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November 23, 2020: Former CFL Commissioner and Current Board Member Doug Mitchell on the Future of the CFL

Robyn Braley introduced our guest speaker, Doug Mitchell. Doug is a respected lawyer, business and community advocate who has brought great leadership to many organizations. He played a key role in taking his law firm, Borden Ladner Gervais, to the national stage. He’s made valuable contributions to the business world along with amateur and professional sports in Canada.

After watching Canada sit out the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games, Doug worked to bring Canada’s Olympic hockey program back to life with the national team based in Calgary.

In the early 1980s, Doug served as a member of the NHL Board of Governors representing the Calgary Flames. From 1984 to 1989 he served as CFL commissioner. He’s part owner of the Calgary Stampeders and a member of the CFL board of governors. Doug is committed to community service. He has served as chair of the SAIT board of governors, of United Way Calgary, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, and the Calgary Airport Authority.

He’s been chair of the Alberta Economic Development Authority and founder and co-chair of the Global Business Forum.

Doug is a member of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, the Alberta and BC Football Halls of Fame, and the Colorado College Hall of Fame. He was named one of the most influential Albertans in the first 100 years of the province and is a member of the Order of Canada and the Alberta Order of Excellence.

Perhaps his greatest commitment to service came when he willingly chose to live in Edmonton - YES, the home of those pesky Eskies - from 2015 to 2020 as the spouse of Her Honour Lieutenant Governor Lois Mitchell.

Doug opened his remarks with his own words of tribute to Ted. His dad would talk about Ted. Ted will be missed, with many condolences to the family.

An open question and answer dialogue between Robyn and Doug followed:

  • Q - In 2017, you were inducted into the Colorado College Athletic Hall of Fame. In the late 1950s you were there on a hockey scholarship, but you also played with the Tigers, their football team. That was a big deal. How did that happen?
  • A - I went down to Colorado College on a hockey scholarship when I was 17 years old travelling by bus; taking 26 hours to reach our destination. In my last year of college, I asked the coach about football. Told him I played center and linebacker – not a lie but not the full truth. I was 6’ and 212 lbs. I beat out a 6’5’’ 250 lb contender. We went on to win the championship that year. That changed my career from hockey to football.
  • Q - Later you studied law at the University of British Columbia and played for the Thunderbirds. Describe the unique league they played in at that time.
  • A - The league was made up of teams from both the US (Ever Green) and the western conference. The Ever Green team was made up of teams from Washington State and the western conference, which included Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. I was named All Star the year I played.
  • Q - How did you end up playing for the BC Lions and later the Hamilton Tiger Cats?
  • A - I played for the Lions for two years and then was put on waivers. I was in my 3rd year of law school at UBC. Tiger Cats approached me, so I approached University of Toronto to transfer my studies. Toronto told me I would have to repeat my 2nd year which wasn’t appealing. The Tiger Cats put me on the roster when you decide what you want to do. I stayed in Hamilton on the roster for two months and I did go back to UBC to finish my degree.
  • Q - Fast forward to 1984. The Canadian Football League was in a financially desperate and vulnerable state. There was a job you never applied for, didn’t want, but thankfully ended up taking. Tell us about that.
  • A - Two or three years earlier I was approached to be the president of the 1998 Winter Games. At the time, I was managing partner of my law firm amidst depths of despair in Alberta. I turned them down as I had made a move for our firm which resulted in a significant rent increase. I told them I couldn’t abandon them at this time.
  • Three years later, I was asked for possible names for commissioner of the Canadian Football League. After three meetings, they suggested I submit my resume, leave the law firm, and move to TO. I went home to tell my wife the news and her response was “Don’t overrate yourself”. I did accept the offer in the end.

  • Q - Any inside stories you can share?
  • A - I took steps to breathe life into the league. Stamps had Save the Stamps, Ottawa was struggling. The Montreal team was folding at that time and Carling O’Keefe had just declined to renew a 3-year television contract so no TV coverage. I asked myself, “How did I get myself into this?”
  • Q - Here we are in 2020 living in a pandemic. No CFL. No Grey Cup. No one could have imagined this. What do you expect to happen with the league in 2021?
  • A - If the league does not play next year in 2020-21 it will be extremely difficult to start up in 2021-22. The fan base will have been eroded and the sponsorship will have dwindled. The good thing is the CFL is all made up of all Canadian teams, so no crossing the border with US teams like hockey or basketball. No government funding is required but government approval is. Grey Cup Unite was a wonderful promotion to revive interest.
  • Q - Will there be 9 teams?
  • A - I will optimistically say yes. Season may be delayed.
  • Q - Based on your vast experience in business and sports, what do you see as the future of the CFL?
  • A - I see a great future. Yes, there are difficult times given the economy and the pandemic. The interest is there. This is a Canadian institution culminating in the Grey Cup.

Opening up to questions from the club.

  1. There could be a Maritime Club in the CFL. There was tremendous fan support. The question becomes sponsorship and where to find that in the Maritimes.
  2. The US will continue to contribute tremendous talent to our CFL. One lesson learned from a former coach was how important giving back is.
  3. The Stampeders are the greatest team going undefeated in 1948. Also, honourable mention to Normie Kwong who played in the CFL from 1948-1960 briefly for the Stamps then the Eskies.
  4. I do think most of the players will return to the CFL when a new season begins once again. Undeniably, with the reduced salary cap some will go stateside to the NFL.

Drew Turnbull graciously thanked Doug not only for his talk today but for his service to our city and country, finding the talk inspirational and enlightening.

Doug remarked in their family’s travels they will always return to Calgary. He thanked Rotary for our service and all the work we do.

reported by Judy Cochran

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