“I might have the best job in the world:” Acadia’s Kevin Dickie discusses athletics success, growth of program as he prepares to retire

HALIFAX, NS- Following the AUS and U SPORTS AGMs in June, Acadia athletic director Kevin Dickie will retire, after ten years at the helm of the Axemen and Axewomen. He steps down following sixteen seasons as an AUS athletic director. He served in the position from 2005 to 2011 at UNB. 

Dickie, who announced his retirement in late March, will cap off his second stint working for Acadia Athletics. He first worked at Acadia when he took the head coaching job for the men’s hockey team in 1997, where he spent three years. Between then and working at UNB, he coached the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades for four seasons.

Since the Shaunavon, Sask., native took over the athletic director role, success piled up for student-athletes both on and off the fields, pitches, rinks and courts. Acadia has won 11 AUS champions across several sports during his tenure. As many of Acadia’s teams have competed nationally, the university has hosted multiple U SPORTS championships, including in each of the last four non-COVID seasons. 

Student-athletes have stepped up recently in the classroom too. Acadia is coming off its highest number of Academic All-Canadians ever with 122 in 2019. Additionally, an Axeman or Axewoman was selected as a U SPORTS Top 8 Academic All-Canadian each year from 2013 to 2016.

The progress Acadia made over his tenure was discussed when 49 Sports caught up with Dickie in May. Also talked about was his retirement, Wolfville and the university community, COVID-19’s impact on the program’s progress and what is to come next for Acadia Athletics. In a small but energetic program and community at Acadia, Dickie said there is plenty to be excited about in the ever-expanding athletics program coming out of the pandemic.

Conversation has been edited for grammar and clarity

49: I don’t think I’ve had the chance to congratulate you on your upcoming retirement yet. Congrats!

Dickie: Thank you, I appreciate that.

49: My first question centres on that. You’ve been at Acadia for a decade as athletic director, with time at UNB and coaching at Acadia earlier. Why does this feel like the right time for you?

Dickie: It’s as simple as that: it’s the right time. I’ve been 34 years involved in sports as a coach or athletic director, and for 33 of them, I’ve been the head person. I think that’s probably what I’m looking forward to the most, not having to be front-and-centre or the face of anything. 

That would probably be the simplest reason, but the other thing too is it’s not often you get the chance to leave something you feel is great. The people that I work with are great. I’m going to miss the coaches, staff and student-athletes. And it’s not often that, on your terms and your time in this industry, you get a chance to say, “You know what? This is the right time,” and move on. I’ve said over and over to people that I might have the best job in the world. I feel that way today, and any time you have the chance to decide that you’re gonna move on from a great job, you’re very excited about what’s coming next. For me, I have no idea yet what that is other than retirement.

49: How would you describe the current position of the athletic program at Acadia?

Dickie: Acadia Athletics is the big game in our community. When you’re responsible for that, you can’t shut it off. I can’t go to the farmer’s market on Saturday or walk down Main Street [Wolfville] without knowing I’ll meet people that know me and love our program. Besides being the big game in town, we’re a small school but a national-calibre athletic program. We’re competing with the UBCs and the Queens of the world and that’s very unique for a small town. It’s not a generic athletic director job; it’s a special job, you have to be married and committed to it 24/7. 

49: You mentioned being up there with the big schools in the country and, especially over the last couple of years, you’ve earned the hosting rights to national championships while also contending for some. What do you think that says about the growth of the program recently?

Dickie: It’s not just the last couple of years. With the hope we get the [2022 men’s hockey] U Cup back in 2022, we will have hosted [U SPORTS championships] in five of the last six years. It’s crazy for a school our size. Plus, the one year off was because of a pandemic. Like I said, we’re the big game in town and our fan support exemplifies that. When people come from across the country to be a part of it, it’s pretty significant for sure. [The events] beget the opportunity for us to get new championships. 

49: I shouldn’t even have to say this 18 months into the pandemic, but it’s been a challenging year. Could you tell me some more about how the pandemic has affected the program’s direction over the last few years and perhaps the next few years to come?

Dickie: I think we learned a lot about each other. With adversity, you learn a lot about people; I liked the [Acadia Athletics staff and student-athletes] before, but I like them more now. We really dug in. We had a lot of people do extra duties, especially coaches, who picked up duties to help keep our program viable during the pandemic. We didn’t complain a lot when things didn’t go our way and we found a way to be able to adjust our sails and find different ways to do things over the past year. It’s been positive from a group perspective. 

The AxeCast - Episode 21 - Acadia Athletics Executive Director Kevin Dickie  - YouTube

From a personal perspective, an interesting case study would be to know if, if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I’d still be wanting to be the athletic director. It’s part of the job, with things you have to deal with and difficult situations. And you have your annual stresses that come along with the position. Those went to a whole different level over the past year. It really boiled down to leading and managing during a pandemic. Again, it’d be interesting if there was no pandemic whether I’d be exploring retirement in June 2021. I don’t know if there’s an answer to that.

49: Do you feel there was a certain point over the past year where you hit a point of exhaustion?

Dickie: Yeah, I think we all did in our own ways. I don’t know if I’ve met anyone that hasn’t had something taken out of them, whether it be physically or mentally. When you’re in a position of leadership, which could be as a teacher, a parent, running a university, or as a coach or athletic director, there’s a certain level of resilience that’s required to persevere and battle through things that come your way. I even think, in a weird way, you have to get excited about adversity and having to deal with it. But this one’s just different. It was definitely hard on the head, not knowing what was around the corner. 

