January 11, 2019

O’Leary: Mexican combine opens doors for both CFL, LFA

CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, left, shakes hands with Alejandro Jaimes, Commissioner of the LFA as Oscar Perez, Chief Executive Officer of the LFA looks on following the State of the League news conference at Grey Cup week in Edmonton, Friday, November 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Over his 19 years in the CFL, John Hufnagel has spent thousands of hours poring over film at all levels of the game. Late in 2018, the president and general manager of the Calgary Stampeders was handed some football footage he’d never seen before.

The league called on Hufnagel’s expertise this past fall and asked him to have a look at some film from the Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional (LFA). The CFL was getting a feel for the league that it would go on to announce a partnership with at the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. With Hufnagel’s view having garnered supreme respect and coming to carry a lot of weight over the years, he was asked to gauge the talent that he saw.

“I saw some teams that were better than others, just like any other league,” Hufnagel said of that film this week in Mont Tremblant, Que., at the CFL’s presidents and GM meetings.

“I saw some fields, some stadiums that were better than others, just like any other league and I saw some players better than others. It’s football,” he continued.

“I really enjoyed some of the things that they were doing strategically. I think it’s a league that has an opportunity to grow and become better and hopefully we can help that occur.”

Chris Jones says Canadians could benefit from the chance to develop in the LFA down the road (Graham Hughes/CFL.ca)

This weekend in landlocked Mexico City, the CFL will dive into uncharted waters as it takes its partnership with the LFA to the next level. A mix of GMs, coaches and scouts from all nine teams in the CFL will be on hand at Estadio Azul to evaluate LFA talent at a combine on Sunday. From there, those talent evaluators will gather on Monday to hold a draft, where LFA players and Mexican university seniors will be eligible.

“There were some good athletes. I think there are some players (in the LFA) that can come up and compete,” Hufnagel said.

“It’s going to be very interesting. I need to see the 50 guys and really be able to talk with some sort of knowledge about what (the LFA is) all about. Football is a highly regarded sport down there. There are a lot of participants and there are a lot of athletes in Mexico, so I’m sure there’s some football players that can come up and compete for roster spots.”

How those roster spots will be assigned will be determined by the league and the CFL Players Association as they negotiate a new CBA this winter.

While this weekend is about affording opportunities to Mexican players, Commissioner Randy Ambrosie sees a flip side to the partnership that will serve Canadian football players well. After years of watching Canadian players fall short in training camps or through tryouts, Ambrosie is hoping that the LFA partnership can give those nationals that might be on the cusp of a CFL career a chance to continue playing, gain experience and come back to Canada better for it.

He points to conversations he had with UBC coach Blake Nill and University of Montreal coach Danny Maciocia about so many young Canadian players’ football dreams dying if they didn’t make it to the CFL.

“What’s been happening in these conversations with football federations from around the world is we are talking very seriously about this two-way flow of players,” Ambrosie said.

“Canadian kids having a chance to go out and play, whether it be after junior or after college and continue their love (for the game), but then the best players from these leagues around the world having an opportunity to come and play in our league. That’s really been at the core of this strategy as it’s been developing.”

Randy Ambrosie and LFA CEO Oscar Perez sign a letter of intent during Grey Cup week in Edmonton (The Canadian Press)

Fresh off of extending his contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders through 2020, Chris Jones said the idea of Canadian development is something he’s lobbied for for years.

“We have a few Canadians that are young, developmental-type guys on our practice roster,” Jones said.

“I wish we had five more spots. I’ve advocated trying to add five more spots just for Canadians to try to develop the Canadian talent. If they would allow those kids like an Emmanuel Adusei, a Mathieu Breton, we’d allow those guys to go down to Mexico and play where they can stay in a uniform and (get to) block and tackle. I would think regardless of who’s coaching them, that’d have some kind of residual effect on them.”

There will be at least one face that’s familiar to the talent evaluators this weekend. Kicker Jose Maltos is from Monterrey and played at the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo in northeastern Mexico, close to the US-Texas border. He attended the BC Lions’ training camp in 2018 and was one of the final cuts. He also spent time with the New Orleans Saints in 2013.

“He was very good with us and it was just unfortunate for him when it got to the game situations that he was a bit shaky,” Lions GM Ed Hervey said. Torey Hunter, the Lions director of player personnel and player development, put the 27-year-old on the Lions’ radar. He was primarily an extra body at camp to keep then-Lions kicker Ty Long fresh.

“He was very good and we’d invite him back, possibly,” Hervey said. “He’s definitely going to be one of the ones worth giving a shot to because he’s got a strong leg and he kicks with distance.

“I think if he gets a couple more cracks at it he’ll be able to make a name for himself.”

Through his university and CFL career, Ambrosie saw many Canadian players aim for the CFL and fall short. He’s thought about them as this partnership and his plans for CFL 2.0 have come together.

“I spoke at a University of Manitoba alumni event in the fall and what was top of mind for me was how many of those guys that I played with or knew well after I left the program and how many of them wanted a chance to play in the CFL and never quite got there,” Ambrosie said.

“How much they loved football, how much they really would have loved an opportunity to go and play another season or two. I’ve been thinking about those guys a lot and how exciting it would have been. And maybe life-changing. I’ve had those guys in my mind.

“We can’t define the success of a player’s career solely through the lens of if they make it to the CFL. We should be able to help them measure the success of their career by their opportunity to fulfill their passion for the game and play and create ways and places for them to play.”