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The Tragically Hip's Farewell Rivaled Canadian Tours by Bieber, Celine and Drake

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Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Gord Downie & Drake

Superstars born in Canada -- including Justin Bieber, Celine Dion and Drake -- brought their tours back home during the past year, contributing to nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (U.S.) in Canadian concert grosses, according to Billboard Boxscore. Other top tours by British and American stars -- Adele, Paul McCartney, the Dixie Chicks and others -- also contributed to ticket sales in Canada that totaled $244.9 million for the 12 months ending Feb. 25.

But ask any Canadian fan to name the most important tour of the past year and he or she will cite an act that never broke big in the United States yet earned fervent devotion in its homeland: The Tragically Hip.

Gord Downie, 52, frontman of The Tragically Hip, a band founded in 1984 in Kingston, Ontario, revealed in May 2016 that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The group embarked on an emotional 15-date summer tour to say goodbye to its fans.

“There was a lot of love in the room,” says Libby Raines, vp building operations at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, describing the band’s two nights at the arena.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended the group’s final, sold-out show in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016, called the band “an essential part of what we are and who we are as a country.”

Not surprisingly, The Tragically Hip is among the top-grossing acts that fueled the success of Canada’s top 10 venues during the past year. The country’s hottest halls are ranked by ticket sales that were reported to Billboard Boxscore.

1. Air Canada Centre, Toronto
Concert Capacity
Top-Grossing Acts Adele, The Tragically Hip, Justin Bieber
Ticket Sales $43.6 million
When The Tragically Hip’s farewell tour came to Toronto’s Air Canada Centre for three nights in August 2016, “we really put a lot into elevating the event,” says Wayne Zronik, senior vp music and live entertainment for venue operator Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, noting that the band had played the opening of the arena in 1999. The venue set up a video booth “where fans could talk about their [Tragically Hip] experiences,” says Zronik. Among those who filmed a tribute to the group was Toronto Mayor John Tory, who declared The Tragically Hip Day in the city. As the venue underwent ongoing improvements, from upgraded dressing rooms to in-seat food and drink, it hosted many of 2016’s top touring acts, including Adele, Bieber, Drake/Future and David Gilmour. But the emotion of the Tragically Hip concerts was “really amazing,” says Zronik. “I’ve never been through anything like that.”

2. Bell Centre, Montreal
Concert Capacity 21,242
Top-Grossing Acts Celine Dion, Adele, Drake/Future
Ticket Sales $42.4 million
A $100 million upgrade to Montreal’s Bell Centre that began in 2015 is in its final stages. Last year the venue got all new seats, new digital signage in its concourse areas, a new catering room and more. Fans who flocked to the building to see Dion, Adele, Drake/Future and others might have been unaware but the venue also has received the ISO 14001 international certification for environmental management. “We recycle. We compost. We are as green as can be,” says Nick Farkas, vp concerts and events at Evenko, which operates the Bell Centre. “We’re conscientious about recycling -- and giving away food after shows to missions, to food banks. We’re very -conscious of our place in our world.”

3. FirstOntario Centre, Hamilton, Ontario
Concert Capacity 19,500
Top-Grossing Acts Paul McCartneyThe Tragically Hip, Black Sabbath 
Ticket Sales $14.3 million
Less than an hour’s drive west of Toronto, the FirstOntario Centre draws top acts to Hamilton. It’s a city with a population of just over a half million, but it’s located in the center of Canada’s most populous region. A sold-out Black Sabbath show in early 2016 began a season that also had bookings by The Tragically Hip, McCartney and five shows in four days by Garth Brooks. Venue GM Scott Warren happened to mention to Brooks that his executive assistant Jennifer Csefko was also a singer. The country superstar asked Csefko if she would learn “How Do I Live,” a hit by his wife Trisha Yearwood -- then invited her to sing it with him during a soundcheck. Yearwood gave Csefko a standing ovation. Warren recalls Yearwood saying: “That’s amazing. I can take the night off.”

4. Centre Videotron, Quebec City, Quebec
Concert Capacity 18,259
Top-Grossing Acts Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, Rihanna
Ticket Sales $13.5 million
Centre Videotron opened in September 2015 after Quebec City invested $277 million (U.S.) in a replacement for Colisee Pepsi, the city’s dated arena that debuted in 1949. In its short history, Centre Videotron has hosted five sellouts by Dion, two nights apiece by Muse and Pearl Jam, an evening with Rihanna and a tour stop by Bieber, with The Knocks and Moxie Raia on his bill. “Celine, for me, is at the top of everything else,” says Michel Granger, vp shows and creative content for Sports and Entertainment Group, which operates Centre Videotron. “We have done five shows in a row, which is phenomenal for a market like Quebec City. The fans were thrilled and it sold out very fast.”

