Meet the woman in charge of running the NHL's best new arena
CODIE MCLACHLAN/for the Globe and Mail
Susan Darrington's career has come full circle. It started as a 15-year-old usher at Northlands Coliseum, took her into the international sales world, and eventually brought her back to sports, with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. Now, an Oilers fan at heart, Darrington is the head honcho at Rogers Place, the Edmonton Oilers' new $480-million rink, writes Marty Klinkenberg
Two hours before the puck drops at an Edmonton Oilers preseason hockey game, Susan Darrington begins her last-minute rounds at the NHL's newest and fanciest arena. Casting a critical eye, she stops at the Chairman's Club at Rogers Place.
In a few minutes, the doors to the exclusive restaurant on ice level across from the home team's dressing room will open. It has 60 members, and they pay $60,000 a season for two seats.
Darrington does a quick walk-through, stopping briefly to straighten one tablecloth, then scrutinizes the buffet. Tonight's menu includes grilled artichokes and asparagus salad, beef tenderloin with blue cheese crumble and tomato truffle jam, Dijon glazed salmon, mushroom gnocchi and prawn cocktails.
"To me, there really isn't a detail that is inconsequential," Darrington says.
The vice president and general manager of Edmonton's $480-million rink is one of only a handful of women overseeing major sports and entertainment venues in North America, and ranks among the most powerful executives within the Oilers organization. Before accepting the position, she ran a stadium in Seattle for the NFL's Seahawks, and most recently managed Allianz Parque, the home field in Sao Paulo of the most popular soccer team in Brazil.
"For a year, we have talked about doing this," Darrington says as she continues pregame inspections. "Now, we have to actually do it."
At the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, the Oilers Entertainment Group had 130 employees. Now, it has 280 full-time workers and a part-time staff of more than 1,600. The team was a tenant at Rexall Place, but now it operates the 18,500-seat arena at the heart of the city's multibillion-dollar downtown development project.
Each of the Oilers's 41 home games this season is already sold out, as were four preseason contests. The building opened last month with concerts by Keith Urban, Dolly Parton and Drake, each a sellout.
"This is the biggest multiuse venue in North America, and there are massive expectations," Darrington says as she walks down a corridor beneath the rink. "The place is un-freaking-believable."
At 46-by-46 feet, the high-definition scoreboard in Rogers Place is the largest in the NHL. At nearly 1.2 million square feet, the building is nearly double the size of Toronto's Air Canada Centre. It has 300 beer taps, 619 toilets and two 18.3-metre-long escalators between the main and upper concourses.
Bison burgers and Alberta beef patties are served in the restaurants and concession stands and, in a nod to Edmonton's large Ukrainian population, so are perogy dogs, perogy nachos and perogy pizza.
"Until you make a building part of the culture, it's just a meeting place," Darrington says. "You have to decide what is going to speak to the fans. Oilers fans like their perogies."
An Oilers fan at heart
Susan Darrington got a job as an usher at the Northlands Coliseum when she was 15. Two years later, when the Oilers won the 1987 Stanley Cup, she watched from a short distance away as Wayne Gretzky hoisted the trophy over his head for the third time in four years.
In a photograph that captured the moment, Darrington is in the background, standing guard in case fans attempt to rush the ice. Three decades later, when she looks at it, she pokes fun at her hairdo, but recalls it as a time "an entire city was passionately invested in a hockey club."
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
A few days after the picture was taken, she skipped her high-school graduation party to join Oilers staff members and players, the Great One included, at a victory celebration at the team's comfortable old rink.
As he grew up in Edmonton, Darrington's stepfather, Neil Campbell, was an executive with the exhibition association that operated the coliseum. He began working for the organization two years before the rink opened in 1974, and for the next dozen years served in a variety of capacities, including events manager and general manager.
When Campbell left Edmonton to accept a job running the Kingdome in Seattle in 1986, Darrington stayed and lived with her grandparents until she completed 12th grade. For four years after that, she studied human services management at Western Washington University, but returned to Alberta in the summer to work at the coliseum.
Following college, she was employed for seven years as a customer service and international sales agent for Eddie Bauer, and in 2000 became an events manager for the Washington State Convention Bureau. Two years later, she joined the firm that operated the new football stadium for the Seahawks, eventually rising to vice-president of facility operations and general manager.
At one point while in that capacity, Darrington and her stepdad ran colossal venues across the street from one another – him, the Kingdome; her, CenturyLink Field. In 2013, she moved to Brazil to oversee the construction and opening of the 40,000-plus-seat Allianz Parque.
In 2015, as she mulled her next career move, a corporate recruiter contacted her on behalf of the Oilers. Because her last name is different from her stepfather's, neither the head hunter nor the organization knew they were related, or had any idea that she hailed from Edmonton or had worked as a poofy-haired teen at Northlands Coliseum.
"Of all places in the world, it was Edmonton that came knocking," Darrington says.
