A lot of my time during Grey Cup week in Ottawa was spent with interesting football characters.
There was a day embedded with commissioner Randy Ambrosie. I watched as Nik Lewis turned from fearless receiver to fearless reporter. And I was one of the probably one million people who got hugs and handshakes and a mini-motivational speech from Michael “Pinball” Clemons.
But the most interesting man by far I spent time with was John Ryerson, founder and director of events for the Atlantic Schooners, a team name most CFL fans have never heard of.
Watch: My feature on the Atlantic Schooners, including a conversation with John Ryerson.
Ryerson has revitalized the idea of the Atlantic Schooners. In its current form, the Schooners are a fan group from Atlantic Canada that has travelled to every Grey Cup since 1996. The Wedgeport, Yarmouth County native lived in Regina for 15 years and during that time saw what the Riders meant to that community economically and socially. Since the population of Regina is almost half as that of Halifax, he doesn’t see why a CFL team wouldn’t get enough support out East.
During Grey Cup week, the Schooners sport their own jerseys, host team parties throughout the week like every other team and they even have their own cheerleaders. They’re just waiting for something to cheer for.
The Atlantic region’s flirtation with pro football is far from new. In 1983 Atlantic Canada was awarded a conditional CFL franchise, contingent upon building a stadium. The stadium plans never developed so the conditional franchise was pulled in 1984 before the Schooners could play a single game.
The dream was all but dead until 2009 when the league decided to test the Atlantic waters once again with the Touchdown Atlantic series. First it was Halifax for a pre-season game which quickly sold out, followed by games held in Moncton in 2011 and 2013.
But well before that, the Schooners showed up on the Grey Cup scene. Ryerson, a businessman from Nova Scotia, decided that if they were ever going to get a team they needed to remain in the consciousness among CFL fans and put pressure on league executives by proving there is a ready-made fan base despite an ideal stadium.
The Schooners aren’t a rogue operation. They are respected enough that their “Down East Kitchen Party” is not just recognized as a sanctioned event in the Grey Cup festival, but it has quickly become one of Canada’s largest Celtic celebrations.
The parties are run and funded entirely by volunteers who want to be ambassadors of the goodwill the Maritimes are known for. Ryerson himself estimates that he alone has spent over $100,000 on the parties since 2005.
Each year they auction off 12 jerseys for charity. During 2017 Grey Cup week, commissioner Randy Ambrosie and the Schooners potential ownership group came to the party, where they presented Ambrosie with a jersey sporting his name and his No. 57 on the back.
“I told him I want it back if we don’t get a team,” Ryerson said.
Jokes aside, this is serious business for Ryerson.
“It’s ‘un-Canadian’ not to have a whole region involved,” Ryerson said.
In the past, he’s petitioned the league to change its name from the “Canadian Football League” to something more geographically accurate such as “Lower Canada Football League.”
The league politely declined.
Halifax Mayor Michael Savage and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, were also in Ottawa during Grey Cup week. The REDBLACKS re-broth in Ottawa is the model the Schooners franchise would like to follow. Although the proposed team would play in Halifax, it would be branded to represent all of Atlantic Canada, just as the Riders represent Saskatchewan and the Lions represent British Columbia.
The Schooners name originated from a contest that was held in all four Atlantic provinces. The four waves in the logo represent the four Atlantic provinces. The potential new ownership group wants to have a new naming contest, but already concede that Schooners is the overwhelming favourite.
The Atlantic Schooners name has been registered by Maritime Football Limited, the official name of the group working with the CFL and local politicians. Anthony Leblanc, a former president and CEO of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, is a partner in the group.
This is getting real and the CFL’s board of governors have acknowledged as much.
Of course there are still practical issues to resolve and plenty of red tape to cut through. The stadium is still a major issue. Getting public money to build a sports complex in Canada is by no means a slam dunk (see Ottawa and Calgary).
A business case for public money as a state of the art facility would bring concerts, trade shows and other business to the Atlantic region that would be a boon economically and once again close the loop and unite the Maritimes closer with the rest of the country.
There are football reasons this need to get done above and beyond sentiment for the friendliest region in the country. First and foremost, balancing the divisions at five a side would help travel and scheduling.
It would also help the dispersal of quarterbacks. As of writing this there are young, exciting quarterbacks like Jonathon Jennings, Brandon Bridge and Jeremiah Masoli without their own team to run.
One of the hot topics among Schooners fans during Grey Cup week was who they’d want to as quarterback in a potential expansion draft. Kevin Glenn was the front runner among the straw poll I conducted at the party, which makes sense as he’s nearly played for every team as it is.
A 10-team league has been the dream for as long as the league has existed. Now that it’s close, it makes too much sense to turn back now.
It is no longer just a dream. Ryerson has lost money, time and sleep and shipped thousands of pounds of lobster to nine CFL cities hoping one day Canada’s biggest party will come to him. Ryerson’s friends have told him he’s crazy. But at the Down East Kitchen Party, he’s thanked because he never lost hope.
And the team with the slogans, “keeping the dream alive” and “still un-defeated,” is inching closer to their first major victory.