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Mark Cohon is looking to address the fact that the CFL is the only team sport pro league in North America not testing for drugs. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Drug testing is finally coming to the CFL.

Commissioner Mark Cohon said Friday during his state-of-the-league address he expects a ground-breaking drug-testing policy to be in place as part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the CFL Players' Association to replace the current deal that expires in May 2010.

"I think we're at a place now where the league is stable and we can look at new initiatives," Cohon said. "One of those things, clearly, is a drug-testing policy."

However, Cohon's discussion about drug-testing was cut short when a television cameraman suddenly collapsed. Fortunately, Giulio Caravatta the former B.C. Lions quarterback and now a team broadcaster, is also a fireman and attended to the cameraman, who was conscious and speaking, until paramedics arrived. He was taken by ambulance to hospital as a precaution. He remained under observation later Thursday but was expected to make a full recovery.

After the delay, Cohon answered a few more questions in a nearby room.

The CFL is the only major North American pro sports organization to not have a drug-testing policy. The league has always maintained it simply couldn't afford the cost of testing its players. And for many previous commissioners, dealing with franchise and league instability were much more pressing matters.

"Now that we have committed owners, now that we have a good financial base . . . we can look at some of these initiatives to improve the integrity of the league," Cohon said. "I believe the drug policy is one of those initiatives."

Michael Copeland, the CFL's chief operating officer, has a first draft of a drug-testing policy that he's been working on with the CFL Players' Association and union president Stu Laird.

"If you talk to Stu, the PA is very open to a drug policy," Cohon said.

One subject Cohon wouldn't discuss was the NFL coming to Canada -- the Buffalo Bills faced Pittsburgh in an exhibition game at Rogers Centre in August and will host Miami in a regular-season contest Dec. 7 in Toronto. Cohon spoke about that last year, admitting the NFL coming to Toronto was a very real threat to the CFL and something he would tackle head on.

However, the relative weakness of the CFL's two southern Ontario clubs has many believing the time is indeed ripe for the NFL to make further inroads in both Toronto and Hamilton. The Argos and Ticats both missed the CFL playoffs this season with a combined record of 7-29.

"I'm not going to get into any speculation about the NFL, the time is for us to talk about the Grey Cup," Cohon said. "One season does not make a league.

"I'm confident we have a very strong fanbase in southern Ontario and with more competitive teams there we will do much better."

Drug-testing and the NFL were two of many subjects Cohon touched upon during a wide-ranging discussion. Others included:

  • Ottawa. Currently, civic officials are working with the Ottawa CFL expansion group on a plan that would see a revamped Frank Clair Stadium as part of a revitalized Lansdowne Park. Cohon hopes to know more about that by mid-January. Also in the mix is Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk's bid for a 2011 MLS club and plans for a $100-million, 30,000-seat stadium in Kanata, Ont. Ottawa is scheduled to host the 2014 Grey Cup, assuming it has a CFL team.
  • Officiating. The CFL will look into creating a command centre at its Toronto headquarters where officials can watch all league games and examine challenges immediately, much like the NHL does now.
  • Protecting the quarterback. At season's end the CFL will meet with club GMs and coaches and discuss how this can be further improved.
  • Global economy. Cohon says the CFL has been vigilant in keeping its costs under control and its teams are well positioned to weather the current economic storm because they're deeply rooted within their communities and offer affordable options. But Cohon added in the off-season the league will show it can be aggressive with its fans, "because those companies that can be aggressive during down times come out much better."
  • Quebec, Maritime expansion. Cohon re-iterated again the biggest hurdle regarding this is the lack of a stadium with a minimum seating capacity of 20,000. However, Cohon said the CFL will look into staging 2010 regular-season games in Moncton at a new track-and-field facility currently being built there. Cohon said stadium seating could  be expanded up to 20,000. "With a stadium of that size, we think there's a real potential for us to do that," he added.
  • Schedule start. The league will work at starting the '09 regular season on Canada Day.
  • Sponsorship. The league will look to secure a sponsor for its entire playoffs, including the Grey Cup, next year. However, that corporation won't gain entitlement to the Grey Cup, something Cohon said is vitally important. "More and more I see the special place this Cup and this event has in the tradition of this country and I don't think we want infringe on that in any way."
  • Vanier Cup. Cohon said he'd be open to talking to the CIS about co-ordinating efforts much like was done in Toronto last year with the two title games being played in the same city. However, Cohon admitted such logistics as switching sponsors' field advertising templates for separate games on consecutive days creates challenges.
  • Salary cap. The CFL continues to audit its member teams. Cohon said the league will decide shortly what the cap will be in '09 but doubts it will increase from its present level of $4.2 million.

As for '08, Cohon said scoring increased 14.5 per cent over last year and that 17.9 per cent more offensive TDs were scored per game. Meanwhile, 23 per cent less penalties and 25 per cent fewer technical fouls (holding, pass interference) were called.

Cohon said a more free-flowing, crisper game did translate into a seventh straight year of the CFL drawing over two million fans. However, its average attendance figure of 28,914 remained relatively unchanged from last season.

Cohon added the league's TV ratings increased 14 per cent on TSN, which this year became the CFL's sole television partner. He also said viewership within the crucial 18-to-34 demographic was up 31 per cent.

However, the decision to switch CFL playoff games from Sunday to Saturday -- which Cohon said drew fewer viewers than anticipated -- will be re-examined.