Not since the Atlantic Schooners were granted a conditional franchise 35 years ago has the elusive dream of a Canadian Football League team in Atlantic Canada seemed so tantalizingly close.
The CFL awarded a team for the Halifax area in 1982, to begin play two years later if a suitable stadium was built. The ownership group was led J.I. Albrecht, former general manager of the Montreal Alouettes. The team hired a head coach, selected a name, attracted business partners and an expansion draft was approved. The club even purchased a scoreboard from the New England Patriots of the National Football League.
Those were heady days for football supporters in Atlantic Canada, until reality set in.
There was a problem — no stadium.
It didn’t help that the mayors of Halifax and Dartmouth squabbled over the location, or that the provincial or federal governments weren’t willing to contribute to the funding of the stadium. Nor was anyone else.
By 1983, unable to meet CFL deadlines, the Schooners were dead. Now, on the eve of the 105th Grey Cup in the nation’s capital, football hearts are beating a little more rapidly in Atlantic Canada.
A group which includes Anthony LeBlanc, a former president of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, met with CFL governors several weeks ago to resurrect an Atlantic franchise. Randy Ambrosie, barely five months into his job as CFL commissioner, thinks expansion is the answer to his prayers — five teams in both East and West divisions.
The CFL hopes to avoid the pratfalls of 35 years ago when it was a case of wanting it so badly that it was willing to do anything to get it. Ambrosie says there is reason for optimism because the Atlantic group is experienced in sport, with deep pockets and has strong local representation in the region.
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage was quick to dump a bucket of icy water on municipal support for a stadium, but calls a CFL team an “exciting opportunity.” In other words, it’s a great idea as long as someone else pays for the stadium, estimated today at $60 million, a far cry from the $6 million in 1982.
Does Savage’s reaction mean Moncton might be in the mix? Moncton hosted CFL regular-season games in 2010, 2011 and 2013, each attracting 20,000 fans from the region. Moncton is more central geographically, but its population base is too small, while the Halifax region, which has grown to more than 400,000 people, is now certainly large enough to support such a stadium.
CFL teams in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto can operate in stadiums with capacities of fewer than 25,000. It can happen here.
Solving the outdoor stadium riddle for Halifax holds the key for an Atlantic CFL franchise.
The phrase “build it and they will come” has never been more appropriate.