By Lisa Wilton
CORRECTION: Nicola Trolez is the marketing and promotions manager for the Ship & Anchor, not the general manager as previously stated. The general manager is Diane Taylor. We apologize for the error.
CALGARY — “Soooociaaaable!”
It’s 4 p.m. on a chilly January afternoon and 100 people are crammed into the west side of the Ship & Anchor Pub holding their pints high in the air, singing out the popular East Coast toast. The annual Celtic Jam for the Cure is in full swing.
As the next band starts setting up, a few people wander over to the other side of the bar to take a look at more than 20 silent auction items up for grabs. It’s the usual mid-range silent auction fare – Flames vs. Canucks tickets, snowboard and lift tickets, spa packages, beer fridge. I’m usually priced out of some of the cooler, big-ticket items, but if I loiter around the Captain Morgan/Grey Goose/Crown Royal gift baskets long enough, I can usually sneak in a last-second bid and leave with a boozy haul. Of all the Ship’s fundraising efforts – and there are many – the Celtic Jam for the Cure is one that holds most meaning for me.
It was the one time of the year my mother stepped foot in the pub where I spent a good part of my 20s (and let’s face it, 30s). She met my friends, my favourite servers and local musicians. Plus, marketing and promotions manager Nicola Trolez always made sure we had a prime spot close (but not too close) to the stage. While Celtic music was enough to convince my Irish folk-loving mom to hang out at the Ship for an afternoon, it was also a way to celebrate the memory of my father, who passed away from brain cancer in 1999. And it’s become an even more important fundraising initiative for me since my mom succumbed to the disease two-and-a-half years ago.
It’s a similar story for many people who attend the Celtic Jam for the Cure each year. It’s one of the bar’s most anticipated annual fundraisers and its most successful auction of the year. The event was inspired Regina O’Grady, a former Ship staff member who died of melanoma cancer in 2005.
“She was trying to get treatment in the States,” recalls Trolez. “So a group of people organized a benefit for her, and we wanted to do something as well, but she passed away before we could organize anything. We decided to go ahead with the benefit anyway in January of 2006, because we’d also lost a few other long-term regulars to cancer.”
Trolez says O’Grady wanted to educate people about the disease before she died, therefore the Celtic Jam for the Cure doesn’t just honour those who have passed, but also raises awareness of the signs, symptoms and causes of cancer.
“Since then we’ve lost more customers and our customers have lost people in their lives,” Trolez says. “So we continue the event in their memories. We see a lot of the same faces at the event every year. It’s still really appreciated.”
More than $130,000 has been raised for the Canadian Cancer Society in the past decade, but that isn’t the only organization that has benefitted from the generosity of the Ship and its clientele. The bar has raised more than $450,000 for various charities since 1990. It’s certainly not the only Calgary pub or restaurant to donate time and money to causes, but it is unique in terms of how many fundraising events it holds each year.
“The charity, fundraising part of the Ship is unprecedented in Calgary,” says Karen Richards, a long-time regular. “From the ShipNog at Christmas to all the other fundraising events they do. I don’t think (other pubs) did that before the Ship. And they’re still upping the game in Calgary.”
Trolez says the Ship’s fundraising efforts started within the first five years of its existence. “As soon as we started getting a regular crowd we were looking at how we could give back to the community by doing these events,” she explains. “We like to think of ourselves as a good neighbour and a contributing member of the community. That’s important to us.”
A community is what James Ballantyne hoped to build when he and two partners bought the pub 25 years ago. Ballantyne was working as a computer programmer in an investment firm located above the pub when the then-tacky looking restaurant and lounge went up for sale. In those days, people with an alternative edge had very few places to call their own.
“You’d either have places that were very cool like the old Ten Foot Henry’s,” explains Ballantyne, “but they were clubs, not pubs where you could just go and hang out. Then you had places that had great hospitality, but they were usually too formal and too businesslike to feel welcome for non-mainstream people. What I wanted to do was to have a place with some character that didn’t feel like a mainstream location, yet also had good hospitality habits.”
Tim Daigle was one of the Ship’s earliest regulars. He remembers walking in the doors for the first time: “Nobody was coming here then, but it was the closest pub to me,” Daigle says. “There were two old English guys sitting at the bar, and there was a fairly young English guy behind the bar, a Ms. Pac Man machine and some pretty good pizza.”
Eventually the Ship became a popular hangout for musicians, writers, artists and British ex-pats, who woke up ridiculously early to watch soccer at the pub on the weekends.
“I always imagined someone from the suburbs of Calgary sticking their head into this dingy little place with soccer scarves all over the place and seeing a group of young men speaking in British accents,” Ballantyne says. “It must have been quite exotic for the day. Half these guys were ex-punkers who still wore there leather jackets with studs to the pub. I think that helped add to the Ship’s street cred at the beginning.”
Despite its enormous popularity and national reputation, the Ship’s owners have no interest in “expanding the brand” to other locations.
“I don’t think we’d ever want to do another Ship,” Trolez admits. “I think part of the charm of the Ship is that there’s only one. It’s not really a formula you can go out and duplicate. And we don’t want to even try to go out and duplicate it.”AB, Alberta, food and drink, Ship & Anchor, Ship & Anchor 25 years