Michael Buble. (Photo by Evaan Kheraj)
Plenty of celebrities pop up at NHL games supporting their favorite teams. But spend a few minutes with Michael Buble and you'll quickly learn he's a different breed: a fanatical diehard.
Is it really Nov. 5, 1991, at the Pacific Coliseum? It’s printed on the tickets and programs. But you’d swear it was playoff time. The 16,000 Vancouver Canucks faithful quake with anticipation. It’s finally time to see what
he can do, the brash young Russian kid, imported from the Red Army, who goes by the name of Pavel Bure. The hype is so great that coach and GM Pat Quinn delayed Bure’s debut a game so it wouldn’t steal thunder from Stan Smyl’s jersey retirement. And in the blink of an eye, Bure takes his first stride toward becoming the franchise’s greatest player ever. He carries the puck the length of the ice, splitting the Winnipeg Jets defense. He’s so fast his body arrives in the slot before the puck. He has to kick it back to himself to finish the breakaway with a deke. He doesn’t score, but it doesn’t matter. Especially to a 16-year-old kid named Michael Buble, attending with his grandfather. As season ticket holders, they never miss a game. And yet Buble still has never seen or felt anything like this. “I literally and figuratively sat on the edge of my seat and bounced like a horse, like I was riding a horse, and as you looked around everyone else was doing it, too, everyone was almost jockeying,” Buble said. “It was electric. Everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, we have never had a player like this before. Not just a good player. We have a genuine superstar.’ ” Little did Buble realize at the time, he’d one day bring thousands to their feet in packed arenas the same way Bure did. Except Buble, now 40, did it with his voice, not his feet. He developed a passion for crooners, jazz and soul music, listening to his grandfather’s huge collection of records. Buble idolized the likes of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. His granddad, a plumber, was so convinced his grandson would become a musician some day that he’d offer his plumbing services to other performers in exchange for stage time for Buble. By 17, one year after witnessing the Russian Rocket’s launch, Buble had won the British Columbia Youth Talent Search competition. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney discovered Buble’s independent album. Buble eventually got signed by mega-producer David Foster and is now one of Canada’s most successful recording artists ever, with half a dozen multi-platinum albums and Grammys galore. But if you’re a music buff, you probably know that about him already. What you might not know, though, is that worldwide fame did nothing to quell his other life passion: hockey. Buble jumps at the chance to put aside music and talk about anything to do with the sport. He’s as much a superfan as any rabid late-night sports radio caller. He says hockey was even more important to him than music when he was growing up. As a kid, he’d pretend he was the Canucks’ Patrik Sundstrom or Tony Tanti. He grew to love longtime captain Trevor Linden and, of course, Bure. Buble felt the anguish of the 1994 Stanley Cup loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7. “It was heartbreaking, because we truly were so close,” he said. “We were a post away. A crossbar away. And some s---ty refereeing away.”
For Buble, the 2011 final was even more devastating. He was a bona fide music star by that point, and his love for the Canucks didn’t waver one bit. He postponed a concert so he could fly home to Vancouver and catch Game 7 on home ice against the Boston Bruins. And the riot after the 4-0 defeat was crushing for him, particularly because he so fiercely believed the malice of a few put a black mark on the people of his city. Buble took out newspaper ads thanking the Vancouver Police and Fire and Rescue for their help during the riot. “It didn’t take long for Vancouverites to realize it wasn’t Vancouverites doing this,” Buble said. “It was a bridge-and-tunnel crew of trailer trash that decided they were going to create anarchy. Whether we won or lost, it didn’t matter. They already set it up.” Today’s Canucks are less in the international spotlight than the 2011 team. They do leave many of us scratching our heads as we evaluate their decisions, though. One minute they’re trying to contend, signing vets Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata to rich contracts. The next they’re jettisoning the likes of Eddie Lack and Nick Bonino, clearing space for youngsters like Jacob Markstrom, Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen. Rebuilding? Who knows? But Buble supports president Linden and GM Jim Benning. “They are class acts and they love hockey, they really do, and they love the city,” Buble said. “What makes me happy is the fact they have a plan about the future. They are not as worried about doing it now with a cheap, quick rebuild.” Buble insists any “real Canucks fan, not the Toronto Blue Jays fan types” believes in the team vision. He has immersed himself in the team whenever he can. He suited up and practised with the Canucks in 2011-12. The players thought he looked pretty decent out there. He almost beat then-goalie Roberto Luongo on a breakaway, hitting the crossbar. Buble donated $100,000 to Kevin Bieksa’s charity hockey game during the 2012-13 lockout, too. He also spent some time with Lack before he was dealt to Carolina, and Buble thinks the world of him. They bonded this past summer playing in Montreal Canadien Brendan Gallagher’s Celebrity Softball Classic. “(Lack) is a loveable sweet guy, and I hope he kicks ass, and I hope he becomes the No. 1 guy and wins the Vezina Trophy in Carolina,” Buble said. “I