The first Oilers game in Rogers Place happened in September and the fans were delighted, but behind the media coverage, the crush of the fans eager to see Canada’s newest and biggest arena and the gently curving walls of a building that has become an instant Edmonton icon stood a man with a smile on his face. That man was Bob Nicholson.
Nicholson is the CEO and vice chair of Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) and to say he’s a busy man would be an understatement. Appointed by the Katz Group in 2014 to vice chair OEG, Nicholson manages the Katz Group’s many sports and entertainment assets. In April of 2015, the Katz Group appointed Nicholson as the CEO of OEG, a role whose duties include overseeing the Katz Group’s expansions, securing new sponsorships and events, and ensuring an outstanding fan experience at each event and operating Rogers Place.
With Rogers Place now open and the Oilers in their latest season, all eyes are on Nicholson. How does he feel about that?
“I wasn’t supposed to do this,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “When I retired from Hockey Canada, I was supposed to play golf and spend time with my wife Lorna. Daryl Katz, who has been a friend for many years, convinced me to be the vice chair of the OEG. Eight months into it, he started to talk to me about getting more involved, and four months after that, I was the CEO of OEG.”
The decisions to move forward as vice-chair and then CEO may have put Nicholson’s retirement plans on hold, but he’s fine with that.
“When I came on as vice chair, I did not realize what the whole vision was and how much bigger the vision is going to get over the next few years. And looking to report to Daryl, who is a very successful businessman, would that be a challenge for me? It turns out that getting up and talking to Daryl motivates me every day as we discuss how we can improve the city and the brand of OEG.”
It was easy for Daryl to see that Nicholson was the right man for the job. In fact, anyone that knows Nicholson knows that hockey is in his blood.
“It all started at a very young age in Penticton,” Nicholson explains. “I lived by the arena and got involved with hockey when I was four or five years old, with the great support of my mom and dad.”
The rest, as they say, is history. His career in hockey soon took him off the ice and into the office, where he made contributions to Canada’s favourite game that will resonate for a lifetime.
“I got hired by the British Columbia Amateur Hockey Association to run their development programs in BC. I started a program in the Victoria NHL novice hockey league for kids 10 and under. The program focused on fun, not competition. Today it’s the initiation program used in over 50 countries in the world.”
As his career progressed, Nicholson found himself coaching at the junior level and wondering if he should stay on as a coach or focus on administration.
“Murray Costello, president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, talked me into being the vice president of the organization!” he laughs. “My first job was to look after the formation of the first Women’s National Team. I took over the National Team Program and it wasn’t a great start. We came in at seventh place at the World Juniors in Fussen, Germany in my first year. The country was upset and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep my job! But then we won five consecutive gold medals, and that launched my career on the world stage.”
As the 1990s drew to a close, the president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association was stepping down, and Nicholson could see the writing on the wall.
“At first I had no desire to be their president. I made a 25-minute presentation to the Board of Hockey Canada with some suggestions on how to change the structure of hockey in Canada. Two and a half hours later, they called me back into the room and agreed to the changes, and I found myself as the president of Hockey Canada! When I started, there were 20 people and a $4 million dollar budget. In 2014 when I left, there were 107 people and over a $100 million in the budget (which would include World Junior profits of $22 million).”
How did he feel about leaving a very successful career at Hockey Canada and joining OEG?
Nicholson loves every aspect of his latest career move. “I’m proud to be part of Daryl Katz’s global vision for OEG. I’m also proud of Hockey Canada; where it is today and where it will be in the future.”
“We have an unbelievable staff and it’s growing every hour. We have people that have excellent skills and passion. It becomes a way of life for them and their families.
“The most challenging part is meeting the high expectations. Everyone in this city and in Oil Country wants the Oilers to win. There are also the expectations of the new building, and making sure we are fan friendly and have great guest experiences. There are also expectations on being able to financially turn a profit so we can continue to build the brand of OEG, not just in Edmonton, but worldwide.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the world, and this is the biggest and best arena that has ever been built. The key for all of us is to develop ‘I remember’ moments for everyone that comes into Rogers Place, be it around food and beverage, guest experiences, best concerts, or best hockey games as they enter the doors. It’s about the culture we are building with the staff, the fans and all the great experiences they can have.
“People think that it’s an unbelievable building, but they don’t understand all the various pieces within Rogers Place. I’ve been walking through it for days and I’m still experiencing and finding new things. For the guests to walk around and see the levels from the top concourse to the premium spaces, Sportsnet Lounge, Sky Lounge – there are so many different ways to experience Rogers Place for entertainment or for hockey.”
Nicholson is happy to have his final career role in a city he loves, working with and for people he respects and overseeing the game he loves so much.
“There is no question I came here because of hockey, and I really like Edmonton. I’ve been fortunate to live in a lot of great cities in this country, but the people of Edmonton like to get outside. They are very active. They have a love for the Oilers. You can feel the Oilers’ presence in all walks of life in Edmonton and in Oil Country. This city is ready to explode as the Oilers’ hockey team gets better in the future.”
Nicholson is proud of the culture that surrounds OEG, the Oilers and Rogers Place.
“Working in OEG is a different way of life. You don’t come to work at eight and leave at four. You are going to work long hours day after day, but hopefully, when you get out of bed in the morning you are excited to go to work. It shouldn’t feel like work. It’s something you want to achieve and get done in a day. If it becomes work, it’s not the place for you.”
Over the course of his long and successful career, Nicholson discovered ways to stay grounded and balanced.
“Surround yourself with the best people and let people lead in their areas of strength. Give those people the credit for leading. Teamwork is so rewarding. When you see other teammates succeed, the best thing is to sit back, smile, watch it happen and support other teammates as they achieve their goals.
“Try to balance your life. That is something that is very important and you should keep that in front of you all the time. When you get engulfed in your work, you leave behind your family. Make sure you include them and enjoy special experiences with them.
“I’m very proud of, and happy to be on the board of, the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation. They have reached out in so many different areas of the community and made such a difference for families in the city and in northern Alberta. We will continue to do that with more focus on hockey and the Downtown Community Arena to make sure underserved kids can play the game. The Foundation will also be seeking to get our players and their spouses more involved in the charities that matter to them, outside of hockey.”
Nicholson knows that time away from the office is important too. “I love playing golf! I wish I had more time for that! I also love bike riding and spending time with my family.”
As fans and guests of Rogers Place cheer from the stands and snap photos of the impressive new building, Nicholson has a unique view of how far he, OEG, and the stunning arena have come. Few have had such ringside, or should we say, rinkside, seats to the things he’s seen in Canadian hockey so far.
“Personally, I’ve had lots of mentors that have helped me build my vision and more importantly, my values. My long-time friend, Kevin Lowe – working with him has been special. Two other people that also stand out are (former president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and later, Hockey Canada) Murray Costello, and hockey legend Bill Hay, who really helped me build values on how I deal with issues, staff and family.”
Nicholson looks forward to continuing to put Edmonton on the world’s stage, thanks to the tireless efforts of himself, his team, OEG and the Katz Group, and Edmonton is fortunate to have such a legend in its corner. No matter what happens with our “City of Champions” signage, OEG and Katz Group make one thing clear: on or off the ice, the rinks, the playfields and the sporting courts, it’s the people like Nicholson that truly make Edmonton the City of Champions.
Whether it’s in the form of medals or experiences, Nicholson and OEG will continue to bring home the gold while creating a legacy that hockey fans around the world will enjoy for decades to come.