Though it pales in comparison to the staggering loss of life and financial devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic globally, the CFL’s dream of Atlantic expansion was one of many things put on life support by the virus.
With the 2022 Touchdown Atlantic game going ahead, there is no question that the league is trying to defibrillate its long-awaited tenth franchise, the Atlantic Schooners. And few are more qualified to apply the paddles than Toronto Argonauts’ general manager Pinball Clemons.
If there was any doubt after the platitudes of the commissioner and local politicians that this iteration of the CFL’s neutral site contest was intended to sell Nova Scotia on the benefits of expansion, the grinning and gregarious Hall of Famer obliterated it in typical fashion.
“Being here is an absolute pleasure, but at some point you’re going to ask the Canadian Football League to stay here and that would be a treasure,” Pinball exclaimed at the podium.
The July 16 game between Clemons’ Argos and the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be the first CFL regular season game ever played in Nova Scotia. Originally scheduled to take place in 2020 before COVID intervened, the replacement game will now be in tiny Wolfville, the home of Acadia University. An hour away from Halifax, the stadium’s capacity will be expanded to 10,000 seats — an increase of 7,000 — so that the smallest town to ever host a CFL game can accommodate the event.
While Wolfville provides a somewhat unlikely staging ground, the inclusion of members of the Halifax Regional Council shows exactly where the CFL’s focus lies. The Atlantic Schooners were coming tantalizingly close to reality before we all knew what face masks and Zoom were, with a stable ownership group and $20 million in local government support for a Halifax stadium. That support was pulled due to the pandemic and the league must now prove its worth in a time when funds are demanded in so many other sectors.
Opening his address by quoting the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden on the value of teachers, Pinball made clear that this event — and whatever might come after it — was about benefitting the youth of the Maritimes.
“We as the Toronto Argonauts, as we come out for Touchdown Atlantic, are going to make sure that we get here early,” he said after calling out a young football player in the crowd by name.
“We want to have opportunities for our young people to meet your young people and really do our best to delve into the culture. This is vitally important to us and our aim here.”
Riders’ kicker Brett Lauther would appear to personify that idea. Speaking as his team’s representative, the Truro, Nova Scotia native spoke to the importance of the game as a step towards CFL expansion and how a permanent stadium would benefit the entire region.
“For all Atlantic Canadians, a stadium out here, whether you’re a football fan or not, goes a long way,” he said, raising the possibility of an NHL Heritage Classic between Cole Harbour natives Sidney Crosby and Nathan McKinnon, before bringing it back down to the grass roots.
“Growing up, being a hockey kid, each time I got to play at the now Scotiabank Centre –back then the Metro Centre — I felt like in PeeWee hockey when we were playing there, I was going to be playing in the NHL. It’s a pretty cool thing that could potentially be happening out here and it’s definitely another step in the right direction.”
Alongside the league’s heavy investment in youth football development, with camps planned throughout the week leading up, the 2022 version of Touchdown Atlantic will feature a nightly concert series and East Coast block party. One speaker called the planned festivities a “mini-Grey Cup week” in a clear attempt to show the economic benefits that can come by welcoming a CFL team.
“We really want to do our best to celebrate all that Atlantic Canada is and so we are going to shout it far and wide,” Clemons said.
“We are going to ask you not only to come to the game, but to do more than one thing when you get here, because there is so much that is organized. There’s so much that’s planned during the week, other activities, and we don’t want you to just come here for football. We want you to come and take part in every other thing.”
For local residents, he compared the attraction to watching the Blue Jays in spring training while growing up in Florida, but the CFL doesn’t want to settle for being an annual sideshow.
The past success of Touchdown Atlantic in Moncton laid the foundation for the promised revival of the Schooners, but, despite occasional optimism from Schooner Sports and Entertainment, that dream feels like it is slipping away again for reasons outside the league’s control.
After July 16 in Wolfville, the league can check the vital signs again and see if this patient is worth saving.