Setting up, tearing down Winnipeg Whiteout Street Parties no small feat
Behind the scenes crews working 17 hour days to make sure party runs smoothly
With every broadcast of Winnipeg Jets home games during this season's playoff run, the rest of the continent is learning something people in this city have known for a long time.
Winnipeggers know a thing or two about throwing proper parties.
But the smooth shots of thousands of Jets fans cheering in the streets around Bell MTS Place airing on TV screens across North America don't capture just how much work goes into getting ready for the party.
And it's a whole lot of work to get the get-togethers together.
"Some days we make it just barely, and other times we have just a few minutes to spare," said Jason Smith, the man tasked with the top-level organizing behind each and every Winnipeg Whiteout Street Party.
Smith owns Smith Events, the company contracted by party hosts Economic Development Winnipeg and True North Sports & Entertainment to put together the parties and he's no stranger to producing big events.
His resume includes producing the 2015 Grey Cup, the NHL Heritage Classic, the Junos and last summer's Canada Summer Games Festival at The Forks.
The street parties — which need to be set up and taken down with a tight turnaround so traffic can return to the roadway in time for the morning rush — bring unique challenges, he said.
Crews have just six hours to get the whole thing set up, and to put that into perspective, Smith said he had three days to set up the festival site at last summer's Canada Summer Games Festival at The Forks.
"And we're setting up and tearing this thing down every two days in a matter of hours."
A full day of work
Estimates from Economic Development Winnipeg say between 5,000 to 12,000 people have descended on streets near Bell MTS Place and the Millennium Library during each home playoff game for the parties, which kicked off during the Jets' first home playoff game April 11.
The first party saw Donald Street closed between Portage Avenue and Graham Avenue with room for around 6,000 fans, but when closer to 9,000 people showed up, the space was expanded further down Donald Street and now includes a stretch of Graham Avenue and Smith Street as well.
The capacity of the latest party last Thursday was between 22,000 and 23,000, plus another 3,000 in the family viewing area at Millennium Library Park.
Getting ready for that many people means game days are a blur for Smith, who starts work at 8 a.m. and doesn't stop moving until the last empty beer can is picked up around 1 a.m.
A crew of just over 100 people are responsible for getting the whole thing together.
There's roughly 2,000 metres of fencing to install, a stage to build, five giant viewing screens that need to be put together and installed, 160 portable toilets to bring in and a dozen food trucks and another dozen beer vendors to get set up in time for when the gates open.
A crane is brought in to install the 10-metre tall Budweiser goal light that's shown up for the last two games.
As he was setting up for Thursday's party, Smith said the process has gotten easier with each event.
"I feel like we now have a handle on what we're doing and where the best spots are for a lot of the things so we are definitely getting better every time we do it," he said.
"We're actually getting to a point — especially today because it's so beautiful out — where we're clicking along with what I'd say is the most speed and precision we've had so far."
Parties don't clean up themselves
Smith said the take down goes much faster than the set up, with the same crew getting it all out of the way in roughly three hours, just in time for the streets to reopen at 1 a.m.
To get it all done in time, organizers have to make sure even the hardiest of partiers gets the message that it's time to go, something anyone who has hosted a party of their own at home will know isn't always the easiest task.
Smith has that process down to a science too.
"I'll give you a great piece of advice," he said to would-be party planners. "If you cut off the booze and you turn off the TV and the music, people tend to decide that it's not very much fun anymore at your house and they go home — it's the same for us.
"Pretty quickly everybody realizes what's going on and they move on to somewhere else."
But where does it all go?
Some of the fencing stays in place for the next party, but everything else needs to be out of the way so drivers aren't forced to swerve around a giant goal light on their morning commute.
Much of the equipment — like the screens, stage and portable toilets — are rented and Smith said the rental companies pack those things up and store it at their own facilities until the next party.
Equipment borrowed from True North go back into storage at the arena, and the giant Budweiser goal light is moved to an undisclosed location somewhere in the city between games.
"Everybody takes their things home with them," explained Smith.
The last step is to make sure the litter is picked up, something a team made up of city workers, True North employees and the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ cleaning crew do by working together.
Steve Hughes, manager of maintenance, cleanliness and place-making with Downtown Winnipeg BIZ said on the whole, Winnipeggers are doing a pretty good job keeping the streets clean while they party.
"At the last home game it was astonishing how clean the streets were at the end, so we had minimal amount of cleanup," he said, adding the crews work throughout the game to make the job a little easier.
He said his crew finds everything from discarded clothing and flags to coffee cups and more than a few empty beer cans littered on the streets after each party.
Those cans, he said, are cleaned, taken back for cash and the money is donated to charity.
'Flying by the seats of our pants'
After the first party, Dayna Spiring, president of Economic Development Winnipeg, said organizers were "flying by the seats of our pants" for the inaugural bash, partly because nothing like it has ever been planned in the city before.
Organizers "took notes" from the parties Nashville held for their fans last year to help with the logistics here, she said.
"We knew that Winnipeggers wanted a place to go," she said. "We were very cognizant of the fact there's 16,000 people who get to be in that building every night and tens of thousands more that are Jets fans or proud Winnipeggers who want to be a part of it."
That means organizers had to move quickly to get things together.
And she said the job was made even more difficult because of the superstitious nature of hockey players and their fans — organizers didn't want to jinx the team's chances of making the playoffs by planning an event around them making the playoffs.
"We're always mindful of the superstition," she said, knocking on wood while admitting planning is already in the works for third round parties should the Jets move on.
One thing is for certain, said Spiring — the coverage the parties are getting across Canada and the United States is making her job of selling the city much easier.
"This party, and this series of parties, is making that first part of that pitch for me," she said.
"Everybody in North America who is a hockey fan now knows about Winnipeg — and I promise you none of them are talking about mosquitos or the cold."
The next Winnipeg Whiteout Street Party will go Monday night when the Jets take on the Predators in Game 6 of their seven-game series.