Rick Dillabough isn’t officially retired, but if that’s how it ends up, he’s OK with it.
The Brandon Wheat Kings longtime director of sponsorship and business development, who became one of the faces of the club after a three-decades tenure, left the team on May 31.
"If I never work again, I’m fine with that," the 61-year-old Dillabough said. "But I also know that I’m still at that age where I likely need to be productive and keep busy. I’ve had a number of conversations about what I would consider excellent opportunities out there, but I’m not going to rush into anything. It has to be the right thing. If it comes next week, a month from now, six months from now, I’m fine with that."
It wasn’t a decision made lightly. A lot weighed into it, from the sale of the team last September by his friend Kelly McCrimmon, to the unusual pressures created by COVID-19 restrictions.
Ultimately, it all added up.
"I definitely needed to get away," Dillabough said of his decision. "My contract was due and I really hadn’t had any discussion about moving forward, not that I was trying to initiate any. This past year has been a challenge. From the ownership change to the staff change, so many good friends moving on, to COVID and having to play in the hub and not having a chance to see games here in Brandon, all of those things really took a toll.
"… It’s not that we had a great deal of stress but it was a tough year and I just didn’t think that I really had the energy needed to really put a great push towards the 2021-22 season. I said to the new ownership group that I thought it was important for them to get new people and new ideas."
They’ll have tough time replacing Dillabough’s decades of experience as a fan and eventually an employee.
Dillabough was born in Saskatchewan but his family moved to Virden in the early 1960s, and he grew up there. As a teenager, he did some sports reports for CKLQ, giving him a taste for the radio business, and he also attended Wheat Kings games to watch the great teams of the 1970s.
He went to Mount Royal College (now University) after he graduated from high school, and earned a communications-journalism diploma.
After a summer internship at CBC in Calgary, Dillabough landed a job at a small station in High River, Alta., that had him doing everything from farm reports to news to sports. He worked there for a couple of years, and when he did a report on the making of Superman III in Alberta in 1983 that went national, CKLQ’s Ron Arnst recognized his voice and offered him a job.
Dillabough quickly accepted.
"It was an opportunity to come back and get into sports full time and cover the Wheat Kings," Dillabough said. "I came just as Ray Ferraro, Ron Hextall, Cam Plante and those guys left, so my introduction to the Wheat Kings was a little different than the team I was accustomed to in the late 1970s.
"In the ‘80s there were great characters, and I loved the Wheat Kings then despite the fact they had their struggles."
Dillabough called Brandon University Bobcats games for a season, and then CKLQ obtained the Wheat Kings broadcast rights for the 1985-86 season. Dillabough called the games alongside Bob Ash and Arnst.
After that year, the ownership changed and since CKX’s Stu Craig was part of the new group, the rights reverted back to CKX so Dillabough was out of luck.
He worked at CKLQ from 1984 to 1988, but with wife Joanne and daughter Celine now in the picture, he needed to make a better living so he moved into sales with a Saskatoon-based company.
Around that time, there was simply no way Dillabough could have known what a profound impact the Wheat Kings would have on his life when they hired a young hockey coach named Kelly McCrimmon in 1988.
While the sales job often had him on the road, he volunteered at Wheat Kings games and got to know McCrimmon better. That connection proved to be an important one.
A position opened up with the team when Ken Coleman left to return to the Brandon Sun. While the club was still being operated by the Keystone Centre at the time, the facility hired Dillabough on McCrimmon’s recommendation in the summer of 1990.
For the 1990-91 season, Dillabough unexpectedly found himself back behind the mic for a second time to call games for CKX.
"I had already given up the dream of doing play by play," Dillabough said. "I was used to being at home, I didn’t like the travel and that changed that year, but it was only a one-year thing."
Dillabough’s hiring came just prior to the club making the transition to Bob Cornell’s ownership, and McCrimmon quickly found himself promoted to general manager and head coach. More staff was brought on and Dillabough’s role changed.
"My job, which had been publicity, communications, those kinds of things, became much more sales oriented," Dillabough said. "Thankfully I did have a little bit of a background in sales."
Dillabough vividly recalls a meeting with McCrimmon and Cornell that laid out his new responsibilities, with the added task of selling 50 rink board ads.
