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Reflecting on a career in marketing with John McLellan

'Whether you’re on the hockey side or the business side, do everything. If you have to tape some sticks or travel on the road and order food, or you have an opportunity to go out and sell'

“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.  


If you’ve ever thought about working in the sports industry, John McLellan’s advice is, make sure you get as much experience as you can in every aspect of the business.

“Do everything the team or organization might need you to do,” he says.

“Whether you’re on the hockey side or the business side, do everything. If you have to tape some sticks or travel on the road and order food, or you have an opportunity to go out and sell.”

McLellan is the Senior Manager of Marketing & Business Development with the North Bay Battalion and he says the idea of trying to be involved in all aspects started when he was employed with North Bay’s former OHL team, the Centennials.

“I was hired to run the office because that is what I was doing before,” says McLellan who worked for the Ontario Hockey League for a year.

“Right after I started, they had brought on someone to do sales, but that person quit to go back to a family-owned business and I told the team that I could take on that role as well. Owner John Hopper had asked me if I had ever done sales before and I told him, no, but I was willing to give it a try. So, I ended up doing both roles, plus marketing and media and I helped with booking hotel rooms on the road and, I really got a chance to do everything, which I absolutely loved. It was a small office from a business standpoint and for the longest time it was pretty much just me.and our secretary Jan Laxton who was amazing and we worked together for 14 years. Without Jan I could not have been able to have the time to do what I needed to do and I am forever grateful to her”. 

Born in Pembroke, but raised in North Bay, McLellan is the youngest in a family of seven brothers and says the love of hockey was instilled early on.    

“I was the goaltender whenever the family would get together. But I grew up loving the game. On Saturday nights when my friends were going to dances or going to the movies, I was home watching Hockey Night in Canada on Television,” he says.  

“Even when I started dating my wife Pam, that was what we did for date nights, we both loved hockey. She worked the popcorn stand at Memorial Gardens and that’s how we met and now we’ve been married 27 seasons.”

McLellan knew he wanted to be involved in sports for a career and his initial foray into that world was in pursuing a career in media.

“I got the bug in the media side of the business by doing Centennials games on the radio. Vince Caliciuri was doing play-by-play and I was doing colour commentary and, because Peter Handley was someone that I had admired growing up and listening to him and Bob Wood in the morning on the radio, so I decided I wanted to go to Canadore College and I took broadcasting.”  

McLellan went through the program and soaked everything in and found a job shortly after graduation.

“Jeff Turl was one of our teachers who I have a lot of respect for, and I remember having a conversation with him asking what I wanted to do. I told him that I thought being a Sports Director on TV was kind of the goal and this was in the mid-‘80s and he said, well the Olympics are in ‘88 in Calgary, and maybe by the time they roll around you could have your dream job. He hired me at CTV to be a reporter and by the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, I’m reading sports on TV because the sports anchor went on vacation. So, I got that opportunity and that was fun.”

After a year of working in media, McLellan felt there was another desire he wanted to pursue and he left CTV to head to Durham College to take Sports Administration and after graduating he landed the job at the OHL’s head office. A year later, he was heading back home to North Bay.

“There were only 15 teams in the league at the time and while I was working at the office I decided to apply, through the mail, to every team except North Bay because I knew I was going to be going home for Easter so I took my resume with me and planned to talk to them in person. About a week later, John Hopper gave me a call, I did the interview and he gave me the job.”

McLellan says he picked up on the idea of getting involved very quickly.

“If you can do stuff from the business side and the hockey side the better it is for you,” he says.  

“I just looked at the sales opening as an opportunity and to try something I had never done. I was scared because I had never sold anything before, and it was a lot of work. But the great thing about selling is you get to meet a lot of people and the business community in North Bay and they were very supportive of the Centennials, as they are now of the Battalion. It’s amazing that there are people that I dealt with between the years 1987-2000 that I am once again reconnecting and doing business with now, or I’m dealing with their kids. These are hockey people that want to support a local team and it was nice to come back and see some familiar faces.”

It's not just the faces that have changed since his days with the Centennials, as the business has evolved over time as well and technology has played a huge factor in speeding up the process of the day-to-day workings.

