Wall of Distinction 2024: Dr. David Atkinson the driving force behind Griffins getting into Canada West

Wall of Distinction 2024: Dr. David Atkinson the driving force behind Griffins getting into Canada West

Jefferson Hagen
MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – For 49 years, athletes have proudly worn the Griffin as members of MacEwan's athletics teams.

Over that time, the best of the best have emerged, worthy of recognition for the ages.

For the first time in 20 years, MacEwan Athletics is reviving its Wall of Distinction program, which recognizes top athletes, coaches, teams, and builders for their exemplary contributions to the success of the Griffins.

We're proud to induct four new members of the 2024 Wall of Distinction class during MacEwan Athletics' annual awards banquet on April 6.

Throughout the week, we've been unveiling this class one by one.

Tuesday: Scott Reid, men's hockey 

Wednesday: Vanessa Trofimenkoff, women's cross country, indoor track

Thursday: Robbie Valpreda, men's basketball

Today: Dr. David Atkinson, Builder


After becoming President of MacEwan University in 2011, Dr. David Atkinson wasn't on the job more than a week when he wandered into the Athletics office with a clear mission.

The Griffins were no longer going to compete in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference; they needed to be in Canada West.

"The reason was very simple for me," he said. "If you go back to my time as president, I said from the very beginning if MacEwan is really going to be a university, then it has to be a university in everything it does. On the face of it, that would be our academic programs, the kind of faculty we hire, our increasing focus on research and scholarship – all of those kinds of things. But I also didn't want us to be called a university when we play in a college league. I just didn't. End of story. 

"If you're going to be a university, you've got to be a university in every respect. Obviously, that landed on sympathetic ears with Ken (Schildroth, the Director of Athletics at the time). So, that's really what started the process."

The rest is history.

MacEwan was granted entry into Canada West in 2014 and made a complete transition to the university level when its hockey teams earned admission in 2020.

None of that would have happened without Atkinson, who will join the MacEwan Athletics' Wall of Distinction as a Builder in the 2024 Induction Class.

"When Joel (Mrak, MacEwan's Athletics Director) called (to deliver the news), it was a nice surprise," said Atkinson. "The other interesting thing is the other day I was flutzing around downstairs and I came across a little wooden Viking that I received when I went to (Calgary's) Viscount Bennett high school as athlete of the year. So, I thought it's funny I should come across this right now. 

"It sort of is the Alpha and the Omega – the very beginning and not necessarily the very end, but certainly a nice conclusion to my interest and involvement in university athletics all these years. 

"I'm very gratified. You can't help but be gratified when people recognize you, even though you never do it for that reason. I got a great deal of satisfaction in getting MacEwan into Canada West. And I must confess, I also got great satisfaction out of orchestrating the arena deal with the city, which was a bit complicated."

 Dr. David Atkinson and former MacEwan Athletics Director Ken Schildroth at his retirement ceremony in 2017 (Steven Stefaniuk photo).

MacEwan hockey was a nomadic program for most of its existence, starting in the south-side Kinsmen Arenas in the late '90s and were in a temporary home at Bill Hunter Arena when the application was submitted for entry into Canada West.

"They didn't admit hockey at the outset because we didn't have a rink," said Atkinson. "Canada West was insisting we had to have a rink with a certain level of seating that was reasonably close to campus. At the time, Rogers Place was being planned."

How it would be funded was a political football with many layers of negotiation required to make the Edmonton Oilers, the city, and the taxpayers happy. Enter the Downtown Community Arena, owned by the city, which became the project to provide the right balance needed to satisfy stakeholders.

It was then that MacEwan jumped into the mix, making an equity investment in the DCA, becoming a partner in what would become the permanent home of the Griffins hockey teams.

"In many ways, it was kind of a win-win for everybody because the city could say we're working with MacEwan and it's going to become home for their men's and women's hockey teams," said Atkinson. "They could run that out as a positive thing. And it was perfect for us because the rink's two blocks away from campus. 

