While it’s empty now, Reid Mitchell hopes to see Western Financial Place packed once the puck drops in September. (Brad McLeod Photo)

Awakening Ice Country: Reid Mitchell tackles Kootenay’s fan experience

Born in Invermere, the former Calgary Flames staffer is set to bring ‘party’ to his childhood team

Reid Mitchell remembers the buzz.

As a kid growing up in Invermere in the early 2000s, the Kootenay Ice’s new director of corporate partnership and fan experience was around to see the team in its heyday.

Now, he’s ready to play a key role in bringing that excitement back to the rink.

“When I was growing up the [Ice] were huge,” Mitchell recalls. “That’s when they won the Memorial Cup twice. It was the hottest ticket in the community.”

Mitchell joined the Ice staff in early June, but has been intimately familiar with the franchise for years. The first game he attended was at the Memorial Arena, the team’s home for their first two seasons between 1998 and 2000, and as a youth hockey player it was an organization that meant a lot.

“I’ve played hockey my whole life, since I was 5 years old. I grew up through here and played hockey in Cranbrook through minor hockey,” he says. “I came to [Kootenay Ice] rookie camp when I was 14, [so] it’s kind of come full circle.”

While Mitchell was a talented player, playing four seasons with the KIJHL’s Columbia Valley Rockies and winning the team’s MVP award in his 20-year-old year, injuries caused several setbacks in his development.

“I played in the [KIJHL] when I was 16, 17 and then took a couple of years off,” he says. “I had five knee surgeries and two shoulder surgeries.”

Although it was a tough break, it first opened Mitchell up to the world that he would end up dedicating his life to.

“[In my time off] I worked on the hockey op side with the coach in the KIJHL and also with the [BCHL’s] Penticton Vees,” he explains. “I got to see the backside of hockey there, not just the on ice part, but how hockey teams actually work.”

Peaking his interest, after returning to the Rockies to finish off his playing career as a service to his hometown, he enrolled at Calgary’s Mount Royal University to pursue a degree in Sports Marketing.

“I knew there was a good chance of getting back into the sports world through that degree,” Mitchell says of his decision to attend MRU. “I knew that they had a good partnership with the Calgary Flames [too], so there was a little tie-in there.”

Getting his first practical experience in his second year, working for Elite Sports Canada to coordinate the Stampede Challenge and Alberta Champions Cup youth hockey tournaments, Mitchell quickly ascended the ranks of the behind-the-scenes world.

“My role [with the tournaments] was to get teams to come, market the tournament, deal with the ice and pretty much just run the whole tournament,” Mitchell remembers of his experience with Elite Sports. “Jonathan Toews came through when I was there. Sam Reinhart was there [too].

“It was awesome to see the players on the ice, but also to understand how tournaments run and how the business side is, which is the only reason why tournaments can run.

[When I started] we had 12 teams and by the end of it there were 350 teams in two years.”

He was hooked.

“It was only a two man shop [there], so I was kind of doing everything, [but] I really enjoyed live events,” he says. “Even though you’re not on the ice anymore, you’ll find that it’s a buzz working behind the scenes because it is full bore and you can’t really control the game.

“It was good to get that adrenaline back that I had when I was playing.”

From there, Mitchell got an internship with the Calgary Hitmen in their public relations and communications department. After four months, he was in a full-time role, and after a year, he was promoted to a job in marketing with the Calgary Flames.

Rising through the ranks, Mitchell eventually became national partnership specialist for the NHL club.

“I looked after all the biggest brands from Toronto [and] was flying [there] once a month to look after all of our biggest sponsors,” he says. “Working with the Calgary Flames was good because it was one of the biggest teams in Canada [and it] was great to learn from the top dogs in the industry.”

His decision to join the Ice this summer, however, was all about coming home.

“My parents told me about the new ownership [and then] my fiancée, [who] works in Invermere, saw the job posting,” he says. “I always wanted to move back to the community, but I [knew that I] would never move back for a job, I would only move back for a career.”

Through his job with the Flames, Reid had gotten to know Kootenay’s GM and president Matt Cockell, who at the time held a corporate partnership role with the Winnipeg Jets. He phoned Cockell, and found the new job was a perfect fit.

“[Matt] is a very positive and very hard working guy [and] his vision was exactly how I see it,” Mitchell recalls of his inquiry into the position. “It was tough to leave the Flames. I have a lot of good friends there and it would be an understatement to say that they were shocked that I left after the season.

“But it’s fun to be a part of [the Ice]… it feels like we’re starting a new team, a new company.”

In his new position, Mitchell is in charge of working with local businesses to develop relationships and secure sponsorship and will also be heavily involved in the creation of the in-game atmosphere at Western Financial Place next season.

While his journey with the Ice has just begun, Mitchell has found the transition from the NHL to the WHL, to be a pleasant change.

“With the Flames, there were always people knocking on your door [and] you just had to pick which one would be the best partner,” he says. “Here, we’re going around getting to know people.”

Getting local businesses on board with the franchise, is, therefore, a much more personal and rewarding process.

“The companies here, it’s their life,” Mitchell says. “There is some emotion behind their donation. So, it’s getting to know our businesses and our partners on a personal level first, and then growing the business through them.

“They’re not just going to throw money at you. You’d better understand why they’re doing it.”

As for the fan experience, that’s an element of the job that creates a spark in Mitchell’s eyes.

“The biggest thing [we want to do] is get that buzz back in the arena,” he says. “We’re going to turn the music up a little bit louder and get the lights going.

“We want the community to know when it’s a game day, see people walking around with jerseys on. The biggest thing is to come to the game and watch our players, but we also want to have an experience where [you] come for the game and stay for the party.”

While specific plans will mostly be a surprise for the fall, Mitchell has a clear vision for fans inspired by his youth.

“I remember pulling up to Cranbrook [as a kid] and you’d see there were Ice flags coming down the strip and it was that buzz that you could just feel in the air,” he says. “This is what we want to get back — that environment that this is the community’s team.

“We were proud of our team. We were proud of the Kootenay Ice. We felt that we had a little bit of influence on how they did on the ice, because it was such a great arena to be in.”

According to Mitchell, in 2017-18 “the intermissions are going to be first class” and the fan experience will be “something that Cranbrook really hasn’t seen before.”

But if there’s one person who knows that ‘Ice Country’ is more than just Cranbrook, it’s an Invermere kid.

“I was back in Invermere [recently] for a bull riding event [and] I probably didn’t watch a minute of the bull riding because everyone just wanted to talk about [the Ice],” he says. “Especially with Cale Fleury being drafted in the third round and everyone [being] excited for the new coaching staff.”

He believes that getting all of ‘Ice Country’ on board with the team is crucial to the organization’s success.

“We have a lot of KIJHL teams around here, so everyone has their own team to cheer for, but [we want them to] all see the Kootenay Ice as the premier hockey [team] in the Valley,” he says. “We’re going to have a lot of games this year where we’re going to have a lot of involvement with the communities.”

Now, with less than two months left until the first game of the season, Mitchell can’t wait to see his efforts become a reality.

“It’s been a lot of hard work and we couldn’t do it without all the partners in the business community and that’s been huge for us,” he says. “They’ve been super positive and been jumping on board and I think everyone just wants to see that puck drop.”

Mitchell has felt the buzz before, and now he’s feeling it again. He’s seen Kootenay Ice fans pack the building in the past, and now he’s ready to bring them back.

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