By Michel Beaudry
He says it’s hard-wired in him. The spirit of hospitality, he explains, has always been there. “For me. It’s about doing things unconditionally,” Mike Varrin adds with a near twist of a smile. “My biggest reward in life has always been about making the people I care about happy.”
Real words or just spin quotes? A cynical mask or an authentic personality? In the head-snapping, neck-turning, name-dropping world of Thunder Bay’s one-and-only Mike Varrin, anything is possible. Especially for a guy who admits to a lifelong fascination with magicians. But I like to think the guy is genuine…
The Reverend Mike — or the Dark Prince, your choice — turns 40 this week. And the avuncular manager of the Garibaldi Lift Company is flying higher than ever. Equal parts entertainer, director, procurer, psychologist, impresario — and boy-next-door mountain host — Varrin has taken an under-achieving Whistler watering hole and transformed it into one of the most celebrated après-ski spots in the valley.
Ad it’s not just a local thing. For the first time ever, an Intrawest-owned drinking establishment has been named Skiing Magazine’s Number One Mountain Bar in North America. “Well, I did take pretty good care of those journalist guys during their visit here,” says Mike with only a hint of tongue-in-cheek smugness. “Maybe now my bosses won’t complain so much when I ask them to raise my entertainment budget…”
His eyes let me know his words are only half in jest. And then he laughs, long and easy and totally without rancour. “I was first hired at Blackcomb by a guy called Jeff Stipec,” he recounts in his usual quick-paced stutter style. “Those were the days when there were still fierce mountain loyalties in this valley.” He laughs again. “Heck — people didn’t cross Fitzsimmons Creek unless they had a really good reason to.”
It was 1994, Whistler was booming, and Stipec wanted Varrin to take over Blackcomb’s lucrative après-ski bar at the base of the mountain. “Running a place like Merlin’s was an attractive job for a 28 year old and I was pretty keen,” he says. “Besides, it combined my two most favourite things in life — skiing and hospitality.” He pauses. Smiles hugely at the memory. “During the interview, Jeff told me what my mission would be: ‘I want you to come in here and break some rules!’ he said. And that was it. I was hired.” Varrin smiles. “So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since…”