On Aug. 2, 2015, she celebrated her 46th birthday by flying more than 10,000 kilometres to interview for the job. After touring the arena while it was under construction and several days of discussions, she was offered the position.
During a news conference three weeks later, Darrington was introduced as vice-president and GM of Rogers Place. She was accompanied by her stepfather, who is retired and splits time between Seattle and Arizona.
CODIE MCLACHLAN/for the Globe and Mail
"When I went to the announcement with her, it was the first time some people knew we were related," Campbell says. "Susan has done this all on her own. When I think about what she has accomplished, it is pretty darn special."
In running Rogers Place, Darrington joins Boston's Amy Latimer, Buffalo's Allison Appoloney, Calgary's Libby Raines and Columbus's Vicki Chorman among a small group of women managing NHL rinks. In Miami, Kim Stone is executive vice-president and general manager of American Airlines Arena, a major concert venue and the home court of the NBA's Miami Heat.
As a kid, Darrington stood in line to get Gretzky's autograph at the West Edmonton Mall with hundreds of other girls. So when she returned to Edmonton, the transition was not too difficult. She still had six Oilers T-shirts in storage that dated back to 1985.
"At the end of the day, I am a kid from Edmonton," she says. "I grew up eating, sleeping and breathing Hockey Night in Canada and the Oilers.
"This is a great time in my life, and the greatest job I could ever ask for. It's an opportunity for me to play a role in redefining this city and telling the world what a great place it is. I grew up here, and still have a tremendous sense of hometown pride."
A sellout of 18,102 people, a record crowd for a Western Hockey League game, filled Rogers Place on Sept. 24 for a contest between the Edmonton Oil Kings and Red Deer Rebels. It was the first hockey game at the new arena, following the concerts that featured Urban, Parton and Drake.
Other than grumbling by smokers cranky about the venue's no-readmittance policy and concerns expressed over a shortage of parking, the first week passed with only a few glitches.
During the Dolly show, an older and largely female crowd caused such huge backups outside bathrooms that staff converted men's restrooms into ladies' rooms on the fly.
Then a downpour occurred during the concert and combined with a thin layer of construction dust to make an exterior corridor thousands of fans used to get inside the arena too slippery to navigate. As the iconic singer performed her encore, an evacuation plan was drawn up requiring spectators to use a different exit route.
Arrangements were made to sandblast the floors in the corridor and remove the sealant that had caused them to be unexpectedly perilous. Trash receptacles were repositioned inside the building to match guests' traffic patterns.
"You design a place thinking you have the right plans, but it isn't until people walk in the doors that you really know what you are working with," Darrington says.
The puck drop for the Oil Kings' home opener was scheduled for 7 p.m. A few minutes before the teams were to begin warm-ups, a crane used to install a camera in the bottom of the arena's massive scoreboard became stuck on the ice. When the lift's hydraulic system failed, its wheels refused to retract, making it too wide to get back through doors it had rumbled out onto the surface through a few minutes earlier.
As two drivers patiently waited on their Zambonis, Darrington's staff worked to resolve the snafu. Minutes turned into a half-hour, and as the delay wore on, players on both teams shed their uniforms and climbed aboard exercise bikes.
To keep the audience from getting restless, the third period of the World Cup of Hockey semifinal between Canada and Russia was telecast on the massive scoreboard at centre ice. Fans groaned as a pass missed the tip of the charging Brad Marchand's stick, but then the building exploded shortly thereafter when Marchand gave the Canadians a 3-2 lead.
CODIE MCLACHLAN/For the Globe and Mail
It was 8:40 by the time the game began. "We are in the business of running a venue now, and hiccups happen," Darrington says. "The fans were happy watching the game on the scoreboard and I think the issue was forgotten."
The first game at the arena was won by the Oil Kings on a shootout goal by Lane Bauer, a fourth-year centre from Anchorage. Trey Fix-Wolansky, a 17-year-old right wing who grew up in Edmonton, had a goal and an assist.
"It was unbelievable to see that many fans here for a WHL game," he said. "It was crazy."
It was another piece of family history for Oil Kings coach Steve Hamilton. His father, Al, played for the Oilers for eight years in the WHA and NHL, including their first season at the Northlands Coliseum.
"The spirit of the night was a success," Steve Hamilton said. "This was an electric place to be."
As Darrington makes her way through the arena on pregame rounds, she checks to make sure that bank machines are stocked and bathrooms are clean. When the doors open, she finds a vantage point from which to watch the crowd pour into the arena and navigate through security scanners, making notes to herself all the while.
Shortly before game time, she visits a command post high above the rink, meets with the manager of security and watches a bank of video monitors as fans enter the building.
Later, she visits the arena's other clubs and bars, occasionally stops to chat with guests, and then stoops to pick up a discarded train ticket and pieces of popcorn ground into the carpet beneath someone's heel. There is no detail too small.
"I am sorry," she says as she bends down and scrapes up the popcorn. "I just can't help myself. This is an absolute privilege and a responsibility I take seriously. The best part is that I got to come home to do it."
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