CFL mirrors what's great about Canada

Argos coach Jim Barker loves Canada and the CFL and can't understand why some fans are more...

Argos coach Jim Barker loves Canada and the CFL and can't understand why some fans are more infatuated with the NFL. (QMI Agency)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:16 PM ET

TORONTO - Jim Barker looks into the stands at the Rogers Centre some game days and admits that he gets that empty feeling.

He doesn’t understand why more people aren’t looking back at him.

The Toronto Argonauts’ head coach and general manager hears people say they’d rather watch the National Football League, and he doesn’t understand.

Barker has heard all the reasons why the club sits in a market of 5.5 million people, yet draws few more than 20,000 a game: the team isn’t winning, there’s no roster stability, the players aren’t as good as in the NFL, there’s too much competition for the local sports dollar.

“Those are all just excuses,” says Barker. “Absolutely, we should have more than 20,000 fans at our games. I’m trying to understand why Southern Ontarians don’t like the CFL.”

If it’s roster stability fans want, they’ve got it with the return of stars like Cory Boyd and Chad Owens.

The infatuation with the NFL? “I don’t get it,” says Barker. “Is it just the betting? Maybe the NFL makes better office pools. I don’t know.”

As for that talent gap, it’s smaller, said Barker, than most people believe. “I just talked to an NFL guy ... Claude Wroten could go to the NFL today and be among the top five at his position. The athletes here are different,” said Barker. Inferior? Not always.

Trouble is anywhere east of Rainy River that’s a tough sell. The perception remains that CFL players aren’t as proficient. It is a hurdle Barker must overcome to sell the Argonauts as worthy of ranking with the Leafs, Raptors and Jays.

“What we have is special. We’re the only true Canadian professional sports league, yet people in southern Ontario refuse to grasp on to it for reasons I’m trying to understand,” said Barker. He points to the practice field at Mississauga’s University of Toronto campus.

“I don’t care what town you’re from, there’ll have been someone from that place who’s played in the CFL. We had a kid here at practice yesterday who played in the same junior program as (linebacker) Tristan Black. For him to be able to walk onto the practice field and say, ‘Wow, I’m playing in the same league he did and now he’s playing for the Argos!’ You can’t do that with the Raptors and Blue Jays.

“There’s no other pro sports organization where you can come to practice and afterwards talk to the players. There’s no league that’s as open as the CFL, no other team’s players are in the community as much as us.”

But all that fan-friendly, lovely-dovey attitude has gotten the Argos is ignored.

Barker has breathed life into the club on the field. Off the field? Pass the defibrillator.

As such the ultimate test of Barker’s legacy will be whether he can return the Argonauts to relevancy. ”I’d love to win Grey Cups but personally to have the Argonauts become part of the fabric of southern Ontario sports is just as important.

“I hear people say all the time ‘when I was a kid I remember my dad taking me to see the team at Exhibition Stadium.’ I want those people to take their kids to our games now; bring their kids to a practice to meet a player. Maybe I’m being idealistic. But what we have is special. It’s different.”

Too different for many Torontonians who insist on staying away.

“I think there was a time when being an Argo fan meant you had to stay in the closet. They would watch us on television but they didn’t want to say I love the Argos because it meant they weren’t chic enough. Maybe it still is like that.”

So, for Barker it’s all about putting the chic back. Just winning won’t be enough. Barker notes Toronto once had Doug Flutie and still the stands were half empty. Toronto didn’t recognize his true eminence until he went to the NFL.

“I just don’t understand (Southern Ontario sports fans),” said Barker, who has worked in major U.S. colleges and has numerous contemporaries in the NFL. He is American-born, landed Canadian by choice, and the idolization Torontonians have with the NFL and America mystifies him.

“All the things about that league are very similar to what that country is about and why I choose to be here. The people here, they work to live, they don’t live to work. In the U.S. it’s about how much can I accumulate. It’s almost a money grab.

“Up here people truly want to head to the cottage. It’s more family oriented. They want to spend time together. The restaurants are packed on the weekend. That’s what people do in Canada. (In the U.S.) you hoard. How much money can I get. How big a house can I get. That’s what the NFL is — it’s all about getting more, getting bigger ... money. To me the CFL is about everything that I love about Canada.”

Now if he could just find a way to spread that love. Eh?


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