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Terry Huhtala: A definite risk-taker, in sport and in life

In sport and in life, Terry Huhtala has followed a somewhat similar mindset: use what you have, throw caution to the wind, and things should work out just fine.

It’s a philosophy that has served him well, in both aspects, to be frank.

Yet at the core of his overall outlook lies a backdrop that is far from ideal, even if it formed the very foundation of what has led him to success, in so many different areas.

“There were times, in Copper Cliff, where we didn’t have running water in the house, where we didn’t have heat,” noted the former Sudbury Spartan and member of the NFC (Northern Football Conference) Hall of Fame, from his home in Windsor.

“Are you able to feed yourself became all that was important. Everything else really wasn’t relevant to me - it was all bonus. I think that’s why I had that risk-taking side.”

Huhtala’s life has been one of amazing contrasts. Born in Sault Ste Marie but moving to Sudbury by the time he could walk, the middle of three children was athletic enough in his youth to share starting pitching duties on very talented Copper Cliff baseball teams, squads that included the likes of John Santi, Ian Symington, Jeff Sirkka and others.

“Sport was such a unifying thing for all of us in Copper Cliff,” he said. “And not just necessarily organized sport, but just being outside and playing. Those are great memories of my life.”

As an overall athlete, however, the best was yet to come.

“When I was halfway through grade ten (at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary), I shot up to 6’5” and gained maybe 50 or 60 pounds within a 12 month period,” he said. “All of a sudden, sport became easier. I was always one of the fastest runners in the school.” Now, he had a frame upon which he could build.

Though football was likely the area in which he most distinguished himself, Huhtala was also among the very best in the city in track and field, also earning an all-star nod in basketball, despite never having played the game until his senior years as a Knight. His reckless abandon on the court created a matchup that few opponents would relish.

“I was kind of allowed to use a football mentality in basketball,” Huhtala suggested with a laugh. “Nobody wanted to come near the paint because I was bigger, stronger and probably a little bit crazier than all of them.”

Offsetting his wild side was the presence of some very influential coaches, gentlemen who recognized the challenges and went far beyond the call of duty to help:

Doug Gingrich: “he meant so much to me, from a coaching standpoint, through his inspiration and guidance - he was so dedicated - by November, we would be hurdling in the school basement, all through the winter”

Sid Forster: “he was a mentor, a leader, a friend - he went out of his way so many times to help me”

Mitch Lalonde: “he convinced me to play basketball - I went through some hardships in high-school, and Mitch was such a great guy - always there for me”

Through it all, and perhaps much to the surprise of those who did not know anything of Huhtala beyond his athletic prowess, there was the student, the academic, the young man who combined street smarts with a very natural ability to solve problems.

Completing his undergraduate degree in Economics at Queen’s University after spending three years at Laurentian, Huhtala was to play football for the Gaels, but never did. “I was a pretty damaged product by the time I got to Queen’s,” he said.

(All of which did not stop Huhtala from being recognized as a three-time NFC all-star (1988, 1989, 1990), capturing honours as both the Defensive Player of ther Year and Lineman of the Year in his final summer with the Spartans).

Lessons learned on the field, along with the many life lessons on the side, had left the young man well-positioned as he pursued an MBA at Windsor University, one that would see him connect with the Ford Motor Company, all while completing his studies.

“I think sports taught me leadership and problem solving, given the problems I had, growing up,” Huhtala stated. “You learn to deal with things and overcome challenges.”

Throw in a very natural penchant for computer programs and a somewhat devil-may-care attitude that straddled the line nicely between self-assuredness and overconfidence, and one had the makings of a soon-to-be star at Ford.

Even as he launched himself head-first into an MBA project which required a financial commitment that should have been cause for concern, Huhtala was undeterred. “Unfortunately, I really didn’t appreciate risk to the fullest extent,” he acknowledged. “I have an incredibly high threshold for risk without it causing me stress.”

“This can be both good and bad,” Huhtala added. “You need a lot of things to go right, but you also have to put yourself out there to make it go right.”

Very quickly, his new employer, and more specifically Ford CFO Don Leclair, latched on to the lad from northern Ontario who may have quite fit the mold of a standard MBA graduate. His ability to circulate comfortably in both a boardroom setting, as well as conversing with the men on the assembly line allowed Huhtala to develop a fairly unique perspective.

“I was getting a chance to see data from every level,” he recalled. “It was just incredible. What I learned in such a short period of time, given the opportunity and freedom, well, I couldn’t say enough about how great it was. I had no idea whether I was going to work at Ford, long term.”

“At the time, I really didn’t care - I was loving the challenge.”

For the next 11 years, Huhtala was a problem solver. His move to assist with Nemak, an automotive company in which Ford had partnered, offered the now 52 year-old the chance to better examine, and visit with regularity, the industry processes that had now been established in Mexico.

That experience opened the door to the creation of DGI One World, the company that Huhtala began in the aftermath of his time at Ford. “I understood the culture, I understood the labour practices, I understood the wage disparity,” he said. “There was so much growth potential down there, but not the skill set to go with it.”

“I created a model of how to partner with very skilled companies up here and bring them down there.”

Pre-COVID, Huhtala was still flying down to northern Mexico, site of the DGI headquarters and a full day’s drive from Mexico City. During the three other weeks of the months, he would squeeze in perhaps three hours a day of meetings and calls, all while spending plenty of time with his family, including a five year-old daughter (three girls in all).

If conditions cooperate, he plans to cycle his way from Windsor to Sudbury, this summer, just as he did in order to attend his NFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2017.

If life has slowed him down at all, Terry Huhtala is not about to show it.

Not back in the day - and certainly not now. What is life, without a little risk.

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