Dillabough joined the team during its historic low point, at least if it’s measured by wins and losses. The Wheat Kings made the playoffs twice in 10 years between 1982-83 and 1991-92.
"I saw the team as a fan, as a broadcaster and as an employee really struggle," Dillabough said. "That second year I was with them they won 11 games and set a franchise record (for losses), but boy oh boy, you could see a bright future ahead."
Dillabough pinpoints the deal on Jan. 21, 1991 that sent goalie Trevor Kidd and defenceman Bart Cote to the Spokane Chiefs for forward Bobby House, goalie Don Blishen and future franchise superstar Marty Murray as a transitional moment for the Wheat Kings.
"It was likely the biggest trade in franchise history because it really turned the fortunes of the franchise around with draft picks and good players," Dillabough said.
He added that McCrimmon was also one of the first people in the WHL to recognize the importance of the bantam draft, which also helped the team to rebuild.
When the radio rights went back to CKLQ for the 1992-93 season and Darren Dreger took over the broadcasts, Dillabough began doing what he did for most of the next three decades. He admitted it took time to grow into the position, adding that McCrimmon was a big help.
"He was very good at identifying what you could and couldn’t do," Dillabough said. "I’d like to think he saw some potential and gave me the opportunity to do something that I wasn’t completely comfortable with, but in time I think I learned to embrace it."
In the early days, Dillabough and McCrimmon worked a lot of long days — "He’s likely still putting in that many hours, I’m not," Dillabough deadpanned — as the pair tried to put the franchise on a solid footing.
Dillabough said McCrimmon is also an excellent communicator who recognizes it takes different approaches to motivate and manage different people. He accomplished the latter simply by getting to know people, something Dillabough said matters.
"He’s demanding but extremely fair and supportive when need be," Dillabough said.
"Having had the opportunity to work with him for so many years and to see his work ethic, I always wanted to over deliver to him what you had promised. You want to live up to his expectations because in some respects we were family."
McCrimmon said there were a number of reasons for Dillabough’s success.
"We always had lean staff and people were asked to do a number of things," McCrimmon said. "Rick could do anything. He could write a great press release, he could emcee a press conference, he could prepare me to do media. He was a great salesperson who I think built really great relationships with his customers from a corporate sales standpoint.
"He genuinely cared is what shows through."
McCrimmon said Dillabough always had the fan perspective in mind when the franchise was looking at things such as ticket prices, in part because he was talking to fans every day.
He added Dillabough’s work ethic was also key.
"He’s second to none in terms of work," McCrimmon said. "He can get a lot of work done, he’s good at a lot of things and he takes a lot of pride in it."
Dillabough and McCrimmon quickly identified one area that needed to be improved. They wanted to widen the team’s appeal beyond Brandon.
"We had to become more than a Brandon Wheat Kings team," Dillabough said. "We had to be western Manitoba’s team. We all knew that and we really strived to do as much as we could outside the city of Brandon in terms of getting out to the communities, going out to read to kids, going out to run a minor hockey caravan in Boissevain or Minnedosa, because those young players were the future fans of the hockey club, and we really wanted Minnedosa, Virden, Wawanesa, Boissevain, Deloraine, Melita to feel like the Wheat Kings were their team."
At the same time, when you’re trying to expand your fanbase, it’s vital to win and put a good product on the ice. As the Wheat Kings improved — Dillabough also points to the hiring of head coach Bobby Lowes in 1992 as a turning point — he noticed a big change in the community and the region.
A trip to the Eastern Conference final in 1993-94, advancing to the league final against the Memorial Cup host Kamloops Blazers in 1994-95, which gave the team an automatic berth in the national event, and then winning the league in 1995-96 completed the dramatic resurgence from an 11-win team to a WHL powerhouse.
In the 29 seasons since the dreadful 1991-92 season, Brandon either made or would have made the playoffs 26 times.
"It was exciting and that brought people in," Dillabough said. "Fortunately, the Wheat Kings have been able to maintain that over the years. Yes, there have been years the Wheat Kings have missed the playoffs, but thankfully you can count those on one hand. The last 30 years have been pretty successful for the franchise and pretty exciting for the community."
