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Bruce Dowbiggin

RIP Rob Bennett: The Promoter, The Pirate, My Pal


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Robert Bennett: 1952-2023

This is a column I hoped I’d never have to write. But my best friend Rob Bennett has lost his fight with ALS. And my life has a void that can’t be filled. Most people know Rob as one of the country’s top music promoters for more than 35 years. From James Taylor to Robin Williams to Raffi my pal knew them all. One night he even threw snowballs with Bruce Springsteen atop Mount Royal .

My own memories of the man are more personal. We met as U of Toronto students working the 1974 Christmas season at the LCBO on Dupont at Huron. These were the days where patrons filled out a coupon and we runners fetched their order in the back of the store. This gave us lots of time to chat about sports, music, politics and wine. If there’s anyone who was more of a cultural clutter box than me it was Rob.

He told me he was working at the Victoria College coffeehouse Wymilwood, doing gopher work for The Bernies— Fiedler & Finkelstein— who owned True North Records and managed the iconic Riverboat in Yorkville. They also managed, among others, Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan. It all seemed like exciting stuff.

Xmas ended, and we went separate ways. When we next ran into each other I was at the U of T Student Housing service looking for a place for me and my girlfriend at the time. As I pursued the board I saw this guy posting an opening for a place on Albany Avenue. It was Rob. In no time flat I was installed as the third occupant of Mr. Rosen’s walkup rental. It became pizza boxes, newspapers and rotating Dowbiggin roommates for several years.

By this point Rob was getting more and more work from the Bernies. And more releases from the record companies. One day I remember him dashing into the living room, insisting I listen to this hot new record. It was “You Make Me Want To Be” by Dan Hill, who’d been a waiter at The Riverboat. As ever, Rob’s enthusiasm was infectious, and he played the 45 over and over. Another night in 1977 it was Fleetwood Mac’s game-changing Rumors, as we were awed by the new clean, crisp California production sound it represented.

When living in the Albany walkup got to be old, Rob and I took off to his grandmother’s now-vacant bungalow across from Taylor Creek Park in East York. My girlfriend was gone, but Rob was now installed with Lesley, his longstanding girlfriend at the time, and my two cats in our Three’s Company takeoff. For some strange reason he objected to the half-eaten rabbits, birds, snakes and critters my cats brought in each morning.

Having moved from the downtown Rob bought himself a used Renault to get around town. Typically he did zero maintenance on the car as he travelled on tour. One day I heard noises coming from under the hood. I propped it open. Squirrels had moved in. Another time an open basement window allowed a skunk to vaporize our basement for two weeks. It was pure bachelor stuff.

We were also political junkies. I recall us watching the provincial Liberal convention that elected unknown Stuart Smith as (star-crossed) leader in 1976. We saw Smith’s election as transformative. We were wrong. A born and bred Ontarian— Rob never lived outside the GTA— he liked to colour inside the political lines. I was more inclined to contrarian views— which became more pronounced as I settled into Alberta.  His political bent made him conversant with the young student politicians at U of T Student Council (SAC). Rob was a mentor and a friend who gave them a touch of the big time.

I finished my degree, edited the student paper at what was then Erindale U of T campus, and had a play produced at Tarragon Theatre’s writer’s workshop. Then I headed off to travel around the world in 1976-77. Rob, meanwhile was getting more independence from The Bernies. He’d worked a deal with SAC to promote shows at Convocation Hall. I’ll never forget his fledgling show with the late Steve Goodman. We were so excited for him. After the show we were invited to Gordon Lightfoot’s place where I ended up at Gordon’s dining room table examining blueprints for his new yacht with him. It was great to be young and alive, and Rob was bringing us along for the ride.

The unique thing about Rob was his eclectic taste. He loved the music as much as the action of betting on which acts would sell. While CPI did the megastar arena shows at Maple Leaf Gardens, Rob stuck to more intimate venues like Con Hall and Massey Hall. His roster of acts was so diverse. John Prine, Pat Metheny, Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, J.J. Cale, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Maria Muldaur, the McGarrigles, Leon Redbone, Levon Helm, Steeleye Span, George Thorogood, Peter Tosh, Jesse Cook, the Gypsy Kings and so many more were on the bill. Fans knew it was more than a payday when Rob presented. It was always a musical event of acts Rob wanted the public to know.

