Neil Lumsden – From Grey Cup Champion to Cabinet Minister 


This is part of Northern Notables, a collection of interviews with NSS Alumni who have made an impact in their personal and professional lives.
A Grey Cup champion, successful broadcaster, businessman, politician and cabinet minister – Neil Lumsden has been on the move since learning the value of leadership during his days at Northern Secondary.

by Joe Pascucci

In 1971, I attended Northern Secondary as a wide-eyed and naive grade nine student excited for the chance to play tackle football. Neil Lumsden was there too. The MPP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek and the Province of Ontario Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, was in grade thirteen – and he was the star running back of the senior team under head coach Clarke Pulford. 
Obvious to all who saw Lumsden play with the Red Knights: this guy would be in the Canadian Football League in a few years. We marvelled at the way he ran through and around mismatched tacklers, how he caught passes coming out of the backfield. Heck, Lumsden even kicked converts and field goals – I remember him executing a drop kick (after a mishandled snap) for the point, following a Red Knight touchdown. The drop kick is exceedingly rare in modern football; it was more prevalent in the 1920s and early 30s when footballs were more round in shape and bounces were more predictable. 
All of us on the bantam team were in awe of Lumsden. When they were giving out our game jerseys, one of my teammates handed me the one with the number 20 – Neil’s number. The expectations around wearing his number were not lost on this 14 year old.
Not only did Lumsden play football. He was on the Northern hockey team, ran track, competed in the shot putt and played on the rugby team. “You could do all those things,” Lumsden told me in a recent phone conversation. “Because of the different seasons for each sport, you didn’t have the feeling you were leaving a team behind.” 
Lumsden reminisced about his time at Northern in the late 60s and early 70s: "My experiences at Northern were outstanding. I tried to emulate the leadership of the people I spent most time with – my coaches and teachers." Coach Pulford is one who left a lasting impression. Lumsden and a teammate had deliberately skipped practice and the next day Pulford was quick to approach Lumsden, asking why he hadn’t been at practice the day before. Before Lumsden could answer, coach Pulford calmy delivered words  that still resonate to this day: 
"You need to understand this – all these players depend on you to be here. I expect you to be here, and you let them down. Don’t do it again."
–  Neil Lumsden forever changed by advice from Red Knight football head coach Clarke Pulford
With tears in his eyes, upset with himself, Lumsden took those words to heart.

"That probably was the most impactful thing at that point in my life, outside of what my parents were teaching me," Lumsden recounted. "You can’t let the people around you down no matter what the situation is. Especially if they look to you for leadership, and that has stuck with me forever. It’s a philosophy that if you are going to step up and be part of a team you have a responsibility and you’d better fulfill that responsibility for those around you." 
Leadership has been a central theme in Lumsden’s life and career. He was a leader on the 1975 Vanier Cup Champion Ottawa Gee Gees team. He then started his CFL career with the Toronto Argonauts, before moving down the QEW to the Tiger-Cats. But it wasn’t until the two time defending Grey Cup Champion Edmonton Eskimos (now Elks) acquired him from Hamilton that Lumsden’s playing career flourished thanks to the leadership of head coach Hugh Campbell. "Campbell took me aside when I got there and told me: I think you're a really great football player," Lumsden remembers. "But that’s not the reason you're here. He said: you fit here."
Neil Lumsden playing with the Argos and Eskimos
From top left: (1) playing with the Toronto Argos, (2 and 3) playing with the Edmonton Eskimos (now Elks) 
Coach Campbell also wanted Neil to bring his wife Donna to Edmonton. Donna and Neil met while students at the University of Ottawa. "He asked this of all his players because, for Campbell, it was important for his team to be with their families so that they were comfortable and confident, and so they wouldn’t worry.” With Edmonton, Lumsden was a Grey Cup Champion three times. Donna and he also became parents with the birth of son Jessie and daughter Kristin.
On the advice of his dad, Lumsden didn’t wait till his playing days were over to get involved in the business world. Lumsden worked part time in marketing and PR from his second year on. In Edmonton he sold radio ads. 'It kept building because I wanted to be a great provider, be a good dad – just like my dad and my mom.' 

Lumsden retired as a player following the 1986 season. But he didn’t stray from football long. His detailed view of the game was back on display, now as a broadcaster with the Canadian Football Network, providing expert commentary. But soon he was drawn back to the field, taking on the challenge of becoming General Manager of the Tiger-Cats at a time when the club's fortunes were less than ideal.

“We needed leadership and we needed guys on the field who were leaders.”  So from Edmonton Lumsden brought to Hamilton head coach Ron Lancaster, quarterback Danny McManus and receiver Darren Flute. With those three, in 1998, the Tiger-Cats went back to the Grey Cup game for the first time in 9 years, and the following season they would win the Grey Cup for the first time in 13 years.

