Sawdust floats in the air. Workers in hard hats hurry about only 4 1/2 weeks from a crucial deadline – the start of the hockey season. Behind the bar, local cocktail impresario Jay Jones mixes drinks.
The Vancouver Canucks, and parts of Rogers Arena, are under construction.
After an awful season that ended in April with the Canucks near the bottom of the National Hockey League standings, the team president and then coach fired, the slow steps of rebuilding are under way – a push to keep seats and suites in the arena full.
And despite the difficulties on the ice, as a new slate of executives and coaches led by icon Trevor Linden try to stay competitive and build a longer-term winner, the off-ice product at Rogers Arena is suddenly going to be a lot better – or at least tastier.
The food and drink, from the building’s 1995 inception, was mediocre at best, typical of sporting venues for decades. But a new trend has taken hold in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Seattle: higher-quality food and local ingredients, alongside craft beer and cocktails.
The Canucks have hired the likes of Jay Jones, named bartender of the year several times by various outlets, and brought in other food executives. Gourmet hotdogs, lobster salad sandwiches and pastries are part of the new menu.
Mr. Jones, wearing a dark suit and blue-checked shirt, and sporting a distinctive handle-bar mustache, promises a long list of beers on tap and “a cocktail of integrity, at nightclub speed, with a bartender smiling at you.”
A lifelong fan – “I feel like I was born in a Canucks jersey” – Mr. Jones knows the history of this team involves a lot of losing. But an expensive night at the arena should still be fun.
“Creating a good mood” is the mission, says Mr. Jones, who previously worked at a long list of Vancouver bars, restaurants and hotels, including Pourhouse, West and the Shangri-La.
The Canucks’ new offering benefits from one recent loosening of British Columbia’s liquor laws – liquor can now be sold in arenas. The Aquilini family is among the largest donors to the provincial Liberal government, contributing $226,285 in 2013, according to online records from the province.
The new facilities at Rogers Arena, which include various bars and food outlets, comes alongside the near-completion of a 26-storey office and residential tower at the tight corner on the west side of the arena. Much of the planning was under way well before the Canucks tanked under since fired coach John Tortorella.
Still, the investment of $10-million in the arena – on top of $50-million in the previous decade – comes at a moment the team needs a boost. Once dominant in the local conversation, when the Stanley Cup was so near, the Canucks became an afterthought last winter. Hundreds of seats, even if paid for, went empty every game.
For all the changes of the past several months, revival will take time. The recent era of contending for a Stanley Cup is gone. Making the playoffs – after finishing sixth-last in the NHL last season – is the new definition of success.
“Just getting in the playoffs is a big deal,” said team owner Francesco Aquilini in a rare interview on Wednesday morning on Canucks radio broadcaster Team 1040.
The hiring of Mr. Linden as the new team president in April, along with many subsequent moves, has helped drum up interest in a product many in the city were willing to abandon.
“I can tell you it was culture shock for the Canucks this spring,” said Tom Mayenknecht, a marketing executive at Emblematica Brand Builders, of empty seats and dissolving interest.
“The personality of the franchise shifted.”
Chief operating officer Victor de Bonis credits the long-time team captain and the new boss for a change in culture: “Trevor’s been great.”
The Canucks have claimed sellouts of Rogers Arena going back to 2002, the longest such run in hockey, bolstered by season tickets and packages that account for 17,000 of 18,910 seats each game. The Canucks lost several thousand buyers and are scrapping to get back to 17,000. They are at 16,000 currently, with a new advertising campaign planned for next week, ahead of opening night on Oct. 11.
Mr. De Bonis said the empty seats late last season jarred the team, sparking the push to overhaul the hockey roster and the experience at the arena.
“We have to fix this,” said Mr. De Bonis.