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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

Hockey Tolerance Is A Two-Way Street, Not A One-Way Road

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The problem with liberal tolerance in Canada is that it’s not particularly liberal and it’s certainly not tolerant. For instance, the “everyone must wear an LGBTQ-2 jersey” controversy we highlighted last week. The reverberations from goalie James Reimer declining to wear a San Jose Sharks rainbow jersey have continued all week.

It seems to have escaped many people’s tolerance that refusing to march in a parade does not mean you hate the people in the parade. It is to say that you have a different opinion. One your employer can’t compel you to abandon. An opinion guaranteed to you by generations of free speech and religious freedom.

It is why we have halal and kosher foods. Live and let live. But the hysteria is not stopping with Reimer. The radical blood hounds have tracked down new targets to mount on their gibbet of 100 percent conformity to Woke causes.

The latest NHLers caught up in this fundamental failure to communicate are the Staal brothers in Florida who followed Reimer’s path to say that they haven’t and won’t wear symbols with which they disagree. Immediately the SJW sports media attacked them. When they said they wouldn’t Pride jerseys it was shown by the gotchas ‘ that they had worn subtle LGBTQ jerseys in the past. As if this makes them hypocrites.

My friend Mark Hebscher asked if the NHL should suspend them. Really? What would Mark say if Edmonton’s Zach Hyman, a Jew, declined to wear Muslim symbols on an Islamic Pride night? Would Mark demand Hyman be suspended?

What would he say if secular players in the league declined to wear the cross on their jersey for a Christian appreciation night? Should they be punished as haters? What if a pro sports team has a Mormon appreciation night. Does refusing to wear an LDS badge make people haters?

Of course these examples are moot. There are no progressive DEI laurels for creating political trip wires over Muslims or secularists to advance Woke influence. The only targets that matter here are conservative whites. Sports teams these days would only entertain the most provocative causes to create “a crisis that shouldn’t go to waste” (in the words of Saul Alinsky in his Rules for Radicals).

So Brian Burke was imported by Rogers Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday to further whip the herd into 100-percent compliance on Pride jerseys— and to push Rogers corporate bonafides as a Woke organization. Burke has become a fervent LGBTQ-2 spokesman since his son Brendan came out (and was tragically killed in a car crash). Good on him as a parent.

But he’s also a high-profile NHL figure, who was, in a major way, responsible for perpetuating the “boys-only” culture in the sport when he handled NHL discipline. He was his usual truculent self on HNIC as he conflated free speech with prejudice. He saw no room for tolerance on anything but the Pride agenda, insisting against all evidence that wearing the Pride jersey isn’t a political statement. “I was born and raised a Catholic, I don’t see any conflict between my religious beliefs and my ability to say to the LGBTQ+ community ‘you’re welcome here.”

That’s not what he’s saying, but play along. Host Ron Maclean— with whom we have had our disagreements in the past— did his job, gamely asking why wasn’t there a middle ground between hating and enforced 100 percent compliance to the cause? Burke shooed him away.

Naturally, radical social-media trolls pounced, asking for Maclean’s scalp for doing his job. There can be no exceptions! Reason is not a long suit for these Maoist shills. They want to be in Pol Pot’s Cambodia while their fellow citizens would prefer to remain in what used to be Canada before Justin Trudeau turned it into a postmodern state that stands for everything— and nothing.

The point that needs debate on HNIC is whether a few rich hockey players, who make so much money that they don’t have to give a flip, are going to make the league more inclusive by wearing a Pride jersey for one night. Likely not.

As we’ve contended over decades, the key to acceptance of gays in hockey will be the coming-out of a prominent NHL star(s). They are out there. It wasn’t high rhetoric from Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey that changed the colour line in baseball. It was Jackie Robinson’s forbearance. It wasn’t slogans that slowly changed the skin colour of golf. It was Tiger Woods’ utter dominance.

It was also the hyper-macho world that Brian Burke nurtured through the years before his son came out — not colourful jerseys— that has repressed gay participation in the NHL. The weeding-out of gay youth in the development process comes from the grass roots. (To his credit a penitent Burke now owns some of this.)

While it is commendable that Burke now supports his son’s memory, flailing Christians for refusing to wear Pride jerseys is not the way to achieve understanding. Worshipping symbols is a divisive, not a unifying action that plays into the hands of forces Burke clearly does not acknowledge or understand. Radicals who use terms like white settler and cis-gender-entitlement to baffle the vulnerable. And who will discard him when he’s no longer of use to them.