"If you put great leadership in place, it creates a great momentum. It’s never easy, but you can see the change happen and the culture changed in Hamilton football. We didn’t have a lot of dough but the guys and gals we had in the front office worked their asses off and they all cared. It was great."
Looking for new experiences, Lumsden oversaw a highly successful 2003 World Road Cycling Championships, held in Hamilton, in the roles of Chief Operating Officer and General Manager. Following that, Lumsden started Drive Marketing, a sports and marketing agency. He also served as running backs coach at the University of Guelph alongside Gryphons head coach and former Edmonton teammate Stu Lang. 
Neil & Kristin - Amazing Race Canada
Lumsden in The Amazing Race Canada with daughter Kristin
While coaching his son Jessie and competing in The Amazing Race Canada with daughter Kristin, Lumsden's next career challenge was at Brock University as Director of Athletics and Recreation until stepping away in 2019. "I love challenges. I refer to it as a bit of a curse," Lumsden told me. "World Cycling was a challenge because it wasn’t in very good shape. The Tiger-Cats were a challenge at the time. Doing something on your own is a challenge. Being a Canadian running back in the CFL was a challenge. I enjoy being challenged."
Semi-retired, with time on his hands, the honoured member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame was preparing to launch a speaker series about leadership. Then came a phone call from a friend that led to another phone call with the president and chairman of the PC Party of Ontario. After months of back-and-forth, one Sunday morning Premier Doug Ford called Lumsden. 
"My conversation with Premier Ford made me think about other conversations I’ve had with other people in my life that I’ve respected, and I thought if I can make a difference then I’ll do it."
–  Neil Lumsden deciding to run for office in the Province of Ontario
Lumsden was all in and in 2022 was elected in the riding of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek. Following the election he received another phone call from the Premier. This time Ford offered a spot in cabinet as Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport. "As I found out, you don’t say no or can I think about it," Lumsden said. I was honoured and flattered and said: ok let’s get to work and get some stuff done, 'cause in this ministry there's a lot we can do."
Interview continues below
Amazon announcement at Pinewood Studios
Jan 2024, Toronto – Neil Lumsden flanked by Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow at Amazon MGM Studios announcement at Pinewood Studios for exclusive use of new studio production facilities 
Jan 2024, Toronto – Lumsden official comments re: Amazon MGM Studios announcement at Pinewood Studios
Many may not see his Ministry as important as Infrastructure or Transportation, but Lumsden says otherwise. "Our ministry touches a lot of people in this province in a lot of different ways and drives the economy in many many ways." Lumsden says his ministry funds and creates opportunity, supporting people that create the conditions for success in Ontario's tourism industry. The ministry also funds provincial sports bodies, as well as cherished cultural institutions – including museums (Royal Ontario Museum, Science North), art galleries (Art Gallery of Ontario, McMichael Collection), and through its agencies it funds the Arts (Ontario Arts Council) and invests in a range of youth projects and community spaces (Ontario Trillium Foundation).
Lumsden believes in the need to work on the culture in everything we do, especially sport following the Hockey Canada controversy, and that is where he wants to be a leader. "There’s a lot of young people and parents in our province that want to make sure their kids are safe, as I did for mine, and they have to have the confidence that we are doing what we can to allow them to excel and participate through provincial sports organizations in each community. I have a pretty good idea of what good culture is and how you treat people, how you coach people, how you manage them, how you set them up for success, how you help them get out of failure or bad times."
Lumsden’s many experiences gives him belief that he can make a difference. 
"One of the great things about sport is that it doesn’t always go your way. You either mope about it or figure a way to get out and get better."
–  Neil Lumsden on the power of sport to improve lives
Interview continues below
Neil Lumsden at the Ontario Coaching Excellence Awards 2023 organized by the Coaches Association of Ontario, kicking off National Coaches Week
TDCAA Tier I Football Championship with YouTube CIUT-Radio Simulcast commentators Dana McKiel and Dan Dominico
TDCAA Tier I Football Championship with YouTube CIUT-Radio Simulcast commentators Dana McKiel and Dan Dominico (former NSS Phys Ed)
2023 Grey Cup arrival event with CFL commissioner
2023 Grey Cup arrival event with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie
2023 Grey Cup
Lumsden with a field-side view of the 2023 Grey Cup matchup between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Montreal Alouettes
Recently Lumsden was rumoured to be under consideration for the next president of the Edmonton Elks, but he quickly put an end to that speculation, reaching out on social media to say "Working for the people of Ontario, and the residents of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek is my top priority."
Like the first time I saw him play at Northern, the now 71 year old Lumsden is still on the run, and though his days are busy he shows no signs of slowing down. One day, maybe next year, when high school football season is in full swing, he’d like to drive down to Northern and sit in the stands. Not to be recognized, Lumsden tells me, but to just sit there and watch practice. That he says "would be very cool."


Interviewer Joe Pascucci NSS'76 is a veteran sports journalist and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2015. With professional roots in Winnipeg, stretching back to 1982 when he was a sports reporter for Winnipeg’s CKND-TV, Joe has freelanced for ESPN and TSN, and was Sports Director for Global Winnipeg from 1986 until 2014. Joe became a CFL historian of note by compiling a celebratory video of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' history, producing videos for Bombers Hall of Fame inductions, and transferring to video key historical moments from the 1930s to '70s, including matching grainy footage of the Bombers’ 1939 Grey Cup victory with a CBC radio broadcast. Joe is a Director of the Northern Secondary School Foundation.