Okanagan wine and Alberta crude got caught up in the interprovincial trade skirmish between British Columbia and Alberta earlier this year. But despite the economic hostilities between the provinces, not all Albertan exports were sidelined. Former Edmonton Eskimos president Rick LeLacheur was able to do an end around the trade blockade to join the BC Lions and is now approaching the close of his first season as president.
LeLacheur joined the team earlier this year, aware of the problems facing the franchise. The team has not been to the Grey Cup since 2011 and finished last in the Western Division in 2017, the year before LeLacheur joined the team. The lack of Grey Cup appearances is far from the team’s only problem. The Lions are also facing declining attendance, and attracting fans is one of the projects LeLacheur has been tasked with. The league as a whole, along with other professional sports organizations, has been struggling to attract a new generation of fans. On game nights the upper bowl of BC Place stadium, where the Lions play, is closed off, and the lower bowl rarely reaches capacity.
“Our crowds have been getting better; it doesn’t happen overnight,” LeLacheur said. “It helps when you win.”
Winning is something that LeLacheur has experience with, leading the Eskimos to two Grey Cup victories in 2003 and 2005. During his tenure, he also hosted two Grey Cup festivals. It seems that LeLacheur has always been driven to Grey Cup success. In 1984, he was chairman of the Grey Cup Festival, years before he’d become involved with a professional Canadian Football League (CFL) team.
LeLacheur’s career has followed two parallel tracks – business and sports. In his early years he would split his time between learning the ins and outs of his family business and playing hockey.
LeLacheur’s passion for sports launched him into junior hockey, where he played right wing for the Edmonton Oil Kings, eventually becoming the captain of the team.
After his hockey career ended, LeLacheur went on to work full time in his family’s business, Western Moving and Storage. He worked in the business for 25 years, taking on the responsibility of president for the better part of his last decade working there.
During those years, the lessons he had learned on the ice as a player and captain helped to shape his leadership style.
“It gave me the ability to learn a lot about leadership and communication,” LeLacheur said. “You learn to take a leadership role on the ice and in the locker room, and those types of relationships in sports really help you in business.”
In 2001, LeLacheur was offered the opportunity to serve as president and CEO of Edmonton’s World Championships in Athletics.
His introduction to the business of sports was a turning point that would ultimately change the course of his career. Just one year later, he would begin his term with the Edmonton Eskimos. LeLacheur first started as COO of the franchise, but this title was more of a formality than a job description. The ultimate objective was to groom LeLacheur for the job of president. He used his term as COO to learn the ropes of the business.
“It was a good time [with the Eskimos]; we were some years more successful than others,” said LeLacheur. “In some years we weren’t as successful and had to make some changes.”
LeLacheur would eventually leave the Eskimos after the 2010 season due to personal health concerns. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer, but complications from the procedure put him in the intensive care unit.
“I had four surgeries in five months, and when that happens you do a lot of thinking,” LeLacheur said. “I wanted to spend some time with my wife travelling and with the grandkids, so I told the board when my term was over, that was it.”
While he enjoyed his time off with family, he missed football. Once he was given a clean bill of health, he was eager to return to the game. As luck would have it, he would soon receive a call from Lions head coach Wally Buono about the possibility of recruiting another Eskimos veteran to join the franchise’s management team. One thing led to another, and after a conversation with owner David Braley, LeLacheur signed his CFL comeback.
LeLacheur is not the first Edmonton import to come to the BC Lions in 2018. Ed Hervey was also announced as the franchise’s new general manager in late 2017 and shared his freshman season with LeLacheur. Hervey was ousted as GM from the Edmonton Eskimos in 2017 over concerns that he was so focused on creating a winning team on the field that he neglected promoting the franchise adequately to the wider world with media and advertisers.
LeLacheur sees winning as an essential ingredient for success in the Vancouver pro sports market, and makes clear his goal is to boost attendance at BC Lions games. While he’s hopeful that the organization will be able to open the upper bowl of BC Place during his term, he is first focused on filling the lower bowl and turning around the trend of fading fandom that has plagued the team’s recent past.
One way he is trying to accomplish that goal is by connecting with both the region and the province.
“Any professional sports team is very valuable to the community and not just on the playing field,” he said. “Our players have played a pretty big role in various off-season [public service] promotions across B.C.; while that’s outside of the season and winning, it’s all part of helping a community win.”
LeLacheur said the Lions’ community engagement hasn’t been an issue in the past. The problem has been the team’s lack of marketing of such activities, and he intends to change that by taking on more speaking engagements with groups like the boards of trade and Rotary clubs.
The importance of community engagement is something LeLacheur learned first-hand during his time with the Eskimos, when he helped develop a community recreational facility that was used by both the team and the city. Despite his multiple Grey Cup rings, the joint community recreational centre is what he’s proudest of, he said.
Aside from community engagement, LeLacheur is also focused on bringing a new generation of football fans to the games. Many professional sports leagues have struggled to attract millennial fans to their stadiums, and the CFL is no exception. While it’s too early to tell if there has been a meaningful increase in fan attendance, LeLacheur said the team has successfully attracted more young people and families.
The future of the BC Lions as both a football team and a business is challenging, and LeLacheur will have to contend with the retirement of longtime head coach Buono. But LeLacheur and his organization are confident there’s a path to help take the team to the end zone. •
Inside information: Rick Lelacheur
What you are reading:
CFL collective bargaining agreement
What you are listening to:
News and sports talk radio
When you were a kid, what you wanted to be when you grew up:
In the family business
Other profession you’d most like to try:
Toughest business or professional decision:
Firing GMs and coaches
Advice for your younger self:
Look at the big picture
What’s left to do:
Fill the lower bowl and win