“In the Centennial days, to sell a program ad for $1,000, you’d have to talk to a potential sponsor and discuss what they would be interested in putting in the ad, and you finally get something agreed upon after two or three visits. Then you take that to the printers to set it all up, you then take that back to the sponsor to sign off on it before it finally can go into the program, and then you send the invoice. Today, the graphics come camera ready; you send that off to the printers and off you go,” says McLellan.  

“People also just don’t have the kind of time to have those face-to-face meetings anymore. A phone call or an email is the way it’s done now, although I see myself as one of those old school guys who still likes to meet people in person and get to know our corporate sponsors a little better and really build those relationships.”

Another focus was on building the in-game entertainment for the fans.

“We had game sponsorship nights back then for sure, but they weren’t on as big of a scale as they are now, but we certainly did some crazy promotions,” says McLellan.

“We did an instant vacation give away once. If you brought your suitcase to a game, your name was put into a draw, and if your name was drawn then you would get to go in a limousine to Toronto, stay the night in Toronto and fly out the next day to an NHL city to watch a game and go out with a former Centennial. We had Paul Gillis with the Quebec Nordiques, who was a captain with the Centennials, do that promotion with us.”

McLellan says the fans want to be entertained and they are always happy if they can walk out of the rink with something in their hands, “If they can walk out of the game with a North Bay Battalion mug or ice scrapper or fridge magnet, they will head home content, and we have to keep doing those things.”

He adds, “If you have a good idea, just put it out there. I could be talking to a fan in the lobby or see something in an email and a good idea will just pop up and I just run with it. I don’t always have the best ideas but if you can do something that the fans will enjoy and it’s going to give value to the sponsorship partner and value to the team, then those are the ones that you will want to pursue.”

McLellan left his job with the Centennials a year before the team moved.

“I wasn’t with the Centennials for their last season. When I left, I had worked for the team for 14 of the 20 years that they had been in North Bay and so when they left to head to Saginaw, it was very sad,” says McLellan, reflecting on the Cents move across the border to become the Saginaw Spirit. At this point, he had moved on to a marketing role with Tim Hortons around northern Ontario and he says that still kept him close to the game he loves.  

“I did partnerships with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Sudbury Wolves, the North Bay Skyhawks and the Nipissing Lakers. So I was still involved in the hockey realm and of course, Tim Hortons has that great Timbits hockey program and I was fortunate enough to be a part of that program when Sidney Crosby came aboard and some of the people at head office leaned on me a little bit because of my hockey background which was pretty cool.”

Even before he landed his role with the city’s new OHL franchise, McLellan helped play a part in bringing the team here.

“I was on the committee to help bring the team to North Bay and help spearhead some season ticket drives and different programs to get people excited about the prospect of having OHL hockey back in their city,” he says.

“But at the time, I was in a very good position with Tim Hortons and we ended up becoming a corporate sponsor and we had a suite during the season and we also ran Timbits hockey during the intermission, so once again I was dealing with OHL hockey from a business standpoint and I had ultimate respect for the people I dealt with, including Mike Griffin and Phil Ercolani at the time and so I’ve got to see both sides of it.”

McLellan says,  “Coming back to working with an OHL team wasn’t something I was necessarily looking for but I’m so glad it happened and I look forward to going to work every day which I think is very important.”  

Another important piece of the job in today's world is being social media conscious.

“Social Media is really important for us,” says McLellan.

“Between Facebook and Twitter and Instagram we have over 45,000 followers, and I don’t know how many other people or organizations in North Bay can say that. It’s very important to communicate to your fans, although we do have an older fan base and we have to remember that they aren’t all on those platforms. In the last couple of years, I think we’ve done a way better job in that aspect as we are sending out weekly information to our season ticket holders of what’s coming up and even giving them game day information. You have to be on top of those platforms though and that’s true for every team in our league.”

And with COVID-19 interrupting all the “business as usual” aspects of every business, McLellan says he is, “looking forward to getting back to seeing the team playing and, personally, meeting up with fans and sponsors when it is safe to do so.”

He says, “My advice for someone that wants to be in the sports industry, is that you need to do a lot of networking and reach out to people in the community who can help you and you also need to get involved. Whether it’s with the North Bay Food Bank or CNIB or Cancer Society, you have to get out there, network, and be visible.”

If you have a story idea for Jobs of the Future, send Matt an email at [email protected] 

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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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