May 8, 2018

O’Leary: An exclusive look inside the Tiger-Cats draft room

Between the fourth and fifth picks of the CFL Draft, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders on the clock, Eric Tillman’s phone rang and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ war room fell deathly silent.

The team was just over 24 hours from a pair of trades that landed them the first and sixth overall pick in the draft, two of the nine they had on the night. Just moments earlier they’d used the No. 1 pick to take receiver Mark Chapman. Tillman’s phone was no more than two notes into its ring before everyone suspected that the next trade offer had made its way to them.

Tillman, the Tiger-Cats’ GM, looked at his phone. It was a 604 area code. BC.

He answered.


Somehow the room grew more silent.

Tillman listened for a good four or five seconds before responding.

“I’m in the middle of the Canadian Football League draft,” he said, ending the conversation. He then looked up and saw everyone’s eyes fixed on him.

“Doctors Without Borders,” he said.

The room burst out laughing.

[Full disclosure: It’s a charity he’s supported in the past, that had picked the worst possible time to call.]

By Thursday, it turned out, the Ticats were done making deals. Instead, they reaped the rewards of the work they’d put in on Wednesday and the 364 days that preceded it.

Watching the Ticats’ staff — their room consisted of their football ops crew, along with June Jones and Orlondo Steinauer — work their way through four hours of picks felt like watching someone roll through a test that they were fully prepared for. Maybe the comfort of having the first overall pick sets you at ease, but there was never a discernible panic or tension in the room on Thursday night. The Ticats had a plan A, B, C, and on and on.

A look inside the Hamilton Tiger-Cats draft room where Drew Allemang addresses the gathering of personnel ahead of last Thursday's selection (

While he’s high on the chain of command, listed as the team’s assistant general manager and director of Canadian scouting, it was said more than once on Thursday night that the draft was Drew Allemang’s show.

Two years into his present role, Allemang has been with the Ticats since 2008. He first got his foot in the door with the club as the assistant equipment manager and a volunteer in personnel. After the draft, where Allemang was the last one to leave the war room, Tillman calls him a rising star in the league.

Through a long night that fills with idle time in between your own picks, Allemang’s focus was steady. While everyone else in the room at points would react to other team’s picks, crack jokes or fall into random chatter (there was a consensus in the room that Davis Sanchez was a good addition to TSN’s panel, for example), Allemang sat at the head of the second table in the room, nursing a pint-sized glass of coffee and focused intensely on his laptop. He had no problem shushing his colleagues if the noise got in the way of him trying to do something.

“Drew puts a lot of pride and effort into his work and there’s no stone unturned when it comes to what he looks for,” Shawn Burke, the Ticats’ assistant GM and director of football ops said of his colleague.

“The amount of information he gives everyone else in the organization is invaluable for this time of year. He really puts 12 months a year into it and it really pays off for us and makes everyone else’s job so much easier.

“That’s why he has the authority that he does in the draft, because he’s earned that right to have that decision-making in his stature with the club. You know when you get information from Drew on each guy that he’s gone over and over and over it and he has the right answer on the guy, good or bad. He’ll give you the truth about it.”

There was consensus on the picks, especially the early ones. When Jones called University of Calgary o-lineman Darius Ciraco after they’d taken him sixth overall, he told him that their draft plan had worked out exactly the way they’d hoped.

“We had you graded higher (than sixth) and traded up to get you. We’re very excited to have you and can’t wait to get you in the black and gold,” the coach said.

As the first round neared its close, Tillman began to comment on how surprised he was that Jackson Bennett and Godfrey Onyeka were still available, calling the defensive backs two of the best defensive players in the draft.

They tried for one last deal, looking to get the Argos’ ninth overall pick, where they could have taken one of the two DBs. When the Argos wouldn’t go along with that, Tillman figured they’d lose out between the Argos and the Eskimos taking them both at nine and 10.

He was half-right. When the Argos took o-lineman Ryan Hunter, Tillman pumped his fist and the ops people cheered. With the 11th pick, they’d land one of the two DBs. They very happily snagged Bennett, from the University of Ottawa.

“Drew puts a lot of pride and effort into his work and there’s no stone unturned when it comes to what he looks for.”

– Ticats’ asst. GM Shawn Burke on Drew Allemang

While the room reacted to the Bennett pick, there was a bigger individual reaction when the Ticats were back on the clock for the 15th pick.

Spencer Boehm, the team’s coordinator of player services and football ops assistant, placed the call with the league to choose Brett Wade, a defensive lineman from the University of Calgary. The moment had already passed in the war room. Jones had called the player and welcomed him and the focus had shifted to the conclusion of the second round. When commissioner Randy Ambrosie announced the pick on TSN, there was an immediate celebration from down the hall.

Offensive line coach Dennis McKnight — who isn’t exactly a quiet man — let out a loud ‘Woo!’ from his office and made his way into the war room. The 11-year NFL offensive lineman was beaming. He called Wade the Canadian version of Nikita Whitlock and said that if he had to have played against someone like him he’d have been sent into early retirement. And with that, the gleeful o-line coach was gone.

Scouts always say that they’re tested in the later rounds of the draft. Everyone knows the big-name talent, but it’s those fourth to eighth-round picks where a good scout can unearth a player that’ll last a decade in the CFL. As each round ticked by — the Ticats didn’t have a selection in the third — Allemang became more of a sounding board for his team. He rattles off stats on whoever he’s asked about, knows a potential seventh-rounder’s U Sports eligibility for the coming season without having to look it up. And as the draft winds down, when the picks tend to lean toward local talent or sometimes a roll of the dice, Allemang has no problem hearing a name from Tillman or Burke and letting them know the player’s not a good fit for their team.

Hamilton head coach June Jones calls the newest members of the Ticats last Thursday as prospects got their calls to the pros (

After visiting schools across Canada and then venturing into the U.S. to see draft-eligible players in the NCAA, Allemang is confident in his knowledge of every name on the Ticats’ draft board and what he’s seen in them.

“I think it varies from player to player but you’re obviously looking for some athletic traits. You need a certain amount of athletic qualities to play at this level,” Allemang said of what he looks for in players.

“You’re looking at various sizes that suit different positions and things like that and you’re getting into position-specific skills that you look for. You’re definitely looking for compete levels and the energy that they play with and the passion that they have for the game.

“Then there’s a whole other end of getting into their character and their overall makeup and their football intelligence, things that you can’t see from watching (them play). You have to rely on interviews and meeting with various people that coach the player.”

The Ticats think they’ve found the perfect blend of those traits in Chapman. Burke told a story after they selected him, where the team physician had texted him after doing physicals with draft hopefuls that Chapman was the most respectful person he’d ever dealt with in that capacity.

“We were impressed with Mark Chapman. How he interviewed and how he approaches life and how he was raised,” Allemang said. “He came off as the type of person we want.”