‘We need to make sure our best players are always on the field’: CFL bargaining committee member Wade Miller denies league’s push for ratio change was anti-Canadian

Screengrab courtesy: Winnipeg Blue Bombers

The Canadian Football League has a new collective bargaining agreement in place after the Players’ Association voted to ratify a new deal on Thursday night and the man on the other side of the negotiating table couldn’t be more relieved that the whole thing has ended.

“I can’t be more happy that it’s for seven years and for six and a half years, you’re never going to talk about it again,” Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ president Wade Miller told play-by-play team Derek Taylor and Doug Brown ahead of his team’s first preseason game Friday.

Labour negotiations were anything but smooth ahead of the 2022 season. Players engaged in the league’s first strike since 1974 after the CFL played hardball ahead of training camps, then rejected the first tentative agreement struck by the CFLPA executive last Monday, prompting the league to threaten a lockout.

The chaos and anxiety caused many fans and media to be critical of the league’s bargaining committee, namely Miller and Hamilton Tiger-Cats president and CEO Scott Mitchell, though the Bombers’ boss points out another name was heavily involved as well.

“[Calgary Stampeders’ president and general manager] John Hufnagel flies under the radar,” Miller said. “He was involved too but for some reason, he went under the radar.”

That group was accused by many of anti-Canadian sentiments after the CFL tabled an initial offer that proposed the complete elimination of the starting Canadian ratio and pushed for a reduction late in the process.

A former Canadian player himself, Miller denies those allegations and says the league’s intentions were misrepresented.

“We’re going to do the bargaining with the players and not talk about it in the media and that’s what we tried to do. I wouldn’t suggest that that was exactly the way it was positioned,” Miller explained.

“The number of Canadians on the roster was staying the same. It’s how they were on the field that may be different. We need to make sure our best players are always on the field. Those are Canadians [sometimes]. Obviously playing as long as I did, I want to make sure that Canadians are a part of this game for a long time, but it’s about that balance.”

Players successfully barred any reduction to the seven Canadian starters, but there will be changes going forward. Beginning in 2023, teams will start eight National players, one of whom can be a veteran American with three years of experience with their team or five in the league. Additionally, two more veteran Americans can substitute in place of a Canadian starter for up to 49 percent of plays in the game, with the option for that number to increase to three players in 2024.

The move has been met with outrage from some corners of the CFL fandom, but Miller describes the ratio compromise as a “player-led initiative.” The league was willing to accept the complex formula in lieu of their last proposal, which reportedly would have seen the starting number of Canadians reduced to six, but Miller doesn’t believe any of the options on the table amounted to a whittling away of homegrown talent.

“I don’t think it is and I think it’s also important to recognize those American players that have played in our league for a long period of time and to make sure that what they give to the communities they’re a part of, that they get recognized for that too,” he said, specifically referencing veteran Bombers’ players Adam Bighill and Willie Jefferson as players who deserve naturalized status.

The structure of the current deal ultimately does very little to help players of their calibre, with an abundance of veterans available to fill the one nationalized starter spot, but it does provide the league with a popular talking point for fans.

They’ll need a lot of that good press to make up for the frayed nerves of labour strife, but Miller says it was better to get it all out of the way now. A long-term deal is difficult to iron out in a short-term sport, but he believes the CFL is now on a much more stable footing.

“When you’re going to sign something for seven years, you better make sure it’s right. It’s not like it’s three years and you can do it over again, like the last few,” he said.

“It was a challenge and we got it done. I wish we would’ve had it done before training camp started and then you don’t see some of those things that occurred at the end, but we’re through all that and we’re playing football.”