5. Budweiser Gardens, London, Ontario
Concert Capacity 10,500
Top-Grossing Acts Elton John, The Tragically Hip, Carrie Underwood
Ticket Sales $10.4 million
During a year in which Elton John ranked as the top-grossing artist to play Budweiser Gardens, venue GM Brian Ohl singles out the awards show staged by the Canadian Country Music Association in September as a highlight of 2016. Rising star Brett Kissel, from Alberta, performed his single “I Didn’t Fall in Love With Your Hair,” written about his mother’s fight with cancer. “He had her and other women who are cancer survivors come out,” recalls Ohl, “and there was not a dry eye in the house.” While 2017 has brought no significant renovations to the building, Ohl says the venue is considering adding metal detectors “to ensure the safety of our patrons.”

6. Rogers Centre, Toronto
Concert Capacity 49,282
Top-Grossing Acts Guns N’ Roses, Beyoncé
Ticket Sales $9.8 million
Toronto’s massive domed stadium, Rogers Centre can accommodate some 50,000-plus fans for a concert, so it’s only the top draws in the touring business that can play the beloved home of MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays. During 2016, Guns N’ Roses and Beyoncé brought their respective stadium shows to the venue, previously known as the Skydome. “Beyoncé was great, particularly when she and her dancers were dancing around in the water,” says director of events Lesley Lovell, and fans who got splashed “had no complaints.” Already booked for the months ahead: U2, Metallica, Coldplay and Bieber. Fans are also now passing through metal detectors as an additional security measure. “Major League Baseball instituted [this] a couple of seasons ago,” says Lovell, “and it’s going to be consistent across the stadium, 365 days a year.”

7. Rogers Arena, Vancouver
Concert Capacity 19,700
Top-Grossing Acts Adele, Justin Bieber, Dixie Chicks
Ticket Sales $8.9 million
In Vancouver, concern for the environment is “a pretty big way of life,” says Jeff Stipec, COO of Canucks Sports & Entertainment, which operates the Rogers Arena with green goals in mind. The venue, part of the Green Sports Alliance, won the 2016 Environmental Innovator award in the NHL category. It reported a 13 percent increase in the rate of waste diverted from landfills. In late 2016, fans turning out for shows by Adele, Bieber, the Dixie Chicks, McCartney and others found two new dining locations inside the arena -- and signs directing them to “tri-sorters” for recycling, composting and waste. “A lot of companies talk about environmental stewardship,” says Stipec. “It’s neat to be part of a company that actually does it.”

8. Budweiser Stage, Toronto
Concert Capacity 16,000
Top-Grossing Acts Dixie Chicks, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban
Ticket Sales $8.5 million
For more than 20 years, Toronto’s outdoor concert venue on the shores of Lake Ontario carried the name of a well-known Canadian brand. In January, the Molson Amphitheatre was rechristened the Budweiser Stage as part of a new multiyear sponsorship deal. The past year already has brought some other fan-friendly changes: a speedier point-of-sale system at concessions called Appetize and the redevelopment of a lounge into a wine bar called The Vine with a view of the lake. “[The wine bar] is something that people have been asking for,” says Adrian Walker, director of venue operations. “I’m pretty proud of that renovation.” Country acts including the Dixie Chicks, Luke Bryan and Keith Urban ranked as the venue’s top-grossing artists of the past year. But Walker’s favorite booking? Prophets of Rage. “The crowd was more jacked up than any I’d seen in a long time.”

9. Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, Alberta
Concert Capacity 20,000
Top-Grossing Acts Sting/Peter Gabriel, Zac Brown Band, Justin Bieber
Ticket Sales $7.8 million
Calgary’s 34-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome is one of the oldest buildings in the NHL. “So we’re actively working toward a new building for our market,” says Raines. The Saddledome will still be going for a number of years as the venue consults with the city, but there won’t be any upgrades. Raines says there is a “long list” of “elaborate” shows that can’t play the building because “we’re not able to support the -production.” But many artists did make the stop in 2016, including Sting and Peter Gabriel, whose double bill ranked as the venue’s top-grossing draw; Zac Brown Band; Bieber; Black Sabbath; Rihanna; The Who; and The Tragically Hip, which played two nights at the arena during its farewell tour.

10. SaskTel Centre, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Concert Capacity 13,301
Top-Grossing Acts Justin Bieber, Keith Urban, Dixie Chicks
Ticket Sales $4.5 million
Garth Brooks didn’t just pass through Saskatoon for a one-nighter on his current tour, he stayed awhile -- playing six nights at the Sasktel Centre in June 2016. “We sold 80,000 tickets in the first hour,” says venue CEO Will Lofdahl, “and seated a little over 15,000 [per show].” The Brooks blowout may help make the case for renovations to the nearly 30-year-old Saskatoon venue. “We’re an aging facility,” says Lofdahl, “so last year the city council gave us permission to do a market analysis and feasibility study,” for upgrades to the arena and an adjacent convention center. “We want to continue to be vibrant and competitive.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Billboard.