Good, bad and ugly of Vancouver sports biz in 2013

Canadians' Northwest League hat-trick the year's Vancouver highlight

So that was Christmas. Another year over, and a new one to begin. (With apologies to John and Yoko.)

What was good, bad and ugly (cue the Ennio Morricone) about Vancouver sports business in 2013? And what to watch for in 2014? Without further ado…

Good: Vancouver Canadians completed the Northwest League championship hat-trick Sept. 9, matching the runner-up Boise Hawks’ 1993 to 1995 feat. Andy Dunn, under majority owners Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney, has the most stable operation in Vancouver sports at Nat Bailey Stadium. It doesn’t hurt that the parent Toronto Blue Jays stock the short-season single A squad with some of Canada’s up and coming baseball stars. Ladner’s Tom Robson was the winning pitcher in the championship game.

Bad: Success on-field — hosting and winning playoff games, specifically — can solve problems in pro sports. The year was a struggle for both the Vancouver Whitecaps and B.C. Lions at B.C. Place.

Whitecaps didn’t make the Major League Soccer playoffs. The B.C. Lions advanced to the Canadian Football League’s post-season, but were eliminated by the eventual Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders. Leos’ attendance fell by 18,000 and the Whitecaps still play with 5,000 unsold seats under blue tarps on level 2. The soft economy in an expensive city where home games are televised doesn’t help.

Ugly: Canucks’ owner Francesco Aquilini and general manager Mike Gillis combined for a goaltender gaffe. Roberto Luongo stayed and Cory Schneider went to the New Jersey Devils in a deal that failed to bring any immediately useful assets to Rogers Arena.

Aquilini’s divorce was settled before a trial could begin in September. Meanwhile, Whitecaps’ executive chair John Furlong continues to deny 2012 allegations of abuse, but is inexplicably in no rush to get into court for a defamation trial against reporter Laura Robinson. He dropped the action against the Georgia Straight during a late October publicity spree and hired Janice Mandel, a former Procter and Gamble crisis communications and rebranding expert from Toronto.

While his $20,000-a-pop public speaking gigs have evaporated, Furlong also remains chair of Rocky Mountaineer and Own the Podium and a director of Whistler Blackcomb and Canadian Tire.

In 2014, the first of three Aquilini-developed towers to sprout from the ground around Rogers Arena is expected to open. John Tortorella’s first season coaching the Canucks had a respectable start. How will the temperamental “Torts” respond during the inevitable January slump?

The wildcard is how the Sochi Olympics break affects Luongo’s tradability.

Speaking of the 2014 Games, don’t expect Canada to match its 26-medal haul (including 14 gold) from Vancouver 2010. The previous host nation usually sees medal production fall by more than a quarter at the next Games.

After Team Canada says “das vadanya” to Sochi, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s focus will shift to the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, the only multisport mega-event scheduled in North America. But there are clouds on the horizon. TO2015 only has four major sponsors (CIBC, GM, Cisco and Loblaw) and fired its CEO, Ian Troop, on Dec. 13.

With 18 months to go, the $477,260-a-year Troop was replaced by former Ontario senior mandarin Saad Rafi. Former VANOC executive vice-president Terry Wright is a $290,026 a year adviser, while ex-VANOC vice-president Allen Vansen is a $303,530-a-year senior veep. Wright, whose VANOC portfolio included transportation, security and accommodation, could be a key player in the 2014 turnaround.

Toronto said no to a downtown casino in 2013, but Vancouver got closer to one on Dec. 16.

Paragon Gaming’s proposal to build a new Edgewater Casino beside B.C. Place got preliminary approval in principle from Vancouver city hall’s development permit board.

When it is referred back to city council for approval in the new year, will it enact bylaws to restrict hours of liquor service or even a restrictive covenant to prevent Paragon from filling the increased floor space with more than the 600 slot machines under its licence?

Or could the provincial government neutralize the ruling Vision Vancouver by dangling housing, transit or bike lane grants in the civic election year? And what are the odds Great Canadian Gaming will remain the operator of Hastings Racecourse after the November lease expiry?

So many questions. Thankfully, there are 365 days to find answers.


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