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Five Questions With...

Five Questions with Bob Nicholson

CEO of Oilers Entertainment Group on changes, challenges, life as NHL executive

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs each Tuesday throughout the 2017-18 regular season. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the most recent news.

The latest edition features Bob Nicholson, CEO and vice chair of Oilers Entertainment Group.

EDMONTON -- Nearing the end of a disappointing season for the Edmonton Oilers, Bob Nicholson, chief executive officer of Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) is using the word "change" more frequently.

He knows the Oilers will need some of that after the season. Edmonton (30-34-4) is 16 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference.

"We're disappointed where we are this year and we have to make some changes to get better," Nicholson said. "And I look at the teams that were in the playoffs last year and the teams that are in the playoffs this year, and it doesn't stay consistent. Good for the teams moving up. They did the right things in the offseason to get there, so it shows you how competitive it is and you have to make sure you're making change.

"For us, it's not making huge changes, it's making the right changes."

Nicholson, 64, is nearing his third anniversary as OEG's CEO. He was hired by owner Daryl Katz as vice chair June 13, 2014 and appointed CEO on April 24, 2015.

Nicholson was president and CEO of Hockey Canada from 1998 to 2014. He was elected vice-president of the IIHF in 2012 and is still in that position. He had many dealings with NHL teams and people in his past, but his arrival as a full-time NHL executive has brought with it a whole new set of challenges.

"The thing I've been most amazed with his how competitive the League is today," he said. "That's a good challenge because that's the way you want it. (Commissioner) Gary Bettman has been very clear he doesn't want to have more teams in the playoffs. Those questions have been asked of him every day, so you better understand that and you've got to be better."

Beyond NHL results, Nicholson is directing OEG while it transforms downtown Edmonton. The Oilers' new arena, Rogers Place, opened Sept. 8, 2016 and the construction of the surrounding Ice District is moving along on schedule.

Ice District includes the Stantec office tower, which will be the tallest building in Western Canada at 66 stories. Stantec is on schedule to move into the first 33 floors of the building in the fall. Next door is the J.W. Marriott (hotel) tower. The first 24 stories are the hotel and that is scheduled to open next February, while the floors of condos above the hotel will open in June 2019.

The ground-level plaza and the rest of Ice District, including restaurants and a cinema, are on track for opening in the spring of 2020.

"People think Rogers Place is world class," Nicholson said. "Ice District will be another level above that. People in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada don't understand what yet is coming until it starts to open up."


Here are Five Questions with … Bob Nicholson:

It's been a tough season in Edmonton, going from 103 points and two rounds in the playoffs last season to having little chance to qualify this season. You said recently that expectations for the Oilers ran really high after last season and that you had a difficult time getting that under control. How did that affect the organization and the team?

"Expectations certainly were extremely high and rightly so. This organization hadn't been in the playoffs for many, many years and we got into the playoffs and played very well, one goal, one game away from going to the conference final. So that expectation came and it came not just from within the city of Edmonton, it came worldwide about where the Edmonton Oilers were. We talked a lot about it but it's very difficult to get your hands around that and maneuver that expectation when it's coming at you in so many ways. We absorbed that and you've got to talk to the players about how it really affected them. Here, we're worried about it and there wasn't any way to get right in front of that and control all of that. It (began) in Vegas (at the NHL Awards and NHL Expansion Draft last June) about where this team was supposed to be."


Rogers Place has been open almost two full hockey seasons now. How do you gauge its success?

"It has been overwhelming what a success it has been. When you look at it, we have so many people from Finland, Czech Republic, China and all the teams in the NHL coming to look at the building because of the way it's been designed, the different uses, the sight lines, the ice which has been voted by the players as the second-best ice in the League. When you look at the hospitality side of it, how we designed the lower bowl, it's been spectacular. Hockey, it's real good. But when you flip to entertainment, the thing that stands out is when acts come into this arena, they go, 'Wow, the acoustics and the sound in this building are unbelievable. We want to perform here.' So that really helps us because the big shows book 12-14 months out and word gets out there. Now we're into that zone where some of the big acts came here and sold out, maybe sold out two shows, and they may want to come back. You've got to keep that reputation out there first of all to get the big acts and then to start to get them the second time, it means they love coming here. Those discussions are ongoing. We feel we're in really good shape there. And in the context of the A shows, B shows and C shows, we haven't done a lot of C shows, those that might draw around 5,000. This building costs a lot to open and operate but we want the Ice District to be something special to the whole community also. We want people to come down to the Ice District just to see what's going on and so by doing some of the C shows, more and more people will come to see."


How has your transition gone from Hockey Canada and international hockey executive to NHL executive?

"When I first came up here I was coming up as vice-chair and in my mind, it was going to be a couple of years that I was going to do. And about a year into it, I wasn't just president of the Oilers, I was CEO of the OEG. It's been really, really challenging but really, really exciting. We grew from 107 staff to 350 full-time staff in a year. We have 1,600 part-time/contract staff, so that's a huge part of it. We are just now going through the evaluation process of what the structure is. How do we make it better? When you live in OEG/Daryl Katz world, change is not something that's just planned, it's constant. It's a challenge but it's what we should build our excitement on. From my personal point of view, I've gone through this with Hockey Canada with 23 staff to 107. The percentage is the same but the numbers are way bigger here. The people that we have here, the one challenge that I've told our staff is that we have to find the right mechanism for them to all grow. I think we're getting some things placed here but we still have to do a better job. The entertainment and sports industry is about having the best facility, and I think we have it now. We have to have the best people taking it to a whole new level."


How has your Hockey Canada and international hockey experience helped you do this job?

"I'm dealing with different people. The Hockey Canada job, when I started, they had one million members to deal with, coaches, players, all the volunteers, then full-time staff, then we got the business side going. It's all about partnership to me, in how you do those things. I still have the international (connections) so that helps us with OEG. The Hlinka-Gretzky tournament (the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, the IIHF World Under-18 tournament in Edmonton and Red Deer next August) would never have happened if I wasn't in that type of position. Getting key people at the executive level and key people that we have, to the point where we have the same vision, is really important. And I also have to understand that Daryl Katz has a huge vision that we have to try to implement."


What's the best advice you ever got in your career in hockey?

"Listen. Listen to people and what they are telling you. Don't speak first."

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