NEWS
04/26/2013 10:49 EDT | Updated 06/26/2013 05:12 EDT

BLG Awards honouring CIS athletes are a labour of love for creator Doug Mitchell

TORONTO - Doug Mitchell was attending Colorado College on a hockey scholarship when he asked the coach whether he could try out for the football team.

The answer was no.

"But he couldn't prevent me from being a walk-on," Mitchell said. "So I took that as an invitation and I walked on and I eventually became a starter on the football team."

The story is instructive about Mitchell, who doesn't take no for an answer and seems to have an endless supply of hours each day.

The lawyer — a former CFL player, commissioner and NHL board of governors member — also is good at getting things done.

When Mitchell came up with the idea two decades ago for his Calgary-based law firm, now known as BLG (Borden Ladner Gervais LLP), to create an award to honour Canada's top university athletes, there was initially some resistance.

"Normally they develop a program and come to you," Mitchell explained. "So they weren't accustomed to somebody coming up with an idea and bringing it to them."

Plus there was concern, in some circles, that awards administered by a Calgary firm might favour the West.

Bob Corran, then director of athletics at the University of Calgary and president of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (now CIS), was a friend and supporter. But he saw the politics at play.

So he asked Mitchell to send the CIAU a strongly worded letter demanding the university sport powers-that-be make a decision or else he would withdraw the awards offer.

"They needed someone telling them to get off the pot," Mitchell recalled Corran telling him at the time.

Politics was answered with politics.

The dissenters backed down and, in 1993, volleyball stars Diane Scott of the University of Winnipeg and Andy Cameron of the University of Calgary were the first recipients of the Howard Mackie Awards, named after Mitchell's law firm.

His feet firmly rooted in reality, Mitchell's idea for the award included using it for branding. His law firm was skeptical at first, but soon got on board.

"They think it's a great public service that we're doing, that nobody does anything else similar to it ... And I think the CIS, once they got on board, have been great partners."

They were renamed the BLG Awards when Howard Mackie merged with four other regional firms to become Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in 2000.

The awards ceremony alternates each year between Calgary and Toronto, with the 2013 winners to be announced Monday night in Toronto.

The female nominees are Saint Mary's basketball guard Justine Colley (East Preston, N.S.), McGill hockey centre Melodie Daoust (Valleyfield, Que.), Guelph rugby centre Britt Benn (Napanee, Ont.) and UBC volleyball outside hitter Shanice Marcelle (Victoria).

The male candidates are McMaster University quarterback Kyle Quinlan (South Woodlee, Ont.), Saint Mary's hockey forward Lucas Bloodoff (Castlegar, B.C.), Concordia wrestler David Tremblay (Stoney Point, Ont.) and UBC soccer midfielder-forward Gagan Dosanjh (Abbotsford, B.C.).

After Colorado College, Mitchell went on to study law at the University of British Columbia. During his time there, he played linebacker for both the Thunderbirds and B.C. Lions.

It afforded him a unique view of the student-athlete on both sides of the border.

"I thought the quality of athletics is extremely high at the universities in Canada and they get very little recognition for it," he said.

Mitchell admits the awards are a labour of love.

"Absolutely. No question about it," he said. "We started it on kind of a whim thinking that we would try this for a year and see what happens. I can candidly say that not in my wildest dreams did I ever envisage that we'd be doing the 21st year this year."

Swimmer Liz Warden won the award in 2002, two years before taking part in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"Winning this award helped give me the confidence and propel me forward to the next two years," said the 35-year-old Warden, now a Toronto kindergarten teacher. "It was really great for me."

The annual awards process, held in partnership with Canadian Interuniversity Sport, start with male and female nominees from each of the 53 CIS universities.

Those are then whittled down to one male and one female nominee from each of Atlantic Canada, Canada West, Ontario and Quebec. Winners are selected by the Canadian Athletic Foundation, a non-profit board established to administer the awards, on the basis of "athletic accomplishment, outstanding sportsmanship and demonstrated leadership."

Academics are not part of the selection process but Mitchell says there has never been a nominee who hasn't had outstanding grades.

The two winners each receive a $10,000 post-graduate scholarship to attend a Canadian university and a trophy. All the nominees get a custom-made ring.

They are also treated like royalty.

"We were flown out to Calgary, we were taken out on the town by all the employees of the law firm there. We were really treated nicely," recalled Warden.

"The actual awards ceremony was really exciting. It was like being nominated for an Oscar or something. You dressed up. And it was kind of neat to sit in the audience and just wait to see if you would win. It was a really nice experience, it was really awesome."

And the scholarship helped get her teaching career going.

The female winner receives the Jim Thompson Trophy, named after the late Canadian Olympic Committee CEO, who was an original trustee of the Canadian Athletic Foundation board.

Past winners include Jesse Lumsden, Tim Tindale, Curtis Myden, Brian Johns, Titus Channer, Jessica Zelinka, Jessica Clemencon, Adrienne Power, Kim St. Pierre, Jenny Cartmell and Annamay Pierse.

Warden gave her trophy to her parents.

"Just because they were great supporters of mine and very influential," she said.

The men's winner picks up the Doug Mitchell Trophy.

Mitchell has been honoured in several other ways.

In 2009, some 47 years after he graduated from UBC law's school, the university renamed its Thunderbird Winter Sports Centre the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in honour of Mitchell whose family, friends and colleagues pledged $10 million to UBC for the venue.

The Mitchell Bowl, one of the two CIS football semifinals, is also named after him.

"Scary isn't it," joked Mitchell.

Mitchell's wife Lois, whose calendar is as crowded as her husband's, led the fundraising efforts for the UBC arena. A close friend of Hayley Wickenheiser, she has also worked to support women's hockey among numerous other interests.

Mitchell says now that their four children — Shelley, Steven, Sue Ann and Scott — are out of the house, he and his wife both pursue their passions.

"I never get a phone call at the office saying dinner's getting cold," he laughed.

Mitchell's resume seems endless. He has done everything from helping kick-start the Canadian Olympic hockey program to CFL colour commentary. He remains involved with the CFL board of governors and has an ownership interest in the Stampeders.

He is a member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame and Order of Canada.

In announcing his Order of Canada honour in 2005, the Governor General's office cited Mitchell's efforts in "building a strong future for his city, province and country."

The BLG Awards will always be his baby.

"I think it's one of the most important things I've ever done," he said. "Because I feel so strongly about Canadian university sports."

Mitchell credits the late Frank Gnup, his former UBC football coach, for helping show him the way.

"He didn't have a car. He lived in the old army huts and he didn't have anything. But what he did have, he gave to the football players — personally and individually. And he taught me all about giving back."