Rugby Canada, as it pushes into what could be its biggest year, has hired a new CEO who brings the organization big-time experience from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games.
Allen Vansen, whose hiring was announced by Rugby Canada on Monday, was a Pan Am executive vice-president of operations from 2010 through 2015. He worked on the Vancouver Olympics as a vice-president of work-force operations and integration.
Vansen replaces long-time CEO Graham Brown, who last summer stepped down to run Canadian Interuniversity Sport.
The highlight of the 2016 rugby calendar is the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where rugby sevens makes its debut and Canada's women are a prime contender for gold.
Back in this country, Rugby Canada will stage its first World Rugby Sevens Series men's tournament this month, March 12-13, in Vancouver. The two-day event, with 56,000 tickets, is sold out. On April 16-17, the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series stops in the Victoria suburb of Langford for the second time. A year ago, the two-day tournament drew 6,600 people.
Vansen sees "a pretty remarkable year" ahead. A medal in Rio would be particularly important, he said, as it would bring a considerable amount of mainstream attention.
Vansen pointed to the women's gold-medal performance at the Pan Am Games, where the team delivered at home. Facing less-talented teams than on the World Series, Canada won four straight matches with shutouts. The gold-medal game was a 55-7 win over the United States.
"They stepped up," said Vansen, "and dominated."
Vansen predicted Rio will be a "defining moment" for rugby as a whole, sending "growth and acceptance" of the sport to a historic high.
Canada has for years worked to climb in the global game. On the women's side, Canada is a leader, but on the men's side, there is work to be done. The men's sevens team is ranked 12th in the world, and the traditional 15-a-side rugby-union team is 19th. The women's sevens squad is third, and the rugby-union team is fifth.
Last season, Canada's women's sevens were second, which qualified the team for Rio. Canada's men had reached No. 6 in 2013-14, but have slid since. Looking toward Rio, they have a last shot to qualify, with one spot available in a 16-team tournament June 18-19 in Monaco. Meanwhile, the 15s team needs a new head coach, after Kieran Crowley, on the job since 2008, left for a position in charge of Benetton Treviso, an Italian club.
Successful staging of events such as the World Rugby Sevens Series would bring more money into Canadian rugby for future development. Rugby Canada is currently looking to raise the last $3-million of a planned $8-million project at its headquarters in Langford to add to the facilities.
John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympics and chairman of the sevens tournament in Vancouver, said Vansen brings essential large-event organizing ability.
"He was a rock on our team," Furlong said of the Olympics, where Vansen helped the organizers navigate through the cash crunch of the global financial crisis before the 2010 Games.
Vansen will be a key to ensure Rugby Canada capitalizes on the sevens tournaments.
Vancouver is in the first year of a four-year deal to play host to the tournament, and Langford in the second year of a four-year pact.
"The thing about these events is they can break your heart or they can change your future," Furlong said.
Vansen is a native of Corner Brook, Nfld. He got his start in sports management at the local ski hill, Marble Mountain, where he was a program director as well as head coach for the provincial ski team. He also worked as a local triathlon-event organizer, which included an annual triathlon World Cup.
He went on to become chairman and general manager of Marble Mountain for several years and then managing director of nearby Humber Valley Resort in Newfoundland for another couple of years. Vansen was then a consultant. In 2007, he was hired for the Vancouver Olympics, first as a venue-planning manager before rising in 2008 to vice-president of work-force operations.