Van Zeyl, Ticats joined by fans, other unions at solidarity gathering amidst CFL strike

Veteran Canadian offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl began his day at Tim Hortons Field but not in his usual spot at right tackle. Instead, it was outside the stadium alongside teammates, fans and members of other unions in a show of solidarity for striking CFL players and their wish the league return to the bargaining table.

Previous CBA expired Sunday, with negotiations for new agreement having broken off

Tiger-Cats offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl shakes hands with local labour union representatives during a Canadian Football League Players’ Association (CFLPA) demonstrating outside Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont., on Tuesday. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

Under normal circumstances, Chris Van Zeyl would've started his eighth wedding anniversary at training camp with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Tuesday.

The veteran Canadian offensive lineman did begin his day at Tim Hortons Field but not in his usual spot at right tackle. Instead, it was outside the stadium alongside teammates, fans and members of other unions in a show of solidarity for striking CFL players and their wish the league return to the bargaining table.

"My wife has always been incredibly understanding and I thank her for that," Van Zeyl said during a telephone interview. "It's not always easy to be married to someone who has to go away in the beginning of May and this year leaving her with two young children.

"I wish we were in camp and practising and I was in meetings, then go see her but the situation obviously isn't there. However, I am presented with an opportunity to go home earlier and spend time with the kids and then have a nice night with her."

Fans and members of other unions, including the United Steelworkers, joined Ticats players Tuesday morning. It came three days after talks between the CFL and CFL Players' Association on a new collective bargaining agreement broke off.

That put players with seven of the league's nine teams in a legal strike position at 12:01 a.m. ET on Sunday, hours before training camps were set to open.

Only players with the Edmonton Elks and Calgary Stampeders reported for the start of camp Sunday because they weren't in a legal strike position, according to Alberta labour laws. They're expected to be legally able to strike later this week.

"We had a number of other unions come out and show solidarity," Van Zeyl said. "We can't thank them enough for everything they've done, both on social media and in showing support, as well as our fans.

"It was a player rally, it was a public show of support for our members across the league and for other unions to show their support. It was a celebration of our union and the action we're taking and a show of solidarity between ourselves and the United Steelworkers and the other unions."

Relaying information, understanding what's at stake

The six-foot-six, 312-pound Van Zeyl is entering his 14th CFL season and third with Hamilton. A three-time league all-star, Van Zeyl was its top lineman in 2019 and last year received the Jake Gaudaur Veterans' award, presented annually to the Canadian player who embodies the attributes of Canada's veterans.

Throughout his CFL tenure, Van Zeyl has actively participated in community programs. In February, the 38-year-old native of Font Hill, Ont., spent the night in his car as part of the Sleepless in Our Cities initiative spearheaded by United Way Halton & Hamilton that supports those facing homelessness, poverty, and unemployment.

And as a Ticats leader, Van Zeyl has always ensured he's available to answer his teammates' questions and inquiries, but especially now.

"I've been trying to relay information the best I can and make sure guys are aware of what they're striking for and what's at stake," he said. "I think guys understand.

"I'll keep talking as long as people still want answers. Right now this is when guys need answers and respectfully I want to be the one who provides that for them."

Van Zeyl has been very impressed with the strong resolve the players have shown during these negotiations.

"Even the rookies and first-year guys understand what's at stake and how this is going to benefit them if we get this right," Van Zeyl said. "And that's what it's all about.

"Our group is together and unified and I believe it's willing to go the distance and make sure we get the fair deal we deserve."

Questions remaining as pre-season looms

It was another day without formal contract talks between the league and players with both CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie and CFLPA officials all being unavailable. But the relative silence has prompted questions whether the two sides have resumed speaking informally.

It's very common for individual members of bargaining units to stay in touch with each other between actual negotiations, if only to keep the lines of communication open.

Also, a mediator was involved in the previous negotiating process. So once there's been adequate time for league and union officials to cool off, there's someone familiar to both sides who can reach out and try to get them talking again instead of having to go through the process of having one appointed and needing time to get up to speed.

And the clock is definitely ticking as the first exhibition game is slated for May 23 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers visiting the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Under normal circumstances, both teams would've had eight practices apiece before taking to the field.

Even if the league and players were to reach a deal as early as Wednesday, it's looking likely the opening pre-season game will be, at best, postponed and, at worst, cancelled.

This marks the second time the CFL has had a strike. The first came in 1974 during training camp and was resolved before the start of the season.

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