It was an idea born of necessity and a single angry letter.
That's how the BLG Awards began honouring the country's top male and female university athletes, how a fund was established to reward the winners with a $10,000 postgraduate scholarship, and how the awards ceremony became not only a well-attended event but a nationally-shown TV broadcast.
All that because of one written-for-affect angry letter. Naturally, it was penned by a lawyer.
When the 2012 Borden Ladner Gervais Awards are presented here Monday, it will mark the 20th anniversary of Doug Mitchell and Robert Corran's most excellent adventure. Mitchell is the Calgary-based lawyer who has served as legal counsel for the Calgary Flames, commissioner of the CFL, former owner in the Calgary Stampeders and a repeat benefactor to his alma mater, the University of British Columbia.
Corran is the former athletic director of the University of Calgary and a past president of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He is now an associate vice-president and AD at the University of Vermont.
Two decades ago, Mitchell told Corran of his plan to select and salute the top athletes in the country. Mitchell had the backing of his law firm, Howard Mackie, which later merged with BLG. All he wanted was the CIS to embrace the concept.
"Bob was totally onside but the CIS was less enthusiastic," Mitchell said. "He was being told if this was a Calgary organization starting this, Calgary [athletes]would win all the time.' Bob said, 'Send me an angry letter saying it's time to fish or cut bait.'"
Corran showed the letter to his CIS peers saying they were going to miss out on a good thing if they didn't approve it. Mitchell's faux fury sealed the deal.
"Back then within the CIS there were a lot of different factions in the group," Corran said. "Particularly with the Eastern schools there was this sense of purity around the athletes that wasn't realistic. They didn't like having a corporate sponsor.
"I felt at the time it was exactly what was needed – a national profile for Canadian university athletes," Corran added. "And I thought the relationship with a law firm was perfect. I saw it as far less corporate and much more academic."
Rewarding the top athletes with scholarships hadn't been done before in the CIS. The top student athletes were eligible for academic scholarships but fears of money being offered to prized football and basketball players conjured visions of National Collegiate Athletic Association-style scandals.
Yet the realities of the day were pressing: Many universities were cutting costs and athletic departments were having their budgets slashed. With little being offered for tuition and books, some Canadian athletes went the U.S. route rather than stay home.
"We wanted to put more focus on university sports for the athletes to feel like it's a big part of Canadian culture," said Mitchell, who established the Canadian Athletic Foundation to oversee the finances and to ensure that the athletes nominated would not be chosen by the CIS. "I was too worried about politics getting into it. I wanted no consideration on the basis of what school had won before."
What the BLGs did was help change the way the CIS went about its business. As Peter Baxter, the AD at Wilfrid Laurier University, explained: "Universities didn't have corporate signage in facilities. The mindset was commercialization and education didn't do together. Now we have room for sponsors and it has helped us grow, not only in sports but elsewhere. Now we have the Sun Life facility for Parkinson's research [at WLU] I don't think people understand the significance of that."
As for honouring the top athletes, it's turned out the majority have also been high-end students, some of whom have represented Canada internationally in track and field (Foy Williams, Toronto, Jessica Zelinka, Calgary), swimming (Brian Johns, Annamay Pierse, UBC) and hockey (Kim St. Pierre, McGill).
"They've all been very good students, wonderful citizens," Corran said. "It's been so much of what people feared it wouldn't be."
The female nominees this year are: Tyson Beukeboom (rugby, St. Francis Xavier); Ann-Sophie Bettez (hockey, McGill); Jacey Murphy (rugby, Guelph); Robyn Pendleton (field hockey, UBC).
The male nominees are: Ben Ball (volleyball, Trinity Western); Kyle Quinlan (football, McMaster); Marc-André Dorion (hockey, McGill); and Andrew Clark (hockey, Acadia).