September 25, 2010

Football fans in Atlantic Canada embrace CFL


MONCTON — If there’s a dress code in Moncton this week it’s football formal.

As the city prepares to host the first-ever CFL regular season game in Atlantic Canada on Sunday, fans from all over the region have draped themselves in the colours of the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos.

Even buildings in the city’s downtown are sporting league banners, welcoming locals and visitors alike as they wander about the various venues set up for the weeklong Touchdown Atlantic festival.

Plans for the game (TSN, 11:30 a.m. ET) began taking shape about two years ago. When 20,000 tickets went on sale last February they sold out in 30 hours.

A genuine excitement has been building ever since.

“We knew in our guts that this community would embrace us,” CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said before handling the coin toss at a local high school game. “But I will tell you over the past three or four days we didn’t know how open the Maritimes would be to the CFL.”

The region has hosted exhibition games in the past and the response to this game inevitably prompts talk of an Atlantic franchise.

Cohon admitted there’s a lot of appeal to the notion of a balanced league — and a 10th franchise — considering Ottawa’s eventual return to the fold will give the CFL nine teams.

But he remained cautious.

“You have to think about a viable stadium. Is there a big enough fan base? What about corporate sponsorship? Ownership?” he said.

“This was a first test. We know Sunday’s game is going to be a huge success. Now we want to turn it into a multi-year commitment.”

Good news for the Atlantic Schooners, a diehard group of CFL fans who have come to Moncton to remind everyone that Halifax held a league franchise in the mid-80’s.

Tickets were sold, navy and white uniforms designed, but the whole thing collapsed when plans for a new stadium fell apart.

“It is the only professional sports team in North America ever to be awarded a franchise and never to have played a game,” said group spokesman John Ryerson, a native Maritimer who now lives in Toronto.

Wearing a Schooner jersey with the word “Undefeated” in bold white letters on his back, a lobster hat on his head, Ryerson made his claim for legitimacy.

“The Toronto Argonauts are being billed as the home team. They’ve been here a week and we love them to death but we’ve been here for 25 years,” he said with a laugh.

“We’re the home team.”

Players and league officials arrived in the city earlier in the week and many have been visiting schools and hospitals. The Eskimos even travelled to Charlottetown to chow down on lobster and wave the league’s flag.

Argonauts coach Jim Barker is convinced Atlantic Canada is ready for a CFL team.

“It’s hard to imagine that they can’t because the passion is here, the facility is here. It’s just a great situation,” he said at a media briefing after his team’s last pre-game walkthrough.

The Stade de Moncton, built to host the IAAF World Jr. track championship this past summer, has fixed seating for 10,000. Organizers have rolled in 11,000 temporary seats and have bookended the natural grass field with artificial turf in the end zones.

For Dan Fougere, president of the Moncton Minor Football Association, the CFL’s presence in his city — if only for one game — is a dream come true.

“With two teams here the kids have a chance to see what football is really like,” he said of his organization’s 600 members.

“It’s star power for these kids. It promotes our game, because a lot of them I think are looking at the NFL, but now they’ll start thinking CFL.”