His onstage intros for the acts— the bearded guy in the beret— and his chiding customers about smoking in the bathrooms were vintage Rob. (Once he let me introduce Jay Leno who rode his motorcycle onto the stage!) So was the affection from the young people at SAC who worked with Rob and got the frisson of showbiz in addition to running student government. (I know this sad news will touch a community of SAC hacks who still revere him.)

In 1983 he stood up as best man at my wedding in the backyard of my parents’ home in Burlington. He was the sound recorder, but 30 seconds in the technical demons switched everything off, committing the ceremony to the “oral tradition”. We thought it might convince him to tie the knot himself, but he somehow managed to avoid matrimony till Mary got him to do the deed last year. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised as Mary also got him to ski in his 60s.

Eventually he rose the ladder of concert promoters in the country, taking tours across North America with the superstars. For a time he promoted the big summer shows at Molson Amphitheatre. In the winter, it was the O’Keefe Centre/ whatever-its-name-is-now. He’d bring you backstage to meet Robin Williams, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Mick Jagger, KD Lang, Stephen Page, Lucinda Williams. One Sunday night he called me up late to join him for dinner with a guest— who he couldn’t identify. I protested it was too late, and I was tired after doing two shows a day for CBC Toronto. I passed. Missing dinner with Bruce Springsteen.

After years of rubbing shoulders backstage with the stars Rob’s real joy seemed to come from the fine wines he brought backstage after the concert. Many a night as fans and hangers-on mobbed the act, Rob and I sipped a Mollydooker or a Lewis Cab in the corner of the dressing rooms. We were always comparing notes on our latest purchases. Me with U.S. futures, Rob with the latest LCBO treasures. In his spare time Rob began hosting dinner parties at home in Orangeville where he would lead tastings while his beloved partner Mary produced the food.

We also shared a passion for golf. I joined Weston G&CC while he became a ClubLink member at Grandview near his second home, the cottage on Bigwin Island. Despite his short stature, Rob could smash his driver through the many rocky outcrops  at Grandview. He also became legendary among the members at the club for his explosive laugh that reverberated around the entire course.

They nicknamed him The Pirate for his booming Robert Newton laugh and even created an annual tournament in honour of his signature braying. Players wore eye patches in tribute. We liked to call him the hedgehog after his adventures in the rough during our Florida trips.

After golf we’d retire to the cottage to sip wine and debate politics. Unlike so many people these days, political or cultural differences never interfered with Rob’s friendships. He was the most loyal friend to my family, which designated him the sixth Dowbiggin brother. At my father’s memorial service he brought a vintage Cheateau Beaucastel, because my father and mother had visited the winery. You could tell him anything knowing it would (almost) never be repeated. That’s why the acts respected him. What happened backstage stayed backstage.

In our earlier days it was the girls and women we dated, as he teased me about my first-date playlists of Hall & Oates or Boz Skaggs. After I met Meredith in Montreal, we’d compare golf handicaps. As our careers flourished we’d share our satisfaction over his celebrated sell-out concerts, my Gemini Awards and the compelling people we’d met.

As Meredith and I started our family in 1985 with the arrival of our son Evan, Rob became Uncle Rob to our three kids in a five-year window. Not the most paternal fellow himself, he was a great uncle to the kids. In his Raffi days he was godlike. For Evan, our eldest, the pinnace was a backstage meeting in Calgary with John Prime, who autographed Bruised Orange for him.

We were so pleased how Mary’s children Robin and Will came to accept Rob in their lives. And he (belatedly) adopted a parental streak. He was as proud as anyone when Robin was married beside the Ottawa river in Hudson, Quebec. And he played the annoyed parent whenever Will acted like a teenager. It was precious. Lately he became a doting step-grandfather even as ALS took its hold on him.

