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‘Doctor Death’ gives life to gold mines

“If you’re going to survive as a defensive lineman. The people who are opposite you, have to be afraid of you,” Fennell remembers.

“I was capable of playing very violently.”

He played 10 seasons for the Edmonton Eskimos (renamed Elks in ‘21), appearing in 8 Grey Cups (Canada’s Super Bowl). The Eskimos won 6, including 5 in a row 1978-1982.

Fennell, who turned 71 on Feb 4, is chain-smoking Marlboros on a Zoom call with me on Feb 5. He’s reflecting on a career that spans beyond the gridiron to golden ventures. His resume includes co-founding Golden Star (US $467M sale in ‘22) and Miramar ($1.5B sale in ‘08). Fennell was a tenured director of Sabina ($1.1B sale in ‘23) and Torex ($1.2B market cap). His Reunion Gold ($485M market cap) has rapidly discovered a major gold deposit after setbacks.

Weary of the spotlight from his football career, Fennell has kept quiet about his journey – until now.

Fennell’s sons picked up his drive too. David Jr. played Michigan State football then turned engineer. John raced luge at the Sochi Winter Olympics, now he’s a corporate analyst.

Raised in a middle-class Edmonton, Alberta family, Fennell was the second of four children. “I was taught very early on, you’re not allowed to quit when you start something. It was not acceptable.”

He completed a 4-year undergrad degree at U of North Dakota in 3 years. Fennell could have gone to the NFL, but chose to stay in Edmonton, joining the Eskimos on the condition he’d also go to law school.

It’s hard to imagine a pro athlete smoking, studying law, and winning six championships today. But Dave Fennell did it all. He planned to play pro for 10 seasons, and wondered, “What do you do when the cheering stops?”

Joining a law firm next, the bosses leveraged his “Dr. Death” fame for networking. Fennell recalls, “They loved taking me to the Petroleum Club on Mondays.”

His law practice worked with many small miners. After three years and a Guyana field trip, Fennell decided to get into gold mining himself.

At 32, Fennell founded Golden Star Resources (GSR). He partnered with Roger Morton, a U of Alberta geology professor, to explore Guyana. GSR spent $20K staking the forgotten Omai gold deposit. “It was open ground.”

Anaconda Copper explored Omai extensively in the late 1940s but stopped when the Korean War began.

Secrets of the Anaconda Library

A private detective helped Fennell find Anaconda’s geological data. They learned of a cavernous library in Montana, holding 100 years of records. A librarian just laid off, liked Fennell and sold him the Guyana files for $30K.

GSR hired SNC Lavalin, with their top supercomputer, to process this historical information. It showed a big potential mine.

Placer Dome partnered on Omai in ‘87, before walking away. Fennell didn’t give up. He invited Louis Gignac’s Cambior to visit Omai during a 3 day rainstorm. Cambior ended up funding construction for a 70% stake. It produced 3.7 million gold ounces from 92-05.

Renowned mining investor Rick Rule says Fennell is easy to underestimate. “The physicality obscures a great intellect and a guy that’s actually very kind. He’s the classic entrepreneur. When he sees an opportunity, he can’t not grasp it.”

Next, GSR pursued Cambior to partner in Suriname. “If I had a mine each time someone told me a story about a property, I’d be a very rich man,” Gignac says. GSR’s Rosebel discovery was in region reeling after Suriname’s civil war. “David, why don’t you settle down, get married, do something easier than this,” Gignac advised him.

Fennell persisted, inviting Gignac to tour Rosebel. It poured rain again on that trip, which Gignac saw as a good omen after Omai’s success. Cambior eventually built the mine. Rosebel became one of South America’s largest, yielding over 6 million ounces. Today, it’s operated by Zijin. GSR stock jumped 600% in the early ’90s thanks to these wins.

Gignac and Fennell discuss Omai and Rosebel in this Canadian Mining Hall of Fame video (begins at 2:24):

Investor Mike Halvorson says GSR’s work in the Guianas and Suriname put the area on the map for mining.

“Back in those days, from a political point of view, it was considered high-risk to go into the Guianas,” Gignac remembers. “It took a lot of guts for [Fennell] to get involved, and a lot of guts to follow him there. We eventually mined about twice the [initial] reserves at Omai. By doing Omai, it was that much easier to do Rosebel. We were comfortable with the region and its people. There’s a lot of advantages in these countries. It’s simpler. Decision makers are easier to know and be in contact with.”

Halvorson remembers…

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