would love that.” As much as it saddened Buble, it made sense for Lack to go. He trusts Ryan Miller as the Canucks’ backbone in goal and feels a veteran stopper is a crucial safety net for a team getting younger everywhere else. In theory, it should be a lot tougher these days to keep tabs on his favorite team. Buble is now married to Argentine actress and model Luisana Lopilato and father to Noah, age two. They have another child on the way. So it’s harder to juggle his globetrotting career and family. But his devotion to hockey never dies. “Every night, I watch every game, I watch every team,” he said. He recently attended a New York Rangers game with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly and discussed the state of the sport. Buble is a big fan of 3-on-3 overtime, and he’s bursting with other ideas. He wants to see scoring increase, and he pitched Calgary Flames president Brian Burke on penalizing players who leave their feet to go down and block shots. Buble also champions a friend’s idea of making the goal posts oblong so pucks will ricochet into nets easier. And Buble doesn’t table these suggestions simply as a fan. He’s an owner. The seeds were planted in 2006, when Buble performed at a private dinner during the 2006 World Junior Championship in Vancouver. The tournament chair was Ron Toigo, owner of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, who held the party at his mother’s home. Buble “fell in love” with the whole Toigo family, and he and Ron became close friends. “For the attention people demand of him, and the capacity he has to give to people, I don’t think there is anybody like him,” Toigo said. “He’s the most amazing guy there is. Because a lot of those guys just shut the rest of the world out, and it’s much easier to operate that way. But he doesn’t. He has time and compassion for everyone. It is very unique at that level of fame.” Buble and Toigo would have beers together, watch hockey together and play hockey together. “All he wants to do is score goals,” Toigo said with a laugh. “He’s a great north guy, not so much going south.” And one day during a round of golf, the pair were discussing Buble’s dream of owning a hockey team. Toigo figured major junior was a great place to start and offered him a stake in the team. “I said, ‘Ron, I’m in, 100,000 percent,’” Buble said. “I called my dad and said ‘Dad, what do you think?’ He said ‘Mike, let’s do this. This is awesome.’ I mean, imagine the fact that I walk in, and I am an owner, and I’m standing there with my arms folded, and to my left is Gordie Howe and to my right is Pat Quinn. And these are my peers at this point. It was fun and incredible.” [caption id="attachment_51069" align="alignnone" width="644"]
Buble with Giants left winger Tyler Benson, a 2016 NHL draft hopeful. (Photo by CJ Relke/Vancouver Giants)
[/caption] Buble became a minority owner in 2008, joining Howe and Quinn. He attends Giants games whenever he can, and he secured a WHL package for viewing games on his computer when he’s on the road. Toigo hears from Buble all the way from Argentina in the middle of games, offering his opinions on goals and defensive schemes. Buble’s father, Lewis, a retired salmon fisherman, attends virtually every Giants game. Buble also bought a luxury box, which he named “The Superhero Suite” at the Pacific Coliseum, now the Giants Arena. It’s devoted to the BC Children’s hospital. Young patients and their parents and even doctors get to take in games. “For me it’s not just about hockey and getting to be a part of a sport I love so much,” he said, “but it’s also about community, about getting to give back to a place that gave me everything I have and taking a lot of stress off the minds of these kids and their parents and the doctors.” He feels a special connection to all children’s hospitals because of what he and Luisana endured with Noah this past summer in Buenos Aires. Noah was scalded with water in an accident at home and had burns on six percent of his body. He has recovered fully, but the trying experience gave Buble an appreciation of what families go through when they have a child suffering from life-threatening conditions. Buble is convinced his Vancouver Giants will contend again in years to come after several down seasons in a row. He even hopes they’ll host a Memorial Cup soon, after they lost their 2016 bid to Red Deer. But he has more grandiose dreams bouncing around in his head. Does he dream of owning the Canucks someday? First off, he says his ultimate dream is to be Spider-Man or Superman, to have legit super powers. He kind of means it. But since that isn’t going to happen, yes, owning an NHL team is very high on his list. He says he’s come quite close to NHL ownership, though he won’t name names or teams. “There has been a lot of stuff that has been really close, a lot of negotiating, but it hasn’t been right for me just yet,” he said. “I will say this: I have no intention of being a mascot, understand? I don’t want to talk about other celebrities in other sports, but…If I do this, it is because I really love the game, I love the business and I want to be a part of that. I don’t need to be a mascot sitting in the seats. I’m already a Canucks season ticket holder.” So if Buble takes the NHL ownership plunge, it won’t be for show. He won’t be that famous person who claims to be an owner but “actually owns 0.0001 percent of the team,” as he puts it. He’s a real fan, maybe the game’s biggest celebrity fan. He can dare to dream about joining the NHL down the road. Given what he’s accomplished in life to date, it’s best not to bet against the guy.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin
This feature appeared in the Nov. 23 Fan Issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.