49: You’ve talked about the many people you’ve worked with this year Kevin. You can’t physically have as many people around but you still work with and learn about a lot of people. A noteworthy thing this year was Acadia getting out there and playing more games against other schools. What have you learned about each other, the other schools and even the AUS itself through putting this exhibition season together? 

Dickie: It’s tough for me to comment from an AUS perspective; they were clear that the schools wouldn’t rely on the AUS this season. I was really proud of the Nova Scotia schools that collaborated. We all wanted everybody to participate and we didn’t want to do it in spite of anybody else. That would be the first thing I wanted to take away from that part: we did this on our own and outside counting on the AUS’s support. 

The other part too is that I have to give our staff a whole bunch of credit. When it came to operationalizing our plan so we could be able to do different things, I had very little to do with that. The staff allowed me to, maybe more than ever over my ten years, kind of stay as close to 40,000 feet as I could be and to provide leadership. In terms of the management and execution, it was our staff. We don’t have a big staff, but we definitely punch above our weight and I give them all the credit in the world. Our fitness centre ran pretty well all year and it was recognized by the provincial government [for its accomplishments]. That type of thing I credit to the people in our staff. 

49: Off the top, we talked about Acadia’s place in Wolfville and the community, and it is huge there. Plus, you have facilities and other things recognized provincially as you mentioned. Coming into your position a decade ago and looking at the Acadia community back then compared to now, what stands out to you about that comparison now?

Dickie: I think there are a couple of things. Our athletics complex has gone from not suited for high-performance, to a high-performance level we’re very proud of. It’s full of branding, it’s full of spirit and it’s also conducive to a student-athlete being the best they can be. Whether it be our high-performance gym, our locker rooms, the changes to our gymnasium, the improvements to our arena and the new turf at Raymond Field going in right now, plus the viability of keeping our swimming pool operational when pools are tough to operate. 

The second thing is flat-out winning way, way more than we were ten years ago. We just win way, way more games. We compete on a national scale, we’re perennially winning AUS championships and, for the most part annually, our teams are highly competitive. That wasn’t the case ten years ago. 

49: Finally, we were discussing the past ten years, but now looking ahead, when you imagine looking at things three to five years from now, what would you like to see continue or develop in the program?

Dickie: I think we’re on the cusp of doing some really great things in the area of integrated sports sciences. We have most of the pieces here, like strength and conditioning and full-time sports nutrition. Our athletic therapy program has evolved. But I think this is now taking that next step in terms of what more can be added and how we can integrate it all into one, so that the left hand of sports science knows what the right hand is doing, so they can complement each other. And that’s going to help win more games.

The next thing is too, and I have to be honest, is there are certain things that we’re all really good at. My strengths are my strengths, but there are things that somebody else can bring to the table that maybe aren’t my strengths, things that can shift the program in the areas that need to be shifted. We all have our strengths and we all have areas that we wish we could get better at. When you’re 57 years old and you’ve been in sports for 34 years, it gets harder to improve those areas that have been already built up, and I think there will be somebody, maybe the successful candidate for my job, that will [be tasked with] finding that sweet spot of keeping what needs to be kept and changing those things that need to be changed. 

49: Is there anyone at Acadia that stands out to you who could earn themselves a promotion in the department? 

Dickie: I know that I’m going to become a fan in Wolfville and go to games. I’ve made it clear to Acadia in terms of what I think needs to be part of the next strategic plan and I’ve also made it transparent what I think the university needs to seek out in the new athletic director. But after that, Dickie out. In terms of where the program goes and who becomes part of the mix moving forward, it’s one of those things I won’t be a part of.

49: But you will definitely be around though.

Yep, and with the program it will be interesting. There are a couple of things that are unique. We’ve been near the top every year in terms of Academic All-Canadians. We have very high numbers every year and the percentage is always hovering around that 40 per cent mark. The other thing is our footprint in the community: it’s incredible. With that, we have to talk about our corporate partners and season ticket holders; that’s such a luxury for us. That’s not something all AUS schools have the fortune of worrying about. Right now, everyone’s guess is as good as mine, but there’s nothing we want more than, once this pandemic slows down and vaccinations kick in, getting bums back in the seats. It’s real important.

Another thing you touched on too Luke in another question, when I left Acadia for the first time back in 2000 to coach the Saskatoon Blades, my goal was to be the head coach of the world junior team and to coach in the National Hockey League. But there were a lot of days where my family and I missed Wolfville. For me to get the opportunity to come back here as the athletic director and to sit in the same seat as Don Wells, who was my mentor, and people like [Fred] “Major” Kelly, who was an icon here, for me to have got that opportunity but to come back to Wolfville and to know we would settle down and be part of the community, it’s changed our lives. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to first coach here, then come back as the athletic director and thirdly to retire here. There aren’t many better places in the world to live than Wolfville, Nova Scotia and I get to continue to do that.

49: Will one of your first retirement activities be catching the first game back at Acadia? 

Oh yeah, for sure. We think there’s a great opportunity to host the U Cup next year and should things play out that we get to host the U Cup again, that will be a big part of what I’m participating in as well. I’ll definitely be at that first game next year, on the football field, soccer pitch, rugby pitch or whatever.

Photos courtesy of U SPORTS and Acadia University

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