One of Rob’s signatures was to arrive just in time for dinner. Since our moving west in 1999, getting together with Rob and Mary was less frequent. He often lamented that we couldn’t drop by each other’s homes on a whim or tee up a weekly golf game at Weston or a ClubLink course. But we made time for winter golf in Florida, where during one round Rob absent-mindedly twice stepped over what he thought were logs on a golf course looking to find some Titleist Pro Vs. The logs turned out to be alligators. He still couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

In spite of the great venues and great acts he staged Rob might have been most at home on Bigwin Island in the rocky cliffside cottage he’d purchased. Riding back and forth to the shore in his pontoon boat he felt himself the quintessential Ontario gentleman as he pointed out Shania Twain’s compound or the home of the GolfTown co-founder or the stately Bigwig resort. For an adopted kid who procrastinated about so much, the cottage was a definitive statement about how far he’d come since Norm and Glenna brought him to their home in Willowdale in 1952.

It’s hard to put value on a friendship, but if I was asked to capture our own bond it would be how it helped us grow as men. I can remember us walking one perfect Florida night near my parents’ winter home and saying in astonishment, “Who ever thought we’d get this far when we met at the LCBO in 1974?”  As we all reflect on his impact, that is how I’ll remember Rob, a vital life force with his big laugh and a corkscrew in hand. And a man we can never replace. Good night, my friend. Take a bow in heaven with John Prine.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air:”

BRUCE DOWBIGGIN Award-winning Author and Broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience . He is currently the editor and publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster website and is also a contributor to SiriusXM Canada Talks. His new book Cap In Hand was released in the fall of 2018. Bruce's career has included successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster for his work with CBC-TV, Mr. Dowbiggin is also the best-selling author of "Money Players" (finalist for the 2004 National Business Book Award) and two new books-- Ice Storm: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever for Greystone Press and Grant Fuhr: Portrait of a Champion for Random House. His ground-breaking investigations into the life and times of Alan Eagleson led to his selection as the winner of the Gemini for Canada's top sportscaster in 1993 and again in 1996. This work earned him the reputation as one of Canada's top investigative journalists in any field. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013) where his incisive style and wit on sports media and business won him many readers.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Coyotes Ugly: The Sad Obsession Of Gary Bettman

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It came to this. Playing in the 6,000 seat Mullet Arena on the campus of Arizona State. Owned by a luckless guy who eschewed the public spotlight. Out of the playoffs, their bags packed for who knows where, the Arizona (née Phoenix) Coyotes gave an appreciative wave to the tiny crowd gathered to say  Thanks For The Memories.

With that they were history. Although NHL commissioner-for-life Gary Bettman has promised the last in a set of hapless owners that he can revive the franchise for a cool billion should he build the rink that no one was willing to build for the Yotes the past 20 years.

The Arizona Republic said good riddance. “Metro Phoenix lost the Coyotes because we are an oversaturated professional and college sports market with an endless supply of sunshine and recreational choices. Arizona may have dodged a slapshot:

We have the NFL Cardinals, the MLB Diamondbacks, the NBA Suns, MLB spring training, the WM Phoenix Open, the Phoenix Rising, the WNBA Mercury, the Indoor Football League Rattlers and the Arizona State Sun Devils. There hasn’t been a household name on the Coyotes since Shane Doan, and half of Phoenix probably doesn’t know who he was”.

Likely they’ll be a financial success in Salt Lake City where there’s a viable owner, lots of money and a will to make it work. They’ll need a will because— stop me if you’ve heard this before about the Coyotes—  the rink they’ll play in this fall has only 12,500 unobstructed views for hockey.

Watching this farce we recalled getting a call from Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie in 2008, shortly after our book Money Players was a finalist for the Canadian Business Book of The Year. We’d written a fair bit about the Coyotes in our work and someone had told Balsillie we might be the ones to talk to about a plan he was concocting to buy the bankrupt Coyotes and eventually move them to Hamilton.

