An Edmonton bar owner was told by the Edmonton Oilers legal team that he had to take down posters mentioning the hockey team unless he sells Molson products.
Oilers hockey games and beer go together like Connor McDavid and sports highlight reels. But for some bar owners in the city, the relationship between the two is complicated by trademark laws and their loyalty to the Alberta craft beer industry.
Darren McGeown, owner of the craft beer bar Arcadia, put up posters promoting a special during Oilers games.
His mood soured when he got a call and an email in February from the Oilers' legal counsel informing him that his posters were an unauthorized use of the team's trademark and that they had to be removed immediately.
The email informed him that if he sold products from Molson, an Oilers sponsorship partner, he would have the right to use Oilers logos and would also have access to tickets and team products for promotions inside the bar.
It's an offer McGeown said he wasn't interested in, because his bar only serves beer brewed in Alberta by craft breweries.
For him, it's a matter of pride and loyalty to craft brewers. On top of that, Arcadia isn't exactly a sports bar, having only one TV above the bar.
"It's just nice to have some people pony up at the bar and watch the game and cheer them on," he said.
"It's disheartening, you know. I've had season tickets for the Oilers since I was a little kid. I still do. It sucks to see the lack of support towards the growing [Alberta] beer industry."
Protecting the brand
The Oilers Entertainment Group said the decision is about protecting its brand and its partners.
"This is really about supporting companies that have made an investment," said Tim Shipton, vice-president of corporate communications with the Oilers Entertainment Group.
"As it relates to Molson, they've been an amazing partner since 1979. They are synonymous with Oilers hockey. We're lucky to have a partner like that to help support the brand."
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Cameron Hutchison, a professor with the University of Alberta's faculty of law, said that if McGeown didn't take his poster down the Oilers would have grounds to sue, but he said there isn't much case law on the subject.
He suspects it doesn't happen often, as bar owners like McGeown comply when they receive a warning from the lawyers.
The Oilers can use their trademark to suggest bars sell Molson products as a way to promote games and their establishment, but some fans and beer drinkers might not like the strategy, he said.
"It just strikes me as really bad PR that a company like the Oilers, who relies on its fan base to support its team and a lot of local bars to support the team, would take this heavy-handed approach," Hutchison said. "I guess they take the view that their lucrative deal with Molson is such that they really need to hold on to those and enforce those rights regardless of how heavy-handed it looks."
Hutchison said bars can find ways to get around promoting the team, such as putting up the back of Oilers jerseys while having the logo hidden or writing "Edmonton hockey team" on their promo posters.
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, a government of Alberta agency responsible for enforcing the gaming and liquor act, confirmed on Friday it is looking into the inducement to become a "Molson bar" with the use of Oilers promotions, but trademark use is out of its jurisdiction.
Wayne Sheridan, the owner of Situation Brewing Company near Whyte Avenue, also received a bit of a wake-up call about the Oilers trademark.
He posted on Twitter that fans should come watch the Oilers face-off against Calgary last October. He received a similar response from the Oilers' legal team.
"In general, restaurants, bars and other establishments aren't able to use the word Oilers, Rogers Place, our Oilers logo, Oilers, tickets/jerseys, etc.," the email states. That includes messages on all social media accounts and signs.
The email also offered the opportunity to become a Molson bar.
But like McGeown, Sheridan was also not interested. His bar only serves beer made at its brewpub, along with the occasional Alberta craft beer.
Sheridan hopes that as the craft beer industry continues to grow in the province, the Oilers beer partnership may change to include an Alberta craft beer as a partner, which would give him an option that aligns with his business model and allows him to promote the team's games legally.
"It's not that only Molson Canadian drinkers are Oilers fans," Sheridan said. "We have lots of people in here watching the games when they're on and enjoying craft beer. It's a huge chunk of the market. It's a growing chunk, so maybe the Oilers' position can change on this issue."
At Arcadia, McGeown shares that same hope.
"When the agreement's done with Molson, hopefully they'll see the potential and future of Alberta beer," he said.