Bob Hunter’s fingerprints are all over landmark venues across Canada — BC Place in Vancouver and Toronto’s Rogers Centre, Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field.
Now, in “retirement,” Hunter, a manager of arenas and stadiums since 1983, is consulting for the city of Calgary to develop a new arena for the NHL’s Calgary Flames after spending three years working on an esports venue project in Toronto.
As a facility operator, Hunter, 69, stands at the pinnacle of his profession. Over the past 40 years, he gained the trust of multiple big league teams to help steer their arena and stadium projects from blueprints to ribbon cuttings.
Along the way, Hunter was on the ground floor of launching Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which aligned Toronto’s NBA and NHL teams into one company that has evolved into one of the most powerful and profitable groups in the venues industry.
As a result, Hunter is a member of the 2023 VenuesNow Hall of Honor, our version of the lifetime achievement award.
“He’s smart, dependable, hard working and honest,” said Richard Peddie, who was CEO of both MLSE and the old SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), serving as Hunter’s boss on two separate occasions. “Bob is greatly admired. He deserves this award; he’s a rock star in that field.”
Tom Anselmi, now alternate governor of the Edmonton Oilers, echoed those sentiments.
Anselmi, similar to Peddie, worked with Hunter at both SkyDome and MLSE. Over a 30-year stretch, they took turns being each other’s boss. They first met in 1987 during SkyDome construction and have remained friends and colleagues to this day.
“We figured out gentle ways to get along; it didn’t matter what the circumstances were,” Anselmi said. “Bob is a teammate, not ego driven, but committed to the cause. He’s a solid leader.”
For Hunter, the cause started during his formative years growing up in Freelton, Ontario, a small village about 50 miles southwest of Toronto.
He was a big sports fan and played basketball and tennis.
Hunter played football in high school and in college, where he was a defensive back at the University of Waterloo. College football in Canada is nothing like the U.S. version, he said, with no athletic scholarships awarded at the time.
“I went to a big school, but we were not a very successful football program,” Hunter said. “It was a bit of a wakeup call in college. Guys were a lot bigger than me. It was tough, but I enjoyed it.”
After earning a degree in kinesiology from Waterloo, Hunter got a masters in sports medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he enjoyed watching future Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Moon play quarterback for the Huskies.
Hunter’s first full-time job came at Ontario Place in Toronto in 1977, at the time it was a theme park.
From there, he went across Canada to become part of the opening team and director of operations for BC Place. It was fortuitous timing. Hunter’s boss at Ontario Place and the GM of BC Place had worked together at the Montreal Expos and talked about the new CFL stadium needing a director of ops.
Hunter proved to be the right guy for the job.
“I was anxious for a new challenge,” he said. “I had been (at Ontario Place) for five years and this was a big opportunity, so I went for it. I loved it, the whole energy and enthusiasm that comes from the hosting of events.”
BC Place opened in 1983, among the first generation of air-inflated domes. The system had its challenges, tied to a pressurized system for opening and closing the doors to get people in and out of the 60,000-seat building.
But the newfangled stadium was exciting at the time and served its purpose as an indoor facility in a wet climate, Hunter said. (BC Place has since restructured the dome with a steel structure and cable-supported roof).
After four years at BC Place, Hunter said he “got stolen” to go across the street and work for the World’s Fair, which took place in Vancouver in 1986.
After that four-month event concluded, Hunter returned to Toronto to become SkyDome’s vice president of operations. He was hired by Stadium Corp., the dome’s developer and landlord for Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays.
When it opened in 1989, SkyDome was an engineering marvel, the first stadium in North America equipped with a retractable roof and a multipurpose facility for the Jays, the Canadian Football League’s Argonauts, concerts and dirt shows.
“It was a unique design and concept, the eighth wonder of the world at the time,” Hunter said. “Sure, we had complications and the roof got stuck a few times when it was open. But it was well constructed and has lived up to its billing and the Jays are now dumping a bunch of money back into it. It will revive itself again.”
Anselmi fondly remembers when they were all fresh faces in the venues biz.
“We were all young and finding our way,” he said. “It was a huge project and everybody in the world paid attention to it. Bob was the lead guy on the operating side and I was lead on the project side. There was a lot of interface there to make sure we had a venue that would operate well.”
Seven years into his tenure at SkyDome, things came to a halt after MLB players went on strike in August 1994, which lasted until early April 1995. Hunter had just become CEO of SkyDome after Peddie left. The Blue Jays had won consecutive World Series titles in 1992-93.
SkyDome struggled to fill dates during the strike, and Hunter, along with everyone else in sports, was uncertain when it would be settled. In October 1994, Hunter left the industry to become president and CEO of ProFac Management Group in Ottawa, Ontario, operating office and manufacturing buildings.
After four years in that position, Hunter got immersed in another signature project, Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena. Peddie had become president and CEO of the Toronto Raptors, an NBA expansion team, and he recruited Hunter to help spearhead the development (See sidebar).
Over time, MLSE purchased an MLS expansion team and built BMO Field at Exhibition Place, which was expanded in 2016 to more than 30,000 seats to accommodate the Argonauts, who relocated from Rogers Centre, as well as Toronto FC.
In addition, MLSE invested in a condominium development and built the Real Sports Bar & Grill, a 25,000-square-foot restaurant at Maple Leaf Square, next to Air Canada Centre.
