January 28, 2024

Roughriders appreciate Lipp’s service

John Lipp, who was a basketball referee for 35 years, has been called for travelling.

Lipp and his wife, Margaret, will soon join another couple and embark on a three-month trip to Europe. That excursion contributed to his decision to conclude an accomplished tour of duty as chair of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Plaza of Honour selection committee.

Himself an inductee into the Riders’ shrine, Lipp had headed the committee since 2013, serving his favourite football franchise with distinction and devotion yet again.

“I just thought it was time,” he says when asked about stepping down. “I enjoyed it, and I was asked to stay on, but I’m going to be doing a lot of travelling.”

That is hardly new for someone who has visited more than 50 countries.

Canada entered the equation in 1952, when his parents (John and Agnes) moved to Regina from Germany with their four children.

For more than 70 years, the Queen City has been home.

“I’m grateful,” Lipp reflects. “Regina has been very good to me. I’ve enjoyed living here and raising my kids here. That’s why I’m still here.”

At age 85 — having celebrated his latest birthday on Saturday.

“That’s lucky,” he says of his longevity and good health, “and you’ve got to be lucky.

“I’ve always kept active. To me, that’s a part of life.”

What a life it has been.

Career-wise, Lipp started off as an educator before going into business and also succeeding in that realm. As well, he served on various boards.

He was a member of the Regina Catholic School Board for 12 years, serving as the chair for three years, before going into civic politics. He was a two-term city councillor in Regina.

On Dec. 2, 1986, Lipp joined the Roughriders’ Executive Committee (now the Board of Directors), at the invitation of then-President Tom Shepherd. Lipp became the Vice-President on Dec. 13, 1989 and assumed the Presidency on Jan. 21, 1993, beginning a very eventful three-year term.

During a period that spanned 1993 to 1995, the CFL fought for its very existence — expanding to the United States in the process — and approved the first Saskatchewan-based Grey Cup Festival.

The 83rd Grey Cup was awarded to Regina on March 3, 1994 after bids were presented in Sacramento.

“We had to convince (at least two-thirds of) the Board of Governors,” Lipp recalls. “Winnipeg had a very strong bid, as did we.

“The day before, I talked to most of the governors and tried to lobby them. I knew it would be close and, when the vote was held, we were one vote short.

“Larry Ryckman, from Calgary, said, ‘Why don’t we take a break and see if anyone wants to change their vote?’

“During the break, I talked to the Premier (Roy Romanow) and he said, ‘Sure, we can up our bid a little bit.’

“We went back in, Ottawa changed its vote, and we got it.”

Lipp was an early proponent of holding a Grey Cup in Saskatchewan, back in the days when skeptics were legion.

“One of the highlights was being able to convince enough people that we could host the Grey Cup,” he says. “You have to understand that, at the time, there were serious doubts. Our stadium wasn’t very big and there were concerns about a lack of hotel space.

“I had gone to a Grey Cup a few years before and there had been temporary stands. That planted a seed and I said, ‘Let’s explore that.’

“As well, some of the high-level people in the city wondered whether we could sell 50,000 tickets. I’m pretty stubborn, so I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll do it.’

“The seats cost a million bucks to put in, but they were worth it.”

That was especially true on Oct. 14, 1995, when 55,438 people — twice the conventional seating capacity of Taylor Field — packed the stadium and saw the Roughriders defeat the Calgary Stampeders 25-20.

“That was amazing,” says Lipp, who accepted the ceremonial kickoff before that game. “I was floating that weekend. When I saw that stadium filled, I’ll tell you, it really blew my mind.”

That was the final Roughriders home game as President for Lipp, who handed the reins to Fred Wagman at the Annual General Meeting on Feb. 6, 1996.

At that AGM, the Roughriders announced that their share of proceeds from the 1995 Grey Cup Festival amounted to $1.3 million — a windfall that halved the team’s accumulated deficit.

The event, as a whole, provided a much-needed cash infusion for the entire league, which was teetering on insolvency.

Any doubts about Saskatchewan as a Grey Cup host were quickly erased.

“We set a pretty high bar from then on,” Lipp says.

The question quickly changed from “can we hold a Grey Cup game?” to “when is the next one?”

There have now been four Regina-based Grey Cup Games, including the landmark event of Nov. 24, 2013.

Lipp, a season-ticket member since the 1960s, was in the stands to watch Saskatchewan capture a championship at home, courtesy of a 45-23 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

In so doing, he became a member of an ultra-exclusive fraternity, consisting of people who have been in attendance for all four of the Roughriders’ Grey Cup victories (those of 1966, 1989, 2007 and 2013).

“John Lynch and I went to the ’66 Grey Cup along with a couple of friends — Bob McIntyre and Bayne Enick,” Lipp remembers. “We just decided, ‘Let’s go,’ so we bought tickets and flew out to Vancouver.

“It was obviously unbelievable to be there. We were so fired up. It’s not very often that you see a team win something for the first time.”

At the time, Lipp’s home team was beginning to take shape. He and Margaret had exchanged wedding vows on Aug. 19, 1966.

The Lipps became the proud parents of John III, Anthony and Jolene. Margaret and John now have three grandchildren (one of whom is John IV).

Life in general has been grand for Lipp, who arrived in Canada as someone who didn’t speak a word of English, but has nonetheless become renowned and appreciated for his eloquence.

As a newcomer to Regina, Lipp associated “football” with “soccer” — the latter sport being his first love — but soon became a part of Rider Nation, long before the term became part of the football lexicon.

As a strapping 180-pounder, he was a guard and middle linebacker for the Gordon Currie-coached Balfour teams.

Lipp was also on the basketball team at Balfour Tech, as it was known at the time, and continued to play the sport into his 50s.

Into his 60s, he was still playing senior men’s soccer in Regina.

“I wanted to play a couple of games of squash when I was in my 80s,” he notes. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

“I ended up playing a younger guy and, in fact, defeated him. He was rather frustrated. I told him, ‘Treachery and deceit can often beat youth and exuberance.’ ”

So the beat goes on for John Lipp, as he prepares to head on a vacation that will include stops in Malta, the Canary Islands, Portugal, Spain and Madeira.

“I hope I can stay sharp for a little while yet,” he says. “That’s why we travel a lot. It’s something I want to do while I can.

“I’ve just been blessed with good genes, I suppose. The sports that I participated in all involved running, but I haven’t had any issues with my hips or my knees.

“Overall, I have no regrets, really. I’ve had a full life, with a wonderful family and great friends.

“Like I said, I’ve been lucky.”