One Giant leap for Vancouver hockey fans
After a decade in existence, owner Ron Toigo's pipe dream has become a model WHL franchise
By Elliott Pap, Vancouver Sun
September 11, 2010
Ron Toigo, majority owner of the Vancouver Giants, has overcome some trying moments to see his junior hockey vision rewarded by hosting a Memorial Cup championship, hosting a world junior championship and winning a Memorial Cup.
Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun
Pat Quinn was a skeptic. Or part-skeptic. He just wasn't sure this thing Ron Toigo was proposing was ever going to fly.
"I had seen Toronto, which had great junior hockey at one time, not doing well," said the big Irishman. "I had seen Montreal drop its junior teams. I had seen Edmonton not being able to handle it. Calgary was doing okay but they were probably the only one. So, yes, I was a bit of a skeptic. But Ronnie was convinced he could make it go. He was the driving force."
Turns out Toigo wasn't selling his pal Pat -- and his wallet -- down the Fraser River. The Vancouver Giants were born Jan. 18, 2000 and today are considered a model franchise in the Western Hockey League. It's their 10th anniversary season and they've already had much to celebrate, including one WHL championship, one Memorial Cup and five consecutive B.C. Division titles.
They've played host to such marquee events as the 2005 top prospects game, the 2006 world junior tournament and the 2007 Memorial Cup, the one they won.
It's been an excellent adventure but, like all adventures, there were some trying moments.
Toigo remembers just about every one of them, too. He jokes that the Giant dream all started when he grew tired of the six-hour drive from his Tsawwassen home to Kennewick, Wash., home of the Tri-City Americans which he owned. But it actually arose from a conversation between himself and Quinn after the latter had been fired as president and general manager of the NHL Canucks in November 1997.
"That's when the idea really started," explained Toigo, the 53-year-old Delta businessman. "Pat had just
been let go by Vancouver and we were sitting in a White Spot in West Vancouver having lunch one day. I said to him: 'Well, Pat, what are you going to do now?' And he said: 'I might hang up my law degree and start working on that.' But he still wasn't sure. Then he said: 'What about one of those teams in your league? How do you think that would go here?' So I said: 'I don't know. Why don't we
look at it?'"
Toigo was told by more than a few people -- "oh yeah, by lots" -- that major junior hockey in an NHL city like Vancouver could not work. Ernie McLean's New Westminster Bruins had been sold and moved to Kamloops and then another 1980s version of the Bruins, owned by the late Ron Dixon, became the Tri-City Americans.
In Vancouver, the Canucks were king. Junior hockey was for smaller markets, smaller places and smaller ambitions so good luck, Mr. Toigo.
"Once I started looking into it, it just kind of grew from there," Toigo said, picking up the story. "Pat, who was now coaching the Leafs, was still interested in getting something done. Gordie Howe was a friend of the family, we used to go fishing in the Charlottes every summer, and I was talking to him about what we were doing and he and [Howe's late wife] Colleen said they'd love to be a part of it. So we brought them into the deal. Milan Ilich, a partner of mine in land development and a great friend, had just sold the Whitecaps and I told him what we were thinking and he said 'if you're doing that, count me in.'
"So with Milan, Pat and Gordie, we moved forward."
There were a number of hurdles, naturally. Toigo had to secure an expansion franchise from the WHL board of governors, he had to sell the Americans franchise and he had to negotiate a lease with the PNE to use a rundown Pacific Coliseum.
After a "long day" with the Western Hockey League's board, Toigo received the franchise. Then it was off to deal with the PNE and its president, Annette Antoniak.
"I met with her and she was somewhat
skeptical if I could deliver," Toigo said. "So I had the president of the league at the time, Dev Deley, contact her and make sure she understood that I could deliver and that we should sit down and negotiate. She made it very clear up front they had no money for infrastructure and that there was some talk the building would come down or be mothballed.
"So there was zero financial commitment on their part but they said I could do whatever I wanted and they would take it out of the lease or whatever. And that's what we did."
Kelowna's Bruce Hamilton was chairman of the WHL board of governors when Toigo arrived with his grand plan for expansion into Vancouver. Still chairman today, Hamilton isn't the least bit surprised the Giants have become a wonderful success story.
"Am I surprised? No," Hamilton said. "When we granted this franchise, we knew we really needed someone who would have an impact in the Vancouver market, someone who had the financial wherewithal to survive and someone who had some political clout to help get things done with regards to the PNE and things like that.
"I pulled for Ron to make this work and I think we have a tremendous owner in Vancouver," added Hamilton. "The world juniors they put on was a great event and I think it really put major junior hockey on the map in Vancouver. The Memorial Cup was another great event. They've got a model franchise there."
Both the world juniors and Memorial Cup set attendance records. Stu Ballantyne, recruited by Toigo to run both tournaments, now works for the Giants as their chief operating officer.
According to Ballantyne, Toigo sets the tone for everything that happens in the Giants world.
"Ron loves the game of hockey and he likes to win," Ballantyne said. "I can tell you he doesn't like to lose -in business or on the ice. He isn't here day-to-day but he's involved day-today. He likes to know we're doing the right thing. When he has confidence in the crew working here, it's easier for him because he likes to show up at game time, enjoy the game and watch the fruits of all the people involved in the franchise, whether it's hockey-side or front-office side."
Since Day 1, Toigo has operated with the same basic principle: keep it affordable and the people will come. With Canuck prices in the stratosphere, the Giants are a quality alternative for the hockey-paying public.
"Our basis going in was it shouldn't be a financial commitment for young families," Toigo said. "You have to be able to bring your family of four, park, eat and have a good night for less than $100. We're not the Vancouver Canucks, and we don't ever pretend to be, but we'd like to think that people get real value when they come to our games."
Happy 10th birthday, Giants.
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