Balsillie was salty over the way he’d been used as a stalking horse in the financial troubles of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990s. Flush with money from the huge success of RIM, Balsillie offered to buy the Pens, with an eye to moving them to southern Ontario if Pittsburgh didn’t help build a new arena for the team.

In time, Balsillie saw that Bettman was only trying to protect the investment Mario Lemieux and others had in the Pens. Balsillie was the black hat who eventually spooked Pittsburgh into giving the current owners what they wanted. At the end of the day, Mario got his money and Balsillie was given a “thanks for trying”: parting gift of nebulous promises.

Still smarting, Balsille vowed not to be used again. in his desire to bring the NHL to southern Ontario. So when the Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes threw the keys to the team on Bettman’s desk, he saw an opening in the bankruptcy that followed. Seeing Bettman as the impediment, Balsillie decided to buy the team out of bankruptcy, a process the NHL could not legally prevent.

What Balsillie wanted to know was “What then? How would Bettman fight back?” We told him that no one flouts Bettman’s authority within the NHL. (All the current owners since 1993 have come aboard on his watch.)  And that he’d have to get the Board of Governors to approve his purchase. Odds: Nil.

That’s what happened. Rather than admit that the Valley of the Sun was poisoned for hockey, Bettman found another series of undercapitalized marks to front the franchise while the league quietly propped up the operation. No longer was the Coyotes’  failure about the fans of Arizona. It was about Gary Bettman’s pride.

Protestors stand outside a press conference in Tempe featuring Arizona Coyotes executives discussing propositions related to a new arena and entertainment district. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

Where he had meekly let Atlanta move to Winnipeg he fought like hell to save Arizona. And his power. (His obstinacy on U.S. network TV is another story.)

Fast forward to last week and the abject failure of that process. The Arizona Republic naively fawned on Bettman for his many attempts to save the team. In fact, they were just attempts to buttress his grip on the league. While the Coyotes may have been a mess, Bettman has succeeded in preserving the investments of most of the business people who bought his NHL business prospectus.

Sometimes it meant riding into Calgary to chastise the locals for their parsimony in not giving the Flames a new rink. Ditto for Edmonton. Ditto for Winnipeg  and other cities. Other times it was to shore up weak partners to protect the equity of other prosperous cities.  Sometimes it was to tell Quebec City, “Not gonna’ happen.”

For his loyalty to the owners and through some luck— Gretzky to the Kings— Bettman has made the NHL work in places no one might’ve imagined. Nashville. Raleigh. Tampa. Las Vegas. Dallas. Not at the level of the NFL, NBA or MLB, but at a comfortable equity-affirming status. Nothing happens without his say-so in the NHL. Or without him getting credit. Secondary NHL execs who wanted credit for their innovations were quietly punted.

When Houston finally gets a franchise from Gary they’ll part with $1.5 billion for the honour. While the commissioner has played down new franchises and expanded playoffs, you can bet your last dollar that he’s told owners they’re in line for more expansion cash— cash they don’t have to split with players in collective bargaining.

One more certainty. As long as Bettman rules the NHL you won’t see an NHL team back in Arizona.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Why Are Canadian Mayors So Far Left And Out Of Touch?

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‘The City of Edmonton pays for a 22-person climate team but doesn’t know who on that team is responsible for what, or what that team has accomplished. Meanwhile, Council takes a pay raise and bumps our property taxes by 8.6%”  @michaelistuart

We just returned from a long trip to discover that the City of Calgary wants to potentially re-zone our neighbourhood. Bridle Estates is a collection of 175 bungalow villas for people aged 55-plus. While some people still work most of the inhabitants are retirees. The city’s earnest idea is to create low-cost housing for the tens of thousands arriving here in the city from away.

You can see why a city hall obsessed with white privilege wants to democratize our neck of the south-west corner of the city. Enforced justice has a great tradition. 1970s American cities decided that bussing was the antidote to segregation. After a SCOTUS decision allowing the practice in 1971 (back when liberals owned the court) progressives pushed through an aggressive plan to bus kids from the inner city to the leafy suburbs. And vice versa.