McCrimmon credits Dillabough with being instrumental in that success. He achieved that by helping to build the team into what it eventually became.
"He was a big part of the identity of our team," McCrimmon said. "We always felt that the secret ingredient that our organization had compared to some others was our culture, and he was such a big part of that. First of all for his longevity, but secondly how much the Wheat Kings mattered to him, how much he cared and how much he always wanted to do the right thing.
"All of that over three decades becomes a big part of who the organization is."
Dillabough’s tenure included league championships in 1996 and 2016, along with hosting the 2010 Memorial Cup.
Each was special in its own way, with Dillabough specifically recalling team captain Chris Dingman hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup in Brandon after the team returned from Spokane in 1996, and thousands of fans greeting the team in the Keystone Centre’s Manitoba Room when they arrived back in the Wheat City from Seattle in 2016.
"Getting the chance to go to three Memorial Cups, in Kamloops, in Peterborough and in Red Deer was exciting," Dillabough said. "Hosting one in 2010, I would consider it maybe the biggest highlight. We didn’t win. The only thing that could have made it better was if we had beaten Taylor Hall and the (Windsor) Spitfires but they were dynamite that year.
"The community, the corporate support, the fans, the Keystone Centre, the city, you have not asked for a better event."
Dillabough said he still hears from people in the hockey community who consider the 2010 event one of the best ever.
Behind the scenes, the Wheat Kings tried to run a professional organization on a junior hockey budget. That meant the staff learned to do a little of everything, and that there wouldn’t be many short days during the season.
"Brandon is a small-market franchise," Dillabough said. "The one thing the fans will have the good fortune to see with the new ownership is they have the resources that we didn’t necessarily have. We did what we could based on what we were able to provide and I think the expectations moving forward should be higher, and I think they’ll meet it."
With the sale of the club by McCrimmon in September to Jared Jacobson and the retirement of Dillabough, the two most enduring and well-known members of the organization are now gone.
The unprecedented turnover actually began in the summer of 2016 when McCrimmon stepped away from his duties as general manager and head coach of the Wheat Kings to join the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights.
Since McCrimmon sold the team in September, however, seven of the eight people employed in the office are no longer with the club, although that includes McCrimmon’s wife Terry and daughter Chelsea.
The franchise also lost head coach Dave Lowry and general manager Darren Ritchie to National Hockey League jobs, and Lyn Shannon, McCrimmon’s longtime executive assistant, recently retired.
"I’m not saying it’s a bad thing," Dillabough said of the turnover. "I think you need change, you need new fresh people, you need new ideas but when (McCrimmon) left and people started leaving, it was like a family breaking apart. We were more than a hockey club. I think we were more of a family, and that goes from the girls in the front to the coaches to the players.
"We all loved one another and that was important over the years for sure."
Happily, Dillabough plans to spend more time with his own family once the border reopens.
His daughter Celine, son-in-law Corey and 10-year-old grandson Easton moved to Oklahoma, with granddaughter Alexis in university in Minnesota. Due to pandemic restrictions, they haven’t seen them in person since February 2020,
"That’s been very difficult on me and Joanne, and I really wanted to have the ability to travel, if we ever get the chance, and definitely go see the family," Dillabough said. "There are some things I really want to do. I want to go to Vegas and see a Vegas Golden Knights game. I want to go. I haven’t been there. I want to go Oklahoma. I want to go to the East Coast in the fall when hockey is starting here."
Until then, he won’t be spending much time on the couch.
On his first day after resigning, he took care of jobs in the yard, and also did some chores to help with his friend Ross McKague’s horses.
"It was nice to be able to do that and then take the dog (Charlie) for a second walk and just to be able to do work at home but stop whenever you wanted," Dillabough said. "That part of it has been pretty sweet."
While it’s a nice change, he remains grateful for the opportunity that carried him through much of his working career, and optimistic that good times lie ahead for the team.
He plans to be in the stands as often as he can to see it firsthand after years of work that often kept him too busy during the games to catch more than small bits of action here and there.
"Having the chance to spend half my life in the organization, a team I cared for so many years as a fan, a broadcaster and an employee, means a lot," Dillabough said. "I hope they’re successful and I think they will be for years to come. And I hope so, because I’ll always be a Wheat Kings fan."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson