'Defining moment': CFL commissioner sparks expansion hope in Halifax

"It's the unfilled part of our national dream to have the Maritimes have a football team," Randy Ambrosie told CBC Sports. "In everyone's life and career there are defining moments. This would be a defining moment to see the launch of a franchise in the Maritimes. Wouldn't that be special?" he said.

Randy Ambrosie says it’s the unfilled part of national dream

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, centre, meets businessman Anthony Leblanc, middle right, and Maritime fans during the Atlantic Schooners Down East Kitchen Party during Grey Cup week last November. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

OTTAWA — If the commissioner of the Canadian Football League has it his way, there will be 10 teams in the league under his watch.

"It's the unfilled part of our national dream to have the Maritimes have a football team," Randy Ambrosie told CBC Sports. "In everyone's life and career there are defining moments. This would be a defining moment to see the launch of a franchise in the Maritimes. Wouldn't that be special?" he said.

Less than two weeks ago it was confirmed a business group had made a presentation to Halifax City Council about bringing a football team to the city. Ambrosie was at that meeting.

On Saturday night in Ottawa, Ambrosie joined members of that business group and made an appearance at the Atlantic Schooners Down East Kitchen Party, another sign they are serious about making this happen.

"I just wanted them to know that on behalf of the league and our governors, nothing would make us happier than getting this last piece of the puzzle of a truly national league to come together."

Anthony Leblanc was also at the Schooners party. He's the former president and CEO of the Arizona Coyotes. But after stepping away from hockey, he turned his attention to what he calls his true love — football.

"It just feels like the stars are aligning," LeBlanc said. "We have an amazing commissioner who wants this to happen. We're working closely with him to make sure our approach is bulletproof."

Stadium the sticking point

Both Ambrosie and LeBlanc are cautiously optimistic and quickly point to the key piece of the expansion being building a stadium.

LeBlanc shared exclusive details about the work the group has been doing behind the scenes for months now, specifically on the stadium issue.

He said the group has five potential stadium sites in Halifax and they're compiling economic impact studies to determine what the best place would be to build it. LeBlanc said he's hired an architect in Los Angeles to produce a stadium rendering that was presented to Halifax council.

"They went to the Atlantic Schooners wikipedia page and saw the old colour scheme and took it and made this rendering look like it. The councilors just loved it," he said.

When it comes to the finances, LeBlanc says the group has been spending serious money to be as thorough as possible because he knows, that at least for right now, this initiative has to be led by the private sector.

"We're spending real money on an economic impact analysis," he said. "We'll spend the next six to eight months doing what we need to do to make the league and the governors feel we're being thoughtful."

Best case scenario?

LeBlanc says if everything goes perfectly, they'll get a conditional expansion from the league within the next few months, then continue the dialogue at the municipal and provincial level.

Then he hopes to have shovels in the ground for a new stadium in a year with kickoff in Halifax happening in 2020.

"I'm still mystified that this hasn't happened yet. It feels like things are aligning. But we have to follow the process," LeBlanc said.

The group has also been doing surveys to see how a CFL team in Atlantic Canada would be received

"One of the first things we did was very advanced polling in the Maritimes. The region will support us," he said.

LeBlanc also said in all the research they've seen, the sponsorship levels are comparative to Winnipeg, Regina and Hamilton.

Schooners?

This isn't the first time there has been an attempt to set up a CFL team in Nova Scotia.

The league granted the region a franchise in 1982 on the condition that it build a stadium suitable for professional football. Things were looking good back then. By 1983, the Atlantic Schooners had a name, a logo, a colour scheme and a growing fanbase.

By 1984, however, they had to withdraw their team's application after they couldn't find enough funding for a stadium. 

Fans display an Atlantic Schooners banner at the Toronto-Edmonton game at Moncton Stadium in Moncton, N.B., on Sept. 26, 2010. The team was to join the CFL in the 1980s but never played a game because funding could not be secured for a stadium. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

And now on this go-around, it appears the Schooners name is still as popular as ever.

"The original thought process is we'll do what the Schooners did back in the early '80s and that was go to the people in the Atlantic provinces and find out what people want to call it," LeBlanc said. "If the early feedback is any indication it's going to be tough to see it being anything other than Schooners."

LeBlanc says they already have their legal team looking into trademarks.

'Heard what I wanted to hear'

If there's one CFL fan who wants a Halifax team more than anyone, it's John Ryerson. He's been the person organizing the Schooners parties over the years. He says he was born in Atlantic Canada but his wife and kids are from Saskatchewan.

"I lived in Regina. Maritime roots. But the kids and wife are from Saskatchewan and for 16 years I was cheering on the Riders. Then I moved back to Halifax and there was no football."

That's when Ryerson kicked into action. He said he learned about the defunct Schooners and wanted to do everything he could to try and revive the team.

"They had it so far. Team logos, colours, they even bought the used scoreboard from the New England Patriots. It's still, to this day, in a warehouse in Dartmouth," Ryerson said.

Ryerson spoke to the commissioner about how badly he wants a team in Halifax and says he feels closer now than at any other time. 

"I've been through five commissioners during this project and no commissioner I've ever met was more genuine than Randy Ambrosie. What you see is what you get. When he speaks, he speaks the truth. He said they were committed to working on this project and that's more than any other commissioner has ever said."

Ryerson says he'll be the first one to buy Halifax Schooners season tickets should this all become a reality.

About the Author

Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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