Those would be the people who applaud the current PM and his caucus for having equal numbers of women in their ranks— the same PM who fired his prominent female/ indigenous justice minister for insubordination when the RCMP dug too deep. And the same “feminist” women MPs who stood by silently as Trudeau publicly destroyed one of their own to save himself from RCMP scrutiny. Those are the cowards who back the destruction of free speech.

Churchill was prescient about appeasing today’s virtue warriors when he long ago said that appeasers “are like people who feed the crocodile in hopes that the crocodile eats them last.”  Chomp.Chomp. Their day is coming.

Sign up today for Not The Public Broadcaster newsletters. Hot takes/ cool slants on sports and current affairs. Have the latest columns delivered to your mail box. Tell your friends to join, too. Always provocative, always independent.

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

Pop Quiz: You Know You’re A Woke Punchline When…

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“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They can be powerful words to live by. Live-and-let-live has underpinned much of the Judeo/Christian tradition. It also informs many of the world’s other religions. For secular people the sentiment works just as well.

If you want to be loved and respected then you must extend love and respect in equal measures to those of whom you’re not all that fond. It is both a brake on hubris and an inspiration to our “better angels”. While that balance has been observed more in the breach than in the commission at times, live-and-let-live nonetheless still provides a path to mutual co-existence.

There was a time when that balance guided society. Or, as they like to say, the Good Old Days. Now, the needle monitoring live-and-let-live swings like a Hillary Clinton polygraph. If you’re with safe-space generation, no micro aggression is too small, no affront to LGBTQ-2 too slight to put off national calamity, no enemy too small to squash.

Woke causes replace empathy in the daily conversation. Why? Journalist Michael Shellenberger says apocalyptic behaviour “provides psychological comfort to secular Western people who have gradually abandoned traditional religions. For over a century, sociologists and psychologists have documented rising rates of depression and anxiety… Is it a coincidence that the people who said Western civilization was unsustainable are making it so?”

Not everyone has succumbed. How can you tell? In the spirit of comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be as redneck if…” here is your guide to discovering if you have become a Woke punchline.

If you’ve forgiven Japan and Germany for the atrocities they inflicted on the world in the 1940s but you can’t get past Sir John A. Macdonald putting the railway through the land of the Sioux, Blackfoot and Lakota… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you are concerned about world over-population but you’re nagging your kids about when they will make you grandparents… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you’re so sensitive about killing animals for food that you go extreme vegan but then attend a Pro-Choice rally in a T-shirt bragging about how many abortions you’ve had…you might be a Woke punchline.

If you’re in favour of Trudeau’s aggressive immigration policy but then your kids say they can’t afford to buy a home in a large Canadian centre… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you try to convince friends at a dinner party that Trudeau’s Carbon Tax really does fight global warming but your monthly hydro bill triples… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you think Trudeau family friends are the best people to investigate him ignoring CSIS warnings about China but you think Pierre Polievre is a little too cozy with the international forces of Qanon… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you believe Doug Ford is trying to dismantle free healthcare but then act indignant with the boys at beer-league hockey that you can’t get your knee fixed for over two years… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you think Stephen Colbert is still funny, but think that Bill Maher is now sounding like a January 6 insurrectionist… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you think banning Muslim and Sikh symbols is racist but Quebec doing the same is their cultural right… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you think the B.C. government will cure drug addiction by giving addicts a cozy place to shoot up but you tell people at work that you can’t go downtown anymore for all the junkies blocking the Starbucks entrance… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you firmly believe the prime minister is trying to keep a lid on inflation but you protest that Galen Weston is gouging you on food prices… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you donate to Save The Children but then buy a $350 pair of running shoes made by children in Asian sweatshops… … you might be a Woke punchline.

If you think career criminal George Floyd is a martyr but Egerton Ryerson is a genocidal racist… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you think today’s academic standards aren’t what they once were but then you go to school to berate the teacher for not communicating the curriculum properly to your indulged child… you might be a Woke punchline.

If you get to the bottom of this column without recognizing yourself in any of these contradictions… you might be a Woke punchline.

Sign up today for Not The Public Broadcaster newsletters. Hot takes/ cool slants on sports and current affairs. Have the latest columns delivered to your mail box. Tell your friends to join, too. Always provocative, always independent.

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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