"At the time, because the rink was not yet constructed, we were given an opportunity to be part of the planning process, so that's how we got the dressing rooms that we did. If you've ever negotiated with the city, it has its own challenges."

Atkinson has been no stranger to challenges, though, in a lengthy career that's seen him leave a legacy of university building. As President of Brock University, he oversaw a major expansion in campus facilities and is the only administrator in the nation to serve as President of two of Canada's newest universities – Kwantlen Polytechnic and MacEwan.

Dr. David Atkinson was President of MacEwan University for six years, from 2011 to 2017 (Steven Stefaniuk photo).

So, when the application for the Griffins' admission into Canada West was no sure thing, he became the political driving force behind its success. 

"We had to find the money," said Atkinson. "It was a bit of a struggle. Not everyone in the university thought we should be spending money on athletics. Not everyone was sympathetic to this ambition of mine. I did come with a bit of a reputation for being supportive of university athletics. So, I don't think I disappointed them. That was the first challenge. 

"The second challenge was whether the other schools wanted us to be a part of Canada West."

Some certainly didn't. So, Atkinson called the President of every other Canada West institution, lobbying for support.

"The third thing is the Athletic Directors," said Atkinson. "They don't necessarily want a new school in because it means competition in recruiting athletes."

His phone calls and two in-person visits by Atkinson to address Canada West Athletic Directors made a difference, though, as the vote swung MacEwan's way.

"I had to go cap in hand and meet with the Athletic Directors and tell them how important this was," he said. "I did that twice, actually – once in Calgary and once in Vancouver. It wasn't a process that was without its challenges, but I think at the end of the day, we got there."

As Atkinson prepared to wrap up his final convocation as MacEwan University President in 2017, he was about to stand up for his closing speech when he got the surprise of his life.

"Suddenly, I was told by the registrar to sit back down," he said. "They brought this covered plaque on stage."

The gymnasium where the Griffins play in the Christenson Centre for Sport and Wellness was being named after him.

"The board chair got up and said that they were going to do this," he recalled. "For once in my life, I was speechless. I had no idea it was coming. 

"It was great. My wife was with me, they brought her up on stage and I got a standing ovation. That was kind of nice, too. It was one of those moments that you don't often get in a career. It was certainly a nice way to go out."

MacEwan and Lethbridge basketball teams pose for a photo with Dr. David Atkinson in a ceremony naming the gym after him on the opening weekend of the 2017-18 season (File photo).

It's a key part of the full circle end-of-career moments that he'll also enjoy by being inducted into the Wall of Distinction. 

The beginning, the younger days of Dr. Atkinson, included being a promising high school cross-country athlete in Calgary who landed a Div. 1 scholarship to compete for Indiana University. He became an All American, Big 10 champion and was eventually awarded the Fred Tees Memorial Trophy for the outstanding University track and field athlete in Canada. 

An accident ended his competitive athletics career, but Atkinson remained an inspiration for university athletes by running spin classes for the Griffins women's hockey team, among others. Being around student-athletes continues to keep him young.

"It's a place I've always felt at home, largely because it's been part of my life for so long," he said. "Having been a pretty good athlete myself, you get a sense of what that takes. You have to be committed. You can't do it part time. 

"So, to be around other athletes, I used to say it's like I could live my own experiences again vicariously through the athletes around me. I could see in them what I could remember in myself."

David Atkinson ran a regular spin class for MacEwan Sport and Wellness and the Griffins women's hockey team (File photo).

In retirement as President Emeritus of MacEwan (and Professor Emeritus of English), Atkinson still remains a big Griffins supporter, often attending games at the field, rink or gym that bears the plaque in his honour.

"When I walk into the gym, I'm anonymous, so I more or less sit by myself and watch the game, unless I happen to see someone (I know)," he said. 

"I walk in and go, 'you know? This is my house.' 

"And that feels kind of satisfying."