After 23 years with MLSE, during which he ascended to the title of executive vice president of venues and entertainment, Hunter retired in 2019.
Well, sort of. He spent one year as chairman and CEO of the Toronto Wolfpack, a pro rugby team, before turning his attention to the world of esports. In July 2020, he became senior vice president of OverActive Media Group, a Toronto firm that owns multiple esports teams.
It came during the height of the pandemic. At the same time, Hunter kept busy consulting for two firms, including Crossroads Consulting, headed by Suzie Sieger, the company’s president and CEO, and a well-known figure in the public assembly industry.
Over the past three years, Hunter, wearing his OverActive Media Group hat, worked closely with promoter Live Nation to develop a 7,000-seat arena for both esports and concerts, designed by Populous, at a site next to BMO Field at Exhibition Place. The $450 million esports arena is tied to a 400-room hotel development and has been progressing slowly. Hunter left that project in July, gravitating to western Canada again to work on the Flames’ new $800 million arena. He remains an advisor on the esports project.
Alyson Walker, OverActive Media’s chief commercial officer, has known Hunter since she joined MLSE in 2014. Their offices sat next to each other at Air Canada Centre, where she had a birds-eye view of Hunter’s business acumen.
Hunter’s strengths are experience, vision and the relationships he’s cultivated over 40 years, Walker said, a trifecta that has made him so effective in the world of venue development and operations.
“We need to celebrate those (like Hunter) in our industry, because trust is important,” she said. “If you work with integrity and get things done, there’s mutually beneficial outcomes. Bob’s not done yet and, for that, I respect him.”
The Flames’ project is back on track after negotiations over financing fell apart last year. Groundbreaking is set for early 2024 for an 18,000-seat arena that’s part of a downtown entertainment district. Officials hope to open the facility for the 2026-27 NHL season.
Hunter’s been on the road recently, touring Crypto.com Arena, Bridgestone Arena and the Intuit Dome construction site to get ideas for the new Calgary arena.
Scotiabank Arena, currently going through a $350 million makeover, is also part of Hunter’s due diligence.
“The economy can be a little shaky at times, but the industry seems to be very healthy at the moment,” Hunter said. “There’s never been as much entertainment product out there as there is now. Construction prices won’t ever go down, but there’s not the panic or sense of urgency that there was during and coming out of COVID.”
Hunter spends much of the winters now in Naples, Florida, where he has a second home. As a motorcycle enthusiast, he has twice completed the 3,000-mile round trip from Toronto to Naples on his BMW RT 1200.
Sometimes, Hunter has dinner with fellow consultant Chris Bigelow, another Naples snowbird. They’re both stalwarts with the International Association of Venue Managers, the industry’s foremost trade group.
Hunter credits his wife, Mary, for keeping the family ties strong with their three kids, Michael (34), Kate (32) and Megan (30). Mary Hunter tolerated her husband’s absence on event nights for all those years and became a true champion at raising the children, he said.
“I thank her for all the time she covered for me and allowed me to be successful in this business,” Hunter said.
How Two Teams Found Home, Together
The backstory behind the development of Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena, is an intriguing tale.
In the late 1990s, the Toronto Raptors, an NBA expansion team, were planning to build their own arena after playing their first four seasons at SkyDome.
At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs, an original six NHL franchise, were intent on building their own facility to replace aging Maple Leaf Gardens, where they had played since 1931.
Toronto was big enough to support two arenas on the sports side. The question was whether there were enough special events apart from NBA and NHL games to sustain overall business at both facilities, said Bob Hunter, who ran the new arena for its first 20 years of operation.
“It would have been a disaster,” said Richard Peddie, former president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. “Our motto was ‘first one with the shovel in the ground wins.’”
Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed.
About one year before the Raptors were scheduled to open their new arena, the Leafs acquired the NBA team. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was formed and the new entity took over the arena project, for which the Raptors had the most desirable site in downtown Toronto.
The merger resulted in multiple changes to the new arena design. At the Leafs’ request, more traditional suites were added, which brought its own set of challenges for a smallish, 600,000-square-foot building on a tight footprint.
Excavations were made below grade for hockey operations, plus 40 bunker suites. Air Canada Centre became one of the first arenas to feature those subterranean premium hospitality spaces tied to the first five rows of seats behind the team bench and penalty box.
The value of the bunkers alone jumped from $100,000 a year to $400,000 annually after the Raptors and Leafs became one entity, Hunter said.
Those tweaks amounted to $70 million and delayed the arena opening for a year.
Air Canada Centre, a $265 million, privately funded facility, finally opened in February 1999, halfway through the NBA and NHL seasons. It became a monster venue, booking a ton of concerts to support the two big league tenants.
“At that point in time, we had a great ownership group and they tasked us with growing the business,” said Tom Anselmi, Hunter’s colleague with MLSE. “Toronto is a great concert market and we were aggressive in pursuing shows. The arena was great for it.”
Scotiabank Arena, which changed names in 2017 after the bank signed one of the most lucrative naming-rights deals in sports, an $800 million agreement over 20 years, remains filled with five to six events a week, including basketball and hockey.
On his own, Hunter was unflappable in managing one of the busiest buildings in North America, Peddie said.
“He’s like a duck on the surface, gliding along, but paddling like crazy underneath,” he said. “For 14 years, we worked together at the arena. I always gave written reviews. I joke, no one should have to get 14 reviews from me, but Bob did, and all those reviews were stellar.”