It worked like a charm. For conservatives, that is. It radicalized a generation of voters who soon installed Ronald Reagan as president, and empty buses went back to the depot. The Democrats went from the party of the people to the party people in Hollywood. With time dulling memories, contemporary Woke folk are reviving the integration dream. This time the mostly white suburbs will bear the brunt of the government’s immigration fixation (400K-plus in the third quarter).

There are meetings planned where citizens will be able to address their elected officials— no doubt in a respectful voice. But anyone who’s dealt with Climate Crisis Barbie— Mayor Jyoti Gondek— has much optimism. This is a mayor who exploited a three-way split in centre-right voting here to declare a Climate Emergency on her first day in office.

Then she rolled out hate-speech laws to protect her from being razzed in public. For this and other fabulist blunders— her messing with the new arena project drove a worse deal and a two-year delay in a home for the Calgary Flames— she faced a recall project (which failed to collect over 400K voters’ signatures).

With a housing bubble expanding everyday, Her Tone Deafness has decided that owning a home is so passé. ”We are starting to see a segment of the population reject this idea of owning a home and they are moving towards rental, because it gives them more freedom.” She added that people have become “much more liberated around what housing looks like and what the tenure of housing looks like.”

As the Calgary’s schmozzles and Edmonton’s dabble in climate extravagance illustrate the municipal level of government in Canada is a few lobsters shy of a clambake. Across the country major cities are in the hands of radical NDP soldiers or virtue warriors who would rather have symbols than sewers to talk about.

In Toronto, Jack Layton’s widow Olivia Chow is leveraging her 37 percent mandate to make Toronto a kinder, Wok-er city. In Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., the open-air drug agendas of new mayors and city councils have sent capital fleeing elsewhere. Despite crime and construction chaos, Montreal mayor Valerie Plante won a second term, by emphasizing her gender.

In times when the coffers were full, this ESG theatre might have been a simple inconvenience. But since the federal and provincial governments began shoving responsibilities and costs downward to municipalities there is no wiggle room for grandstanding politicians at the city level. Or for hapless amateurs.

With the public incensed over residential property tax increases on one side and the blandishments of aggressive developers on the other, competent governance has never been more needed in the urban areas. While feds can (and have) printed money to escape their headaches and the provinces can offload costs onto the cities, the municipalities have no room for risk.

The time bomb in this equation is the debt load that the three levels can sustain. After this week’s budget, federal spending is up $238B, or 80 percent since 2015.  Coming off this free-spending budget the feds have pushed the federal debt to more than $1.2 trillion this year (in 2015, the debt was $616 billion.) None of the provinces has shown any appetite for the 1990s-style cuts to reduce their indebtedness. Leaving cities to crank the property-tax handle again.

So far, Canada’s cities have been able to use friendly municipal bonds to ease their fiscal problems. But if the Canadian economy continues its tepid performance with no reduction in debt, financial experts tell us that there could be a flight from Canadian municipal bonds— with a consequent spike in interest rates elsewhere.

The backlash on free-spending governments will be severe— and restricted municipalities will be hardest hit. None of this is resonating with Canadians still flush with cash from Covid. The stock markets are still buoyant and those living in cashbox houses are counting their dividends. Willful denial is the Trudeau legacy.

Which is why so many Canadian were shocked last week when American AntiTrump media star Bill Maher did an intervention on Canadian conceits. Using the True North as his warning to America, Maher ripped apart the gauzy leftist dream of Canada as the perfect society, the Sweden north of Estevan. By the time he was done, the single-payer myth was bleeding on the ground.

Maher knows that the bill is coming due for free-spending Canada and its climate charlatans. (The IMF is already warning of a global crisis over debt loads.) The question is: will Canadians come to the same conclusion before it’s too late to save the cities?

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster  A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book Deal With It: The Trades That Stunned The NHL And Changed hockey is now available on Amazon. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his previous book with his son Evan, was voted the seventh-best professional hockey book of all time by . His 2004 book Money Players was voted sixth best on the same list, and is available via

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