Backstop of the Business

As VP and general counsel of Canucks Sports & Entertainment, Chris Gear keeps the puck out of the net by overseeing the organization’s agreements and risk management

For most of us, the impact and reach of our employer isn’t always clear, but for Chris Gear, the significance of landing a position with Canucks Sports & Entertainment was apparent almost immediately. “It really hit me about two to three days after I got the job,” he says. “I was driving around the city in the middle of the playoffs, and every second person I saw was wearing the Canucks jersey or had a flag attached to their car.”

The NHL team is one of the most fiercely beloved on the West Coast, and Gear serves as its vice president and general counsel. Here, the lifelong sports fan details his background working for other firms and sports organizations, and he offers an inside look at his duties for both the Canucks as a team and Rogers Arena (the Canucks’ home ice) as a shared entertainment venue.

Take us through what it took for you to land where you are today. Did you dream of being a lawyer?
I grew up in Lennoxville, Québec, but moved to Ontario to study at Queen’s University, where I completed a commerce degree and a law degree and played varsity football for the Gaels. I didn’t necessarily want to be a lawyer, but the law degree seemed like a good career path to open some doors in the sports business.

I took a job as a summer student at the Toronto office of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP [Blakes], but I visited Vancouver and just loved it out here—the atmosphere, the climate, the vibe—so I transferred my articles. I wanted to see where private practice would take me, but I knew it was not where I wanted to be long-term. I wanted to do in-house legal work, where I could celebrate my company’s success rather than just being a hired instrument for clients who only call me when they have a problem.

What led you to the Canucks?
Through some networking, I found an opportunity to do pro bono work as counsel for the Air Canada Championship PGA golf tournament. This was my introduction to the sports business. As that tournament was ending its time in Vancouver, the city’s 2010 Olympic bid was being launched. Blakes offered my services to the bid committee as part of its contribution to the bid.

In early 2005, I left Blakes to join the management team at VANOC, which was the organizing committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. It was incredible because I watched a group of about 50 people balloon to 1,500 by the end of the games. We had to build a company from the ground up, run a multibillion-dollar enterprise watched by the world, and then take it right back down to nothing again when the event was over. I was involved in sponsorship, licensing, venue management, and many other aspects of sport and event management that set me up well for the job at the Vancouver Canucks.

Take us back to when you landed the job at the Canucks. How did you take the news?
I realized that this team means so much to this city. Our team brings out a shared passion that binds people from so many walks of life in our community. It was so exciting to realize that I would be a part of this organization in a big way. I felt a real sense of pride and responsibility to be among the 150 or so lucky employees at Canucks Sports & Entertainment who get to work for a team that so many in our province are proud to call their own.

It was a perfect marriage of what I feel passionate about: community, my law career, and sports. When I visited my parents recently, I found an old high school yearbook, and in the bio beside my name, I had said that I wanted to be an executive for a professional sports team one day. I guess you could say I followed through.

“The Canucks is one of those rare organizations that has the power to entertain, bring people together, and leave people with lasting memories. It is very rewarding to be part of something that has that kind of impact.” —Chris Gear (Photo by Jeff Vinnick)
“The Canucks is one of those rare organizations that has the power to entertain, bring people together, and leave people with lasting memories. It is very rewarding to be part of something that has that kind of impact.” —Chris Gear (Photo by Jeff Vinnick)

What sort of legal expertise is required to do your job?
I identify as a corporate law generalist. In any given week, I work on all types of commercial agreements, including sponsorship, licensing, service, and broadcast agreements. I also do some employment law, intellectual property law, and even a little litigation and claims management. I also do some brand-protection work involving the use of our logo, and [I do] all of the agreements required to operate and lease our building, Rogers Arena.

Who do you work with on a daily basis?
I report to the chief operating officer and deal with almost all of our internal departments at some point during the season. I’ll work with our corporate partnerships team, our creative group, our web and media groups, our fan-experience group, our live-entertainment group, etc. I’ll also work with external counsel where we need specialized expertise. The work is always varied and interesting. There is never a dull moment.

Let’s use hockey as a metaphor for your current role. What position would you say you play the most?
I would say that goalie is the best metaphor for what I do. All other operations departments count on me to put the agreements and risk-management strategies in place that backstop the organization so that nothing gets by us.

What are some of the unique risks and challenges that, as general counsel of an NHL hockey team, you need to help manage?
Some NHL teams are just tenants in a facility, but we own a team and a building. We put on events in Rogers Arena about 100 times per year, so there are always things that arise just before or just after an event. I sometimes have to react quickly to solve a problem and put out unexpected fires.

What are the next steps for you as general counsel? Some go on to become president of the NHL, like Gil Stein did.
It’s a little early for me to think that way. I’ve been here just over three years, and there is much more for me to accomplish in this role. The organization is growing because we are continuously investing in new facilities and initiatives. There is still a lot for me to learn and achieve here.

We solicited one Canucks fan question for you: “As general counsel, what are you doing to help elevate the Canucks brand?”
I would say our brand is currently very strong. Our team has had a very successful run the last five years, including two Presidents’ Trophies and a near Stanley Cup. On some road trips, there are more Canucks jerseys in those stadiums than of the team we’re playing. A lot is due to team success, but some is due to the efforts we make to share our brand with the community. We have the number-one website in the NHL, hugely successful social media programs, and lots of community outreach. I’m not aware of any other team in professional sports that raises as much money as we do for charities. Our Canucks for Kids Fund raises about $5 million per year for British Columbia charities. We strive to create a great fan experience in the arena and leave a mark on our community, too, regardless of the result on the ice. As executives, we don’t control the on-ice outcome, but we try to take care of all of the other details that create memorable experiences for people.