Hours after he was announced as our club’s new president, Rick LeLacheur joined Matt Baker from BCLions.com to talk about his new opportunity, how it all happened, his excitement to work with GM Ed Hervey and VP/head coach Wally Buono and his overall vision of what the franchise needs to do to get to the next level, on and off the field.
Along with winning two Grey Cups in his time as president of the Edmonton Eskimos, LeLacheur organized two successful Grey Cup festivals in the Alberta capital and was CEO of the highly successful 2001 World Championships in Athletics.
LeLecheur has most recently served as Chairman of the Board of Horse Racing Alberta and will assume his new position at the start of 2018.
MB: Welcome to BC, Rick. Can you give us a quick overview of how this opportunity came about for you?
RL: “It was actually a pretty short process. I suppose it all started when I was talking to Wally about Ed. He was getting my thoughts on the hire, and I had actually told a couple people about three or four months ago what would happen with the Lions is that Wally would end up as president, Ed would be general manager and they would hire a coach. I was telling Wally that and he said they needed a president. I told him I was available, just sort of jokingly. It kind of went from there. I have kept a lot of contacts in the CFL the last few years. David and I have always got along well and talked. We don’t agree all the time, but that’s actually good. It actually came together in the last two weeks. Rather quickly.”
MB: Your tenure as president of the Edmonton Eskimos ended in 2011. Since that time, how often did you think about a return to the CFL?
RL” “When I retired it was because of health reasons. I had prostate cancer in 2010 and they waited to do the surgery until after the Grey Cup. It was at that point where I started to think there was more to life than just working and I should retire and do some things with my wife and my family, so I did. Since that time, my health is totally good and I guess over the last few years I’d been thinking I really made the decision kind of quickly and I sure missed the CFL. I kept in touch with some people, not that I was out looking for a job, but from time to time I talked to people about consulting or something. Then this came up and I was quite excited about it talking to David.”
MB: It sounds like your history with Ed and respect for Wally were both big factors in accepting this job. What were some of the other factors that made it attractive for you?
RL: “I’ve known the Lions for a long time, going back to playing hockey with Bill Comrie. I had a lot of respect for Bobby and Kay Ackles. When I came to the Eskimos my wife Joan and I really somewhat patterned our way after the Ackles family. Since that time, I have been out to a lot of games there and I know the attendance has not been maybe what it should be; it can be a very tough sports town, but in a lot of ways it can be a really good sports town. Hopefully, I can help a little and get the team going from a business point of view and see what we can do to enhance an interest in the Lions. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about: selling tickets, putting bums in the seats and getting lots of sponsors.”
MB: You mention the attendance. From following this situation from afar, what do you think the main factor in the decrease has been?
RL: “I think it’s a little bit of everything. I am going to wait, talk to a lot of people, get a lot of due diligence from the staff and see where they’re at. I think some of the things the Lions have been doing, and I’ve been following the last few weeks on digital and social media, are very good. It may just need a tweak here or there. Sometimes I’ve been known to throw out a few crazy ideas, and the odd time one or two of them stick. It has to be a team effort from the staff. No one is going to do this by themselves. It’s demographics, it’s getting to the stadium, the whole CFL market. It’s a little bit of everything. Hopefully, we can pull little pieces together to help support that and increase the fan base.”
MB: How about the on-field personnel? Ed has said from the start he feels the team is close to contending again. Do you share that view?
RL: “Absolutely. In the West, anybody can beat anybody on any given day. I think the Lions showed that in the first part of the season. Unfortunately, they fell from the pack a bit, but they’re not far away from being competitive with the other division teams. I am not worried about the football (operations) at all with Ed and Wally there. They know what the want, they’ve got a great base, they know they have to add a little bit here and there and I’m sure they will do that with free agency coming up. They’ll re-sign some of the existing Lions, and then we’ll see what happens with the others. Football-wise, I think they will put a competitive team on the field immediately.”
MB: You mentioned your hockey career a moment ago. Our research indicates you played with the Edmonton Oil Kings in the late 60’s. Was it your goal to pursue a pro hockey career?
RL: “I played in the days before the NHL draft and was the property of the Detroit Red Wings from the time I was 14. I went to a camp every summer with them and then went to Detroit’s main training camp when I was still with the Oil Kings. I did three years of training camp, then played as a 20-year old with the Oil Kings. My family had a moving and storage business and I had seen many guys come back after not doing much in the AHL or Eastern League. I figured that was the time to start learning the family business. That’s what I did. You always look back and wonder if you could have made it, but it was tough back then with only six NHL teams.”
MB: The Red Wings. You hear so many stories about young players and their “initiation” from Gordie Howe. Did you ever experience his famous elbows?
RL: “No, but with his hands (laughs). This was before training camp when I was 16 or so. We were playing around in front of the net and he took one hand, lifted me up from behind and put me at the side of the net. He was as strong as an Ox.”
MB: Back to the challenge of getting fans in the seats. What are your thoughts on our new low pricing for kids season memberships?
RL: “I think it was a great move. $85 for a season seat for someone under 12 is a great buy. You can’t beat it. That’s what has to happen in the long term is getting the younger kids back into the fold of the CFL and becoming fans at an early age.”
MB: Your time in Edmonton involved restoring the Eskimos to glory with two Grey Cup wins in three seasons. How much of what you did there can you bring to this new position?
RL: “I think Ed will take the football side and I think Wally is very knowledgeable. The two of them on the football side will be great. Wally was carrying a pretty big load and this way he can focus on being a great coach. Ed has a total game plan. I know him well enough that he has a plan and will march to that plan. The BC Lions will be a very competitive team on the field. I’m not worried about the team at all. On the ticket side, it’s a matter of getting out there. The shoe leather has to hit the road and make calls, people have to get out to speaking engagements and get some more promotions in the schools. There are a lot of things I think we can look at and a lot of things the Lions are doing already. We’ll put all of those together and there is nothing like winning. If we can count on the football guys to get a winning team on the field we’ll be fine.”
MB: From Grey Cups, to the World Championships in Athletics you have plenty of event experience. A lot of the successful sporting brands do a great job of making their games “events.” Is that a blueprint you believe in following?
RL: “Exactly. The experience starts when people leave to go to the game, whether they’re listening to the pre-game show on TSN Radio, riding the SkyTrain or bus, or walking or parking. Then there is the pre-game presentation, in game as well, halftime and then when they leave the stadium. You take the whole thing right from the start. It has to be entertaining and not just on the field. That can certainly add to it in a great way. There are all kinds of different ideas and thoughts you can do in pre-game, halftime and post-game to enhance the fans, particularly once they get there, to make sure they come back.”
MB: Is it safe to say your wife Joan was 100 percent behind you taking this job? Does she give you advice?
RL: “Joan is an avid football fan too. She actually beat me in CFL Fantasy Football this year, but I beat her in the playoffs where it counted (laughs). She’s a great supporter. She actually started the Eskimo Women’s Dinner. It’s been a tremendous success from a fundraising point of view, but also 500 women per year go to that dinner and learn a bit about football and the team. I know you’ve got the Orange Helmet Awards. Joan will be certainly active in wherever she can help and support.”