Friday, December 08, 2006

December 9th a solemn date in CFL history

It was 50 years ago Saturday (December 9) that the CFL reacted with shock to the word that five players of the day had died in a plane crash on a remote BC mountainside.

The five were returning from the then Canadian Football Council’s East-West All star game which had been held in Vancouver. Trans-Canada Airlines flight 810 crashed on Dec. 9, 1956 into Mount Slesse near Chilliwack, taking the lives of Gordon Sturtridge, Mel Becket, Ray Syrnyk and Mario DeMarco all of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, along with Winnipeg Blue Bomber Calvin Jones. It would mark one of the darkest of days in Canadian sports history.

The wreckage would not be discovered until the spring of 1957, when the remains of the plane were found on May 10. The wreckage was in such a terrible state that it proved to be impossible to pinpoint a cause for the tragedy, other than to assume that the plane suffered some form of catastrophic engine failure.

Professional sports disasters seem to be few and far between, which considering the amount of travel that the athletes make in a year is a bit of a miracle, though modern travel is by far light years ahead of the days gone by. Today’s athletes should be thankful of the state of modern air travel, normally the worst they have to worry about is a flight delay an inconvenience but in the scheme of things something that would be easy to accept.

To put things into perspective, we need only look back fifty years and a day that shocked not only the football community but the nation as a whole.

Mixed messages on football’s return to Ottawa

It’s been a day of confusion on the would be franchise front in the National capital today, early reports this morning had the third of the once three bidders for a CFL franchise in Ottawa calling it quits. Apparently, the American investors were scared off by the asking price by the league for the right to set up shop in Ottawa.

But by mid-day those early reports were being dismissed as premature, with the front man for the American investors Bill Palmer claiming his group was still in the game and nothing really had changed all that much from recent developments.

A scenario which in short means that not much has really happened at all. The CFL of course is presently without a leader, the reign of Tom Wright having come to an end with the Grey Cup game and the league is apparently not in any great hurry to replace him. The expansion committee is said to still be intact and considering the application, though their work so far seems to have only resulted in chasing one candidate away and having another back off due to health concerns.

In the process they seemed to miss the opportunity to tie their league with one of Ottawa’s most knowledgeable sports owners Jeff Hunt, who is owner of the Ottawa 67’s junior hockey club and was the local face on a Toronto groups bid for the team, a group that only a few months ago were considered the shoo in favourites to claim the franchise and return the CFL to glory in Ottawa-Gatineau.

Less than a month after the Grey Cup, the league has gone from the euphoria of a city hopeful to be allowed back into the fraternity and one apparently in great demand, to one now stepping gingerly around the landmines hoping not to blow anything up. No doubt the league governors are hopeful that it’s still only a matter of time, until they can announce that they have secured a deal to return the game to what was once a steadfast home.

The CFL never really seemed to understand the Ottawa market, from the Horn Chen era, through the Gliebermen days and on to the most recent distressing end, ownership never seemed to understand the market they were entering into. To make it work, the CFL needs to make sure they get it right, finding a way to make sure that Hunt is involved in any new attempt to bring football back is imperative.

Fumbling the ball would be a rather discouraging turn of events, so whoever is guiding the ship while they look for a new captain needs to find a way to keep the Ottawa option alive. For the league to increase it’s value and ensure growth, returning to Ottawa is a major step not to be missed, so far they seem to be stumbling around the opportunity, it would be a shame if they let the chance to return slip through their fingers.

Disrespecting the Argos

They’re one of the oldest sports franchises in the country, have represented their city with pride for years and have brought a galaxy of football stars to Canada over the years, yet when it comes to respect from the Big City in the Centre of the Universe, they don’t seem to rate.

In the Globe and Mail Stephen Brunt, provides an interesting look at the brand new BMO field, a soccer field of dreams that literally has no room at the inn for the double blue. Brunt explains how the new field designed for use by the newly purchased Toronto FC (owned and operated by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) will find little use outside of the MLS season and the few international events that wander Toronto’s way.

Due to space constraints and money issues, the stadium will simply be too small for Canadian Football, both in field length and seating capacity. Rather than spend the money now and build an outdoor venue to suit both sports, the purists will build their monument to soccer and let that other game called football fend for itself.

Recent history has shown that the Argonauts attempts to build their own stadium hit financial or zoning roadblocks or a cold shoulder from the soccer boyos over the year, leaving them to abandon their plan and remain at the Rogers Centre. While soccer which has had a love/hate relationship with Toronto through the decades, apparently finds that they are in the love cycle as the new expansion team gets its own playpen.

It’s interesting to note that while the Argos routinely can attract over 30,000 to the cavernous spaces of Rogers neighbourhood, over the years soccer hasn’t exactly been the turnstile twirling money machine that people suspect.

When you consider the fact that the CFL probably employs more Canadians both on field and off than any soccer franchise might ever hope to, not to mention the pro-active community face of the Argos in their off field activities, the treatment of the Argos is even more discouraging.

While there is no doubt that there is a need for proper soccer fields across the nation; the growth of the sport dictates that eventually a professional league would find some support, it’s a shame that the same kind of consideration isn’t being given to one of Canada’s longest serving sport franchises and one of the nations’ great sporting traditions.

Brunt: No room for Argos at new soccer stadium
Globe and Mail
December 8, 2006

Rising now on the grounds of Exhibition Place on the Toronto waterfront is BMO Field, a sight that inspires different feelings in different people.

For the soccer crowd, it's the long-awaited home for their favourite sport, for the men's and women's national sides, for a new professional team, Toronto FC, and for next summer's FIFA under-20 World Cup.

