April 10, 2024

From Big Macs to the big mic: Meet the voice of the Riders — Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas is made to order for his new role as the voice of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Recognition of his broadcasting chops dates back to the teenaged years, when he was working at McDonald’s in his hometown of Weyburn.

“The owners said, ‘You’ve got such a great voice. You should start working in the drive-thru,’ ” Thomas recalls. “Nobody ever started in the drive-thru, but they put me there because of my voice.

“There were so many of my co-workers who were jealous that I got to skip over the steps and not have to work the fries station.

“Then McDonald’s introduced their first burger in eons — the Arch Deluxe — so they sent me down to the radio station for an interview that I was going to have to give on the introduction of the Arch Deluxe.

“I walked into the radio station, AM 1190 in Weyburn, and it occurred to me that, ‘Wow … this is what I should be doing!’ I was going to school for business at the time and I thought, ‘This is wrong. I’ve got to get into this industry,’ so that’s where it was born.”

Look at him now.

On Wednesday, Harvard Media announced that Thomas will handle the play-by-play for all Roughriders games, home and away, while contributing to CKRM and its network of radio stations in multiple capacities.

“I’m so proud and just honoured to have the opportunity,” says Thomas, 48.

“This is what I did growing up, being a Saskatchewan kid. We were at the farm (near Kayville) and only had two channels and if we couldn’t get the game, or if we had a hockey practice and couldn’t get to the game, there was always an opportunity to feel connected to the team through the radio.

“So to have this opportunity in 2024 is absolutely mind-boggling in my world.”

Especially when he flashes back to his childhood.

“It all started for me when the Riders came to our elementary school,” Thomas recalls.

“I had no idea what they were talking about. I was just so gobsmacked for the 60 or 90 minutes they were there. I remember thinking, ‘There’s a Saskatchewan Roughrider standing in the front of my classroom. This is insane!’ That kind of sparked the interest.

“From there, it just continued to grow. I remember in ’89, I was in junior high in Weyburn and I’m sure they were close to having to close the school because half the teachers, knowing what a big deal it was going to be for the Riders to be in a Grey Cup in ’89, went to Toronto.”

Thomas proceeded to enrol at Weyburn Comprehensive School, where he played high school football in grades 10, 11 and 12.

Most notably, he was a prolific interceptor while playing cornerback with the Regina Intercollegiate Football League’s Weyburn Eagles. He wore No. 27 as a tribute to safety Glen Suitor, whose 51 interceptions make him the Roughriders’ all-time leader.

In 1999, Thomas was hired full-time by AM 1190, for which he was a morning show host and part of the Weyburn Red Wings’ broadcast team, alongside Cameron Birnie.

“I was also the board operator for Toronto Blue Jays games, so I would sit in the station by myself at night and I’d just press commercials when Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth would call for a break,” Thomas notes. “That was my job and it was awesome.”

In 2001, Thomas joined the Saskatoon Media Group. At radio station CJWW, he excelled in various roles, such as morning show host and program director.

Along the way, he called 400-plus Saskatoon Blades games in tandem with long-time play-by-play man Les Lazaruk, and did play-by-play for the Saskatoon Hilltops and University of Saskatchewan Huskies.

Thomas was introduced to the Roughriders’ broadcast crew in 2010, when he began a four-year run as a host of the pre-game show. As well, he was the Rider Radio Network’s sideline reporter from 2012 to 2014.

“I was lucky to be around some great people and my love for the game kept growing,” Thomas says.

“Every kid wants to be in the CFL. Every broadcaster wants to pay their dues and make their way to the professional ranks.

“When there was an opportunity, I thought, ‘Wow … this is something else. Here we go.’ ”

Thomas is a huge booster of the home team in another respect.

He cherishes time spent with his wife, Kathryn, and their sons — Will, 19, and Alex, 15.

Will is completing his first year at the U of S. Alex is in Grade 10 at Bethlehem Catholic High School.

“I’m very fortunate that my new employer, Harvard Media, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders have really reinforced family in the short time since I accepted the position,” Thomas says. “Family is Number 1 in my world. When I had a chance to talk to my wife and my kids about the opportunity, they were all for it.

“I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my oldest son. I’ve coached him in hockey forever and he said, ‘You always tell us to get in a spot where we can go ahead and have an opportunity to do something great. You’re in the spot and you have to take it.’ I thought, ‘OK … this is so cool.’

“It has been a whirlwind since then.”

Dave, Kathryn and Alex Thomas are to move to Regina after the 2023-24 school year. Will plans to remain in Saskatoon, where he is enrolled in the Edwards School of Business at the U of S.

Also making the move from Saskatoon to Regina will be Mary Thomas, Dave’s mom.

His father, Richard, was 77 when he passed away on Oct. 26, 2017.

“We’re just a blue-collar, hard-working family,” Thomas says. “We had a family business down in Weyburn. I think Dad’s plans were for myself and my brothers to take it over. That was going to be his legacy to us — to hopefully have us gainfully employed for the rest of our lives.

“Very early, my parents said, ‘Yeah, this is what we do, but it doesn’t have to be what you do. Find what you want to do and go from there.’ I remember I had a teacher once who was friends with my parents and he said to me, ‘Going to work has got to be like going to play. Otherwise, you’re never going to accomplish anything and you’ll live a miserable life.’

“My parents echoed that. They were both very supportive and very proud.”

What a proud moment it will be, then, when Thomas calls a Roughriders game for the first time.

The landmark day will arrive on May 20, when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will pay a visit for a pre-season contest.

“I’m going to have to bring two extra shirts,” Thomas says. “I’m going to be so nervous that I’ll sweat through the first one or two, for sure.

“I’ve had an opportunity to broadcast from Mosaic Stadium before, which was really cool, but to actually be in the broadcast booth and hear ‘Bring ’Em Out!’ is going to be an absolute dream.

“I’m going to have to pinch myself so many times. It’s the pinnacle. It’s where you wanted to get to in your broadcast career.”

Saying it is one thing. Believing it? Well, Thomas is still trying to process his good fortune and the realization of a dream.

“I’m just blown away by the opportunity,” he says. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.

“I won the lottery when it comes to my family and the supports that I have and now I’ve won the lottery professionally.

“This is an opportunity that I’m really excited for and I’m hoping that I don’t disappoint anybody after the faith they’ve shown in me.”

And to think that it all started due to the faith that was demonstrated by the higher-ups at McDonald’s, where his deep voice crackled through a speaker.

In his excitement over the new role, might he inadvertently experience a full-circle moment and shift into drive-thru mode — perhaps revisiting the Arch Deluxe — during a broadcast?

“I hope not,” a chuckling Thomas concludes. “If I’m telling you to pull ahead or turn your diesel engine off, then we’ve got a problem.”