some more. If it had worked for Steve Nash, who has parlayed his basketball fame and fortune into a rapidly expanding fitness-club empire, why not Linden? So last May, Lawson made the call and, to his surprise, Linden obliged with a meeting. Both parties admit they anticipated a brief discussion followed by polite emails saying “thanks for coming out,” but it ended up being a three-hour dialogue. They spent the following week visiting potential fitness-club locations and “getting to know each other,” Lawson says. These meetings eventually led to the Club 16 concept and a 50-50 partnership. Linden found that “right fit,” and Lawson had scored a partner with a name that’s gold.
“For me doing business with Trevor was a no-brainer. He lives and breathes what we do,” Lawson says, over the phone from his Surrey headquarters. “But he doesn’t just want to stick his name on something and get a cheque every month. He wants to be involved.”
In a fitness club, Linden sees a synergy between lifestyle and good business.
“I think people will say, That’s Trevor’s club, so I think I’ll give it a try. But the product has to be good. Fitness is a huge part of my life, so I believe in this,” he says.
Even without pro hockey, Linden is an avowed fitness junkie. Since retiring he has rekindled his passion for skiing. He loves cycling, which is why he touts the communal bike garage as one of his favourite design features at 601 Herald. A typical weekend for Linden might resemble the one he spent last Halloween: a 120-kilometre road ride on Saturday followed on Sunday by a few laps on the North Shore with his mountain bike. He thrashes himself in long-distance mountain bike races, such as the 600-kilometre Trans Alps that he completed with a friend the summer before his final hockey season, placing 48th in a field of 122 two-person teams.
Linden as president of the NHLPA in
2005 during the NHL lockout.
Trevor Linden: A genuine guy
Mark James, of the Mark James group of companies, is a fellow cycling fanatic and longtime friend. They’ve known each other since Linden walked into James’s Broadway Avenue clothing store back in 1988, still buzzing from back-to-back Memorial Cup wins with the Medicine Hat Tigers and fresh in town as the Canucks’ great Albertan hope. James calls Linden a genuine guy, the kind of person you want to do business with and not the sort of arrogant pro athlete who sits on an airplane, then “puts his iPod on and pulls his hat over his ears.”
“One thing I’ve learned in my business career is that reputation is everything,” James says. “If you know Trevor at all, what you see is what you get. He’s hard-working, he has time for everybody and his word is his deed.”
James remembers when Linden retired. While former teammates gathered for training camp and sports media clamoured over upcoming season prospects, Linden joined James and his son Josh for a hike to the top of the Lions. It was a gruelling grind, the kind of punishing workout Linden loves. However, the ascent of this iconic North Shore landmark also marked a poignant juncture. From there Linden could gaze down and reflect upon the city that adopted him – and that he adopted – during a 20-year hockey career that had come to an end.
“It was really special to share that moment with him. I’m sure it’s a little scary for him. Now he’s got to make projects happen. But you know Trevor has always had an eye for real estate. So many athletes make a lot of money and retire with nothing. Trevor’s not one of those guys; he makes good decisions,” James says. “To watch him show up in my clothing store 20 years ago and evolve over the years has been wonderful.”
As he enters his fifth decade, Trevor Linden’s charmed life is in some ways only starting to gather steam. And who knows? Hockey may again be in the mix, Linden says, but next time it will be at the
business end of the ice. “I’m not just going to hang around and play golf,” he says. “That’s not me.”
Clash of the Titans
Trevor Linden and Steve Nash are wealthy athletes with local-boy, great-guy credentials. It may be the most obvious of business strategies – leveraging the cachet of a pro athlete to sell gym memberships – and now both of these sports icons are putting their stamp on the fitness business.
Steve Nash Sports Club
Since opening his first gym in 2007, Nash has added two more clubs under his brand, and in 2009 he – along with partners Mark Mastrov and Leonard Schlemm – purchased the 50-year-old Fitness World chain, rebranding it Steve Nash Fitness World. The opening of a new location in North Burnaby in February will bring to 17 the number of outlets waving the Nash flag. Colleen Kirk, spokesperson for the Steve Nash group, doesn’t view the arrival of a new celebrity athlete in the gym business as competition.
“There will be a different legion of fans that will be attracted to his club,” Kirk says, adding that Steve Nash Fitness Club recently became the official workout hub for Linden’s former hockey team. “People associate athletes with success, whether you’re an aspiring competitive athlete or a mother who wants to lose 10 pounds after having a baby. Both Trevor and Steve are really good guys, and I think that’s important for credibility in this business.”
While the basketball star may be a more globally recognizable sporting icon, according to Chuck Lawson, Linden’s new business partner at Club 16, Captain Canuck is top dog in Vancouver.
“It’s a big deal, having Trevor on board. He brings a different light to it than any other athlete would in the province,” Lawson says. Lawson and Linden are distancing themselves from the competition with price point and vibe. Rather than a navel-gazing temple of hard-body attitude with side orders of spa treatments and Bikram yoga, Club 16 is being positioned as a non-intimidating sanctuary for the everyday Jack or Jill who might otherwise not set foot in a gym. Before the paint had even dried at the flagship Coquitlam facility, the fitness duo was talking expansion. “We have plans to grow this in the Lower Mainland and B.C.-wide,” says Lawson, adding that he and Linden have already looked at several new properties.