For the skeptics, it's a boondoggle, yet another instance of public money being squandered in the interests of a wealthy private concern, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Major Soccer League franchise, and which will operate the stadium.

Whatever the viewpoint, whatever the math, that last concern diminishes the more the venue can be used for purposes other than those that directly benefit the folks who have already made their $18-million investment back (and then some) by peddling naming rights for $27-million over 10 years.

To that end, here's a fact that some might find surprising. They won't be able to play Canadian football in the new park.

The stands at the south end, built on permanent foundations, sit right in the middle of where the end zone would be. Length-wise, the field simply won't fit.

So knock off a few of those possible alternate uses for the place — Vanier Cups and high-school football championships, for example, which certainly cuts into the public-good argument. And of course, BMO Field cannot now serve as the home of the Toronto Argonauts.

That last option isn't one that the current owners of the Canadian Football League team are willing to acknowledge. They have a lease at the Rogers Centre and will tell anyone willing to listen that they're more than happy in the cavernous dome.

Privately, though, it wouldn't be shocking if their noses were a bit out of joint at what's happened here, considering the tortured history of the Argos' own doomed stadium projects at the Varsity and York University sites, considering that they feel as though they didn't receive nearly the same political support when they were trying to go it alone, and considering that some day, moving into more intimate quarters might make enormous sense for the franchise.

A complicating factor is that one of the principals in MLSE, Larry Tanenbaum, is also one of the prime movers behind bringing a National Football League franchise to Toronto. He and Argos' co-owner Howard Sokolowski may have a long-standing, mostly friendly relationship, but the optics certainly aren't good.

Perhaps the existence of the Argos, and by extension, of the CFL, isn't as much of an impediment to Tanenbaum's NFL dreams as some believe. Still, for the Mayor of Toronto, David Miller, a significant booster of BMO Field, the fate of the Argos has been a bit of a motherhood issue. In that context, it is a bit unseemly for a project that has benefited from approximately $45-million in public funds to be designed so as to cut off one of the Argos' possible escape routes in the case of an NFL invasion.

According to MLSE executive vice-president Bob Hunter, no malice was intended. The decision to build as they did was a purely practical, financial one. "We knew that we couldn't build a CFL stadium at that price," he said, pointing out that the budgets for both the Varsity and York projects were in excess of $100-million, versus $62.9-million for BMO Field.

It was always going to be a soccer-first stadium. They had to get it built fast, in time for the MLS season opener next spring. They were limited in the design by its footprint (there is a new road close behind the south stand and no space to grow beyond the open north end). They weren't inclined to take on the extra cost of making the bleachers movable (as they would have been at Varsity), allowing for a Canadian football field's 110-yard playing surface and 20-yard end zones.

Certainly it would have been preferable to max out the possible uses for the park. "But you can only max out if you can do it under your existing budget," deputy mayor Joe Pantalone said Thursday.

And if some day, the Argos would like to move to BMO Field? They'd be more than welcome, Hunter and Pantalone agree. Just come up with the money to knock down and rebuild the end stands and expand the seating capacity by five or 10 thousand. The seating alone would cost, in today's dollars, approximately $15-million. Then there would be the expense of demolishing and redesigning/rebuilding the south stand, which Pantalone estimates at "a few handfuls of millions of dollars."

Of course, the Argo owners would undoubtedly be asked to pay for that themselves, without the benefit of a sweetheart deal for the naming rights.

They could be forgiven for feeling that they've been outflanked, as so many have over the years, by those clever hockey/basketball/soccer guys down the street.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Off Season developments December 2006

With the season over and the teams about to hibernate for a bit, the news will dwindle as the winter progresses. We'll keep things up to date with regular updates to the monthly file and occassional features on the bigger stories of the off season.

December 16 Argos sever ties with England
December 15 Ti Cats sign a new coach
December 15 Marshall never had a chance
December 14 Charlie in charge
December 14 CBC could lose CFL rights
December 14 Berry had an eventful year
December 14 Chapdelaine heads over the mountains
December 13 Ti-Cats re-sign Gauthier
December 13 Allen still has the desire
December 13 Milt's on his way
December 13 Milt makes up his mind
December 12 Buratto named Argo offensive co-ordiantor
December 12 Alouettes family gorws by one
December 12 Ticats hire Nick Setta
December 12 Esks steal Chapdelaine away from Lions
December 12 Lions need a new O man
December 11 Chapdelaine joins Esks
December 9 Latest Ottawa bid still on?
December 8 Confusing comments on would be Ottawa franchise
December 8 Trevis Smith trial set for January
December 8 Als bulk up on Canadian talent
December 8 Blue sign Armstrong to extension
December 8 Lions sign two more for 2007
December 8 Fans force Argos to back down on price hikes
December 7 One door closes on Ritchies head coaching hopes
December 7 Cortez on the Calgary cruise
December 6 In Montreal it's Marcel's ball to run with
December 6 Riders pick Austin to lead the way
December 6 Familiar faces remain in Calgary
December 5 Ti cats jack up ticket prices for next year
December 5 Als get more Popp
December 5 Smiles a big reward
December 4 Argos host annual locker room sale
December 2 Here's some free advice, Danny
December 1 Als dump Berry pal
December 1 Godfrey is a man with a plan
December 1 Riding High
November 30 Argos express interest in Barrett
November 30 Esks count on a healthy Bradley
November 29 Berry full of surprises
November 29 Orange helmets offered for sale
November 29 A legend once more
November 28 Bombers re-sign Brown and Kahn
November 28 Where's the study: Katz
November 28 Marshall to talk to Tabbies
November 28 Glory 30 years ago