During the Vancouver Canucks’ first run at the Stanley Cup finals in 1982, Jeff Stipec was working as an usher at Pacific Coliseum.
Born in 1961, Stipec was completing his bachelor of business administration degree at Simon Fraser University (SFU), working part time at the arena to help pay for his education. Immersed in the towel-power craze led by coach Roger Neilson, Stipec was front and centre for a historic achievement in the hockey franchise’s history.
“Obviously I enjoyed being at the coliseum a little bit more than I did in the classroom,” Stipec said. “So that kind of sparked my passion for sports and the Canucks.”
Now Stipec is chief operating officer for Canucks Sports & Entertainment, a job that is the culmination of a long career that has included a wealth of experience in the hospitality and food services business. After graduating from SFU in 1986, Stipec went to work at a Keg restaurant, starting as a dishwasher, then working as a waiter before landing a job in operations at the chain’s head office in Burnaby. He eventually became a partner in the company.
“I learned a lot from the Keg at that time,” Stipec said. “It was my first real business application, so it was kind of neat to be a part of that and grow up through that.”
In 1991 Stipec headed north to Blackcomb, working for destination-resort developer Intrawest. Stipec moved to Whistler with his family and also spent time in Scottsdale, Arizona, while working for Intrawest, helping to manage golf courses and the company’s warm-weather resorts.
Dave Brownlie, president and CEO of Whistler Blackcomb, said he and Stipec have become good friends since he started working with him in 1991.
He said Stipec has a defining quality – aside from being able to cook a mean barbecued steak – that has helped him throughout his professional life.
“Jeff is great with people,” Brownlie said. “And he builds personal connections easily and is a natural at the front of a room.”
In 2006 Stipec left Intrawest to work with restaurant chain operator Cara Operations, a change he said he couldn’t pass up as it allowed him to work with Wayne Holm, who was inducted into the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2010. Stipec was then promoted to president of Cara’s Milestones brand, which meant a move east to Ontario for five years.
In 2014, Michael Doyle, president of hospitality and live entertainment for the Aquilini Group, sought out Stipec when they were looking to revamp the organization’s hospitality program. The company, which owns and operates the Canucks organization, was seeking to revamp its food and beverage division as the company’s contract with food services corporation Aramark was coming to an end. This coincided with the Aquilini Group purchasing the Toptable Group, which owns Araxi, Blue Water Cafe, CinCin, West and Thierry restaurants.
Stipec said the idea was to go completely “in-house” for its food and beverage offerings, and he became the first peson hired, signing on as vice-president of hospitality. Stipec started hiring the chefs and filling out the staff. In the summer of 2014 the company built the first Loge Club section, which caters to high-end clientele, at Rogers Arena while also renovating the back end of the arena’s kitchen system.
“The ratio used to be two to one freezers to walk-in coolers, meaning there was a lot of frozen food and fried food served here,” Stipec said. “And now we’re two-to-one walk-in coolers to freezers, so we have a lot more fresh products made day-of and handmade.”
The organization also overhauled its entire beer system throughout the arena, hiring Perlick Corp., a bar and beverage equipment company, to install a draft system that pumps beer throughout Rogers Arena. The Canucks have also added a second Loge Club, the Encore Suite and the Sportsbar, all part of a plan to expand the food, beer and entertainment offerings at the rink.
Stipec, who became COO in May 2016, said there has been a lot of schedule juggling involved in planning various renovations at Rogers Arena, which remains busy throughout the summer months with concerts and events. He also noted some potential architectural upgrades to the arena itself as next year’s demolition of the Georgia Viaduct will give Rogers Arena room to grow.
“There’s going to be opportunities for us to create more outdoor space for our fans,” he said. “And I think there will be an opportunity for us to expand a little bit on the building because of the retraction of the viaducts. Outside this arena could become a really neat story.”
Stipec is working on the season ticket drive for the 2017-18 season, and the Canucks are sweetening the deal with free jerseys (the National Hockey League is switching to Adidas to start next season for all its official apparel) plus food and beverage vouchers. Although the Canucks missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Stipec noted the renewal rate for season tickets has already exceeded last year’s statistics.
“I think there’s some excitement around our new players and our new coach,” he said. “We’re optimistic, but we still have a long way to go over the next three months.” •