Moncton makes good first impression

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:21 PM ET

MONCTON — A footnote in the history of the Canadian Football League.

Or a footprint in the Maritimes, the initial step toward CFL expansion in the CFL in the coming years.

Touchdown Atlantic eventually will become one or the other, and if it’s the latter, the CFL has a few other things to get out of the way first.

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon on Friday afternoon announced the establishment of a $75,000 legacy fund in support of minor football in the Maritimes. It wasn’t long before questions started to fly about future growth of the CFL.

A viable stadium, a supportive fan base, dollars from the corporate community — all of these vital parts have to be in place. Cohon thinks there is a definite possibility.

“The way this community has embraced us, the way the young people have embraced our players, there is a bright future for us, and we hope it leads to bigger and better things,” Cohon said.

Cohon wants to get a couple of other projects off the board first before there is truly serious talk about expanding. That includes the finalization of plans for a new stadium in Hamilton, and the resurrection of a franchise in Ottawa.

And there are plans in the works to keep coming back to the area for more neutral-site games. Cohon wants it to become an annual event, and is hoping that in the next two months, a game for 2011 will be set.

In other words, the league wants to ensure that fans keep coming back every year before the league decides to go forward with expansion. It’s one thing to have a huge party, one that is reminiscent of Grey Cup week, and quite another to fill a 25,000-seat stadium in Year 1 when the locals are struggling. Importantly, and though numbers vary, it’s thought that approximately 1.5 million people live within a two-hour drive.

Football is big here. Local high school games have been part of the week’s package, and stands at Rocky Stone Field have been packed with a couple of thousand fans each night.

David Horsman, a 47-year-old industrial electrician, sat high in the bleachers in the rain on Friday afternoon, waiting to watch his son, Kyle, play for the Bernice MacNaughton High School Highlanders. Horsman is the chairperson of the Friends of the Highlanders, a group that is trying to bring an artificial field to the school.

“I have had two sons come up, and one sport they picked from all of the sports they could take advantage of was football,” Horsman said as he kept dry under an umbrella. “There’s such a love for it, and the schools seem to rally around it. I think the support would be great for the CFL.”

Argonauts head coach Jim Barker witnessed the joy for the sport when he attended a high school game on Thursday night.

“I have lived in Ontario and Alberta and Quebec, and I have never seen the amount of enthusiasm that I saw at this high school game,” Barker said. “They love football here, but can they sustain it for 10 home games (during a CFL season)? My initial (reaction) would be yes. It’s neat to think of a league that spans our entire country from coast to coast. I hope it can.”

At a glance, there apparently would be no shortage of prospective owners, but some figure a consortium best would form an ownership group.

Moncton has evolved as an economic hub. The Irving family has been said to employ one out of every 11 New Brunswick natives, whether it’s in oil and gas or another of their companies. Robert Irving has his hand in sports as the owner of the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

There’s the McCain family, one of Canada’s food magnates. There is local developer Bernard Cyr. There’s Bernard Imbeault, the CEO of Pizza Delight.

Is there enough player talent in Canada for a 10th team, if expansion comes after the addition of Ottawa?

“It becomes a bit of a challenge,” said TSN CFL analyst Duane Forde, whose knowledge of the university ranks in this country might be unparalleled. “The response is always coming back to finding 50 guys who should be in the league. There are ways you could do it without lowering the ratio, but it would take some creativity.”

There was a time when the city of Halifax seemed like a logical choice for expansion. But stadium issues have kept the Atlantic Schooners from becoming a reality, and Cohon acknowledged that Moncton now “has a leg up” on Halifax as a possible CFL city.

The interest is here. The potential for support, both from fans and the corporate world, is here. There is room for 25,000 permanent seats at the Stade Moncton 2010 Stadium.

“I don’t want to put a specific time line on it,” Cohon said. “This (week) was the first test. Now, we want to turn it into a multi-year commitment. In the next few years, myself, the board of governors, have to cultivate a relationship with the (corporate) leaders here. I think it boils down to a stadium. The culture of football is here.”

terry.koshan@sunmedia.ca

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