When it’s time to throw a party — and we mean a big party — Winnipeg turns to Jason Smith.
The owner of Smith Events is the mastermind hired by Economic Development Winnipeg and True North Sports and Entertainment to organize the Whiteout street parties, in which thousands of delirious Jets fans pack the streets around Bell MTS Place during every home playoff game.
Standing 6-3 and weighing in at roughly 225 pounds — for the record, his feet are size 11 — he’s easily the biggest planner of big parties in the province.
Along with the Whiteout parties, this planner’s resumé boasts a litany of other oversized bashes — the 2014 Junos, the 2015 Grey Cup Festival, the 2016 NHL Heritage Classic Festival, the 2017 Canada Summer Games Festival, ManyFest and the city’s huge downtown street festival, to name just a few.
If Smith’s name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry, because that’s just the way he likes it.
The self-effacing event organizer is far more comfortable behind the scenes than in the glare of the spotlight. He wasn’t crazy about sitting down to be profiled by the Free Press, and repeatedly stressed any success he’s had is because he’s been surrounded by great people and organizations.
"I’ve never wanted to be the face of these things," Smith, 51, confided a day before Thursday’s Game 5 Whiteout party over a lunch of Cobb salad in the aptly named Smith Restaurant at The Forks. "If people don’t know I’m there, then I’ve done a good job at my events because the focus is on the people, the clients that I work for.
"I’m not trying to be humble, but the reality is there’s no way I could do it on my own … I would never want it to seem like I’m the guy who does it all. What I do is try to keep everybody pulling the rope in the same direction."
'What I do is try to keep everybody pulling the rope in the same direction.'
Which means there’s a lot the public doesn’t know about Jason Smith. For instance, he’s not a big party guy in his personal life, has no children but owns two cats (Cece and Ruby), and views himself as a "bit of a curmudgeon" because, when he goes to the movies, he insists on sitting in an aisle seat so that his lanky frame doesn’t feel trapped.
When asked to describe himself, Smith paused and said: "I would say I'm either an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert. I can never figure out which one it is. I do well in large crowds and lots of people, however, I need solitary time alone to recharge."
The lifelong Winnipegger’s journey to becoming Manitoba’s biggest planner of big events was a long and winding one, partly fuelled by tragedy.
Like most hockey-obsessed Canadian kids, Smith dreamed of becoming an NHL star. "If you asked me at any moment during my youth what I wanted to do with my life, I would have said, ‘Play hockey!’ " he recalled, smiling.
But those dreams were derailed when, at the age of 15, he separated his shoulder and lost his father to pancreatic and stomach cancer. He was devastated.
In Grade 10, at Vincent Massey Collegiate, a music-loving guy who was a year older sat next to him and he "totally changed my life," persuading Smith to drop the hockey stick, rent a drum set and stick it in his mother’s basement.
"All of a sudden, I stopped being a jock and I started jamming with my friends… that started me on the path to music that led me to where I am now."
He ended up touring with a band called 12 Eyes for about eight years. "They were kind of like a Green Day punk-pop band in that era," he said. "I played guitar and sang backup vocals. That was 30 years ago."
Then he and another buddy opened an Indie record label, Small Man Records, after getting a development deal through Warner Music in 1996.
"We released over 100 albums over the next 15 years," Smith recalled.
"We did artist management and albums for all kinds of bands, like Propagandhi and Comeback Kid. We released albums in every country in the world. It was my full-time career for 15 years."
He dabbled in helping out-of-town promoters organize local concerts until an unexpected foray into the big-event arena, a move spurred by another tragedy.
"The first big event I ever did was the Junos in 2014," he said. "It began because a very good friend of mine, Kevin Walters, who used to do all of these things.... He had done two Grey Cups and was on his second Junos... and, unfortunately, during the leadup he was diagnosed with cancer.
"He was having treatment and not feeling well, so it was suggested someone come on board to help him out...He said, 'Well, Jason is probably the only guy who might be able to fit in.' He and I were friends and he said, 'Why don't we get Jason to come and help out with the Junos?
"This was not a life choice, where I said, ‘I want to be an event planner.’ I did it because Kevin was a good friend."
And that’s when the party really got rocking. After the Junos, Smith was offered the job as president of the Grey Cup Festival.
"At that point, I had to make a choice (because) I was still at Manitoba Film and Music. I ultimately took the job and that’s when I decided to take a shot on doing another event," he said.
Next, he agreed to organize events surrounding the Canada Summer Games in 2017, the year he went all-in on party planning and founded his production company, Smith Events.
Now there’s no party too big, not even the province's birthday bash. He’s been named CEO of Manitoba 150 and is responsible for organizing events marking the province's 150th birthday party next year.
"There's probably 15 or so signature-type events and a number of other partnered events. There's nothing announced, so I can't really say anything more yet."
You might say the work of getting massive get-togethers together is a family affair for Smith — his wife of 10 years, Lynne Skromeda, is executive director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
It can be stressful when both halves of a couple live with non-stop demands on their time, but there are benefits.
"The two things that are great about it being a family affair are — first and foremost — we understand what the other person is going through, the demands on their time and attention," he said.
"The other thing that's been really nice is that because we're both in the same community — arts and culture —we get invited to a lot of things together. We get to hang out together a lot on the side because we work in the same sector. It's not one of us sitting at home waiting for the other to come home."
Of all the events he’s organized, the Whiteouts are both the most challenging and the closest to his heart.
"We close the roads nine hours before game time. We open (the gates) two hours before game time. It takes six or seven hours to set everything up," he said.
"There’s probably 100 people (setting things up). We're usually the last ones to walk down the street to make sure there's not a piece of fence lying on the road…. The amount of expertise and work to set up and take down the Whiteouts in a day is really staggering. And then you do it again two days later."
He fervently believes the images of Jets fans partying in the streets that air on TV screens across North America have done wonders for Winnipeg’s image, and he’s intensely proud of his part in getting the party started.
"Now, I think we're the envy of all the NHL teams," he said. "We're all over the world. These Whiteout parties showcase what a great hockey city we are and what a great city, in general, we are. I'm really proud to have a role in this unexpected juggernaut of civic pride."
'We're the envy of all the NHL teams... These Whiteout parties showcase what a great hockey city we are and what a great city, in general, we are.'
Is it stressful being the premier party planner in a city that has become renowned for welcoming the world to successful soirees?
"It's very high-stress, but you need the right temperament," he said after a brief pause. "I’m usually pretty even-keeled. We try to keep it in perspective... and try not to sweat the small stuff. It's never going to go exactly the way you think.
"If you don't have the right temperament and can’t take things in stride, if you're going to be stressed out all the time, you're not going to survive this business because it is one problem after another, to be honest. You have to calmly find a solution to every problem."
It’s probably not surprising, but for a man whose life revolves around throwing parties, Smith is not what you’d call a party guy.
"I would say I was more of a party guy when I was younger," he confessed, laughing. "You won't find me out doing shooters at the bar very often, if that's what you mean.
"For me, a lot of my work life is engaging with people; when we get a night off, we'll typically invite friends over and barbecue something. We prefer that kind of meaningful engagement with a small number of people."
Professionally, it’s a different story. "The most rewarding part is coming up with ideas for what we might do, and when they come to fruition, to stand in the middle of it and be like, ‘Wow!’ I love this job and I have a lot of fun doing it."
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.