Nineteen thousand fans are sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for their home team, the Vancouver Canucks, to take to the ice.
Suddenly, an army of 30 demon zombies, dressed in the uniforms of the other 30 NHL teams, invades the Rogers Arena. It resembles a scene out of Game of Thrones.
The crowd roars. It’s up to the Canucks to defend their home ice. The puck drops, and the players quickly skate into action, throwing hip checks and playing with a fierce determination to vanquish the invading horde.
Forward Micheal Ferland levels a punishing check, knocking a zombie through a shattering panel of tempered glass. Centre Elias Pettersson takes the loose puck on a breakaway. His slapshot from the point shatters the zombie goalie, just like that panel of glass. The puck continues its arc into the zombie net, and team captain Bo Horvat skates to centre ice, firmly planting the team flag to claim their territory.
The roaring crowd at Rogers Arena is real. The zombies are not. They are part of the opening scene in a film written and directed by Niagara-on-the-Lake native Michael Pohorly.
Pohorly was brought in by Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini about a year ago to revamp the in-game entertainment. With this year’s 50th season approaching, it was important to Aquilini that the milestone be marked with renewed excitement.
From his younger days growing up in rural NOTL, hockey has always been part of Pohorly’s life. He fondly remembers rushing home from St. Davids Public School to skate on his family’s outdoor rink. Later, he played Junior B for the St. Catharines Falcons, and spent four years as a member of the Concordia University Stingers while earning a degree in communications and film. He was named an Academic All-Canadian in 1992-1993.
With his background in the sport, Pohorly was a natural for the job. It didn’t hurt, of course, that he also had close to 20 years working in the film and television industries, with credits in films such as The Grey and The Incredible Hulk, and TV series such as DC: Legends of Tomorrow, and Prison Break.
Pohorly came up with the concept, deciding to make the players stand out as warriors on the ice. He gathered a team of film industry professionals, including cinematographer Stephen Jackson and stunt coordinator Paul Wu. For the demon zombies, he hired actors who could skate, and members of the UBC and Simon Fraser University hockey teams. He also called on former Concordia Stingers teammates, such as goalie Angelo Karitsiotis.
The result is a three-minute, Hollywood-quality run through a fast-paced, action-packed sequence designed to get the crowd excited about the game to come. And it works, says Pohorly.
“Basically, the Canucks had become known around the league over the years as being very conservative in how they approach game entertainment at the arena,” says Pohorly. “Francesco brought me in to change the vibe and atmosphere. The message is, you’re here for entertainment, you’re here to have fun.”
The entire opening sequence, with the video, the new projection system and lights, is designed to urge people in the stands to start cheering and to get loud. Pohorly adds, “there are three key moments when the noise level rises, and the team, getting ready in the dressing room, can hear that the fans are already getting into the game.”
Pohorly’s responsibilities as in-game entertainment director this season give him carte blanche to design and script what amounts to an engaging mini-movie 41 times a year. “It’s a four-hour live show that we’re running, with breaks in-between for hockey, that’s the way I look at it,” he jokes.
From installing fog lights below the scoreboard, to choosing a new soundtrack, to goals scored by the Canucks (a loud loop of the word “Hey” from Van Halen’s Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love), it’s all Pohorly’s vision.
He raves about the fun he’s had with Canuck Idol, a crowd karaoke contest, and the Top Dog competition, during which players’ wives accompany their family dogs to the ice surface for an end-to-end race. Its popularity has seen stars such as Bo Horvat approaching Pohorly to get their pooches a spot in the next event.
Pohorly oversees a team of 15 full-time employees and almost 50 game-day staffers who bring it all together. “I did not realize everything that goes into this,” he admits. “And the more you add into it, the more variables there are.”
It seems to be working. After two straight years of declining ticket sales, the Canucks are averaging 18,703 fans per game this season, up almost 700 from 2018-2019. Their attendance figures place them in the top 10, up from 14th last year. “We’re way beyond last year, and far beyond all of our sales targets, with 10 games to go,” says Pohorly.
And Aquilini must be happy the team is seeing success on the ice, as well. Having missed the playoffs last year, the Canucks at press time were sitting in the first wild card slot in the west, with 34 wins, just one less than last year, and with lots of hockey still to play.
Despite the success, and the fun he is having at Rogers Arena, Pohorly is looking beyond the Stanley Cup playoffs already. He has a new television series in development in Bali, where he first visited in 2008. The idyllic island has become a bit of a second home, as he returned last summer to shoot some commercials.
His long-term goal, however, focuses on his first home. “Eventually one of my aims is to be able to shoot a film in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I think it would be fantastic to be able to shoot in and around the vineyards, and to create a script that allows Niagara to be one of the stars in the film.”
Maybe that film will feature Pohorly’s uncle Joe, the Niagara wine pioneer who was originally involved in Hillebrand Estate Winery, or his parents, Frank and Susan, who, along with his brother Steven, still operate the family vineyard.
Or maybe it will feature demon zombie hockey players.
With Michael Pohorly, one never knows what to expect.
Correction: The original story said Joseph Pohorly had originally been involved in Inniskillin Winery. In fact he was one of the original owners of Hillebrand Estate Winery. The Local apologizes for the error and any confusion it may have caused.