Doug Mitchell, former CFL commissioner and Calgary lawyer, has died at 83

Doug Mitchell was known for his contributions to both the sports and business communities. (Alberta Order of Excellence - image credit)
Doug Mitchell was known for his contributions to both the sports and business communities. (Alberta Order of Excellence - image credit)

Douglas Mitchell, a former Canadian Football League player who went on to become commissioner of the league as well as a prominent Calgary lawyer and community leader, died on Wednesday at the age of 83.

Mitchell played briefly in the CFL with the B.C. Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats and later went on to serve as league commissioner for five years in the 1980s. He also spent time on the league's board of governors, as a representative of the Calgary Stampeders, as well as many other accomplishments in sports and the wider community.

Among his loved ones, he leaves behind his wife, former Alberta lieutenant-governor Lois Mitchell.

His family said in an email shared on Thursday that Mitchell died peacefully and suddenly at home.

"We all know Doug was an inspiration to all who knew him and we will continue to share his legacy each and every day," said Lois Mitchell in an email.

"Doug lived an incredibly happy, accomplished and fulfilled life in his 83 years. Doug made an impression on each of us and we find solace in knowing his life was full of joy. We know he would want us all to live on with strength, purpose and laughter."

Among his many accolades, he was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2004, inducted to the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2007, inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 and most recently inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in June.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

He represented the Calgary Flames as the governor of the National Hockey League, sat as chair of the Canadian Athletic Foundation and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's Board of Governors.

Mitchell was the national co-chair of the law firm Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG) and an avid sports enthusiast.

From 1984 to 1988, he took a leave of absence from the firm to serve as the CFL commissioner.

Mitchell was also part of an ownership group that bought the Calgary Stampeders in 2005. In 2012, the Calgary Flames became majority owners of the Stamps.

In a tweet on Thursday, the Calgary Stampeders offered their condolences, saying, "Doug's dedication to our sport [and] our community was unwavering, his achievements recognized by an appointment to the Order of Canada [and] Alberta Order of [Excellence]. Rest in peace."

Mitchell was a talented athlete himself. He attended Colorado College on a hockey scholarship where he received a bachelor of arts degree in business administration.

He then attended law school at the University of British Columbia, where he also played football as a middle linebacker for the UBC Thunderbirds.

In 2009, the sports centre at the UBC Vancouver campus was renamed in Mitchell's honour as the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre.

In a tweet on Thursday, UBC president Santa Ono said he was "deeply saddened to learn that UBC Thunderbird and community sport leader" Mitchell died.

"He was an inspiration to many and he will be greatly missed at his alma mater," wrote Ono.

After playing for the Thunderbirds, Mitchell went on to play in the CFL for the B.C. Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

While in law school, Mitchell married Lois and they eventually moved back to Calgary, where they had four kids and he started a long legal career.

"Doug was instrumental in the foundation of [Borden Ladner Gervais] and a leader in the merger which formed the firm in 2000," said John Murphy, national managing partner and CEO at BLG, in a statement.

"Doug was a highly regarded champion of sport in Canada and of male and female university athletes," added Alan Ross, regional managing partner of BLG Calgary. "His legacy is vast, and sport figures prominently in it."

Mitchell sat on numerous boards and remained involved with sports for his entire life.

He made several significant contributions to athletics, including the creation of the U Sports athlete of the year awards honouring the top Canadian collegiate performers.

The honour — formerly known as the Howard Mackie, BLG and Lieutenant Governor Athletic Awards —  were recently renamed The Honourable Lois Mitchell and Doug Mitchell U Sports athlete of the year awards.

U Sports named one of its national semifinal football games the Mitchell Bowl in his honour.

"My condolences to the Mitchell family on the passing of their patriarch Doug at the age of 83," tweeted Jim Mullin, president of Football Canada.

"Few have contributed more to the game of football in Canada, both at the pro and amateur levels.

"It's a profound loss for our sport. His focus and passion made him a joy to work with."

'Always gracious, engaging'

Deborah Yedlin, a friend and president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, spoke to Mitchell for about half an hour last week during a Stampede reception downtown at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel.

They talked about football before getting into a conversation about Calgary's future, she said.

"He talked about how optimistic he was about the city," Yedlin said. "He was really, really excited about what he was seeing and feeling about the city."

She said Mitchell was always gracious, engaging and cared deeply about people.

"He really wanted us to rise to the occasion, and he was always encouraging people to do that," said Yedlin. "And it was all about lifting everybody."

She said she'll remember his smile, the "twinkle in his eye" and his optimism.

"I think we have a great opportunity to honour his memory in Calgary," Yedlin said.

"Let's build a new football stadium and let's call it the Doug Mitchell football stadium."