Steve Bienkowski is the Kitchener Rangers’ chief operating officer and governor. His Rangers odyssey began all the way back in 1979 when, as a 17-year-old goaltender, he moved to Kitchener to play for the team.
He helped backstop the Rangers to their first Ontario League championship in 1981, then enrolled at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Kitchener’s twin city, winning an Ontario university championship and being named an All-Canadian. After graduation, Bienkowski stayed in the area and began a successful business career.
And he’s never left.
The soft-spoken Bienkowski has now lived in Kitchener-Waterloo for longer than he hasn’t, but can’t explain exactly why.
“That’s a good question because we just won’t leave,” Bienkowski laughed, when asked what the area means to him personally. “What I like about the community is you can just be yourself. There are a lot of wealthy people here, but you would never know it. The people are genuine and look out for each other. And that’s what the Rangers try to do for the community.”
Being one of just a few community-owned franchises in the Canadian League, the Rangers are somewhat unique and Bienkowski alludes to something akin to a social contract between the team and its fans.
“It’s an interesting way of ownership,” he said. “We recognize we’re going to have to answer to the season ticket-holders at the annual meeting. We can’t just turn left without considering what would’ve been if we turned right. It’s like making decisions for a major company – it affects a lot of people. So you can’t just do something without thinking of everyone.”
After three OHL championships, four Memorial Cup tournaments and one national title in the 1980s, the Rangers’ fortunes began to take a turn for the worse in the next decade, leading to three consecutive money-losing seasons. That’s not great news for any franchise, let alone one owned by its season ticket-holders.
By 1995, the Rangers were looking for people with different business backgrounds to help turn the franchise around, which is when Bienkowski rejoined the team as a director.
By 2002, he had ascended to the position of volunteer president, but it had become clear the 40-year-old executive model the Rangers employed was outdated. So the directorship asked him to become a full-time employee and take on the newly created COO position.
Bienkowski jumped at the chance.
“I have a passion for the sport and the team,” he explained. “And at the same time, I could work in town.”
While at the helm, the low-key Bienkowski has helped usher in a Rangers renaissance. He’s overseen renovations of the team’s nearly 60-year-old arena, the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, which has been transformed into a modern entertainment complex without losing its original feel and charm.
He also played a large role in hiring wildly successful coach and GM Peter DeBoer in 2001, who has turned the team into a perennial OHL contender. For all his efforts, Bienkowski was recognized by his peers in 2003 as the league’s executive of the year.
Today the Rangers play to sellout crowds and are one of the CHL’s model franchises. Bienkowski takes a lot of pride in the club’s turnaround under his watch.
“We fixed the financial (aspects) quickly,” he said. “Where we made mistakes was not fixing the hockey-side fast enough. We probably focused too much on the financial, but we sort of had to.”
After a second Memorial Cup title in 2003 and, now, three consecutive seasons of at least 47 wins, it’s fair to say the hockey side is also in good shape. That was reaffirmed last June when the CHL announced Kitchener had won the right to host the 2008 Memorial Cup.
Kitchener’s adopted son couldn’t have been happier and as Chair of the Memorial Cup Host Committee, Bienkowski’s Rangers odyssey has come full circle.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Coming here as a player and being part of that (1981) team and then staying in the community, going to school and coming back as a volunteer in 1995, winning the Memorial Cup and then doing the (tournament) bid, it’s very gratifying.”
For schedules, stats and a preview of the Mem Cup, check out THN.com’s Memorial Cup Central