The Three Canadian Pillars

Published on November 11, 2009 2:19 PM by dbo.

A big can of worms was opened last week when Dan Ralph of the Canadian Press reported the CFLPA was preparing players for a lockout in 2010. The lockout talk was precipitated by early CBA negotiations between the CFL and CFLPA where the league was making demands on two contentious issues, work hours and Canadian quotas, the players’ association could not accept. As the story played out, opinions on the matter of reducing Canadians were overwhelmingly against from across the country and from former players. Was this a huge misstep by the league and the owners in direct contradiction to the recent marketing of the Canadian aspect of the league or a way to gauge the reaction to such a plan? Only time can tell, but I will try to fill in the blanks around what is known and see if this makes any sense at all.


The first rumblings of the issue came in a post from The Globe and Mail‘s David Naylor which stated that CFL management feels there is a lack of enough capable Canadian talent right now to fill the 160 roster spots across the league. This post, along with another on the lack of kick returns in the league despite changes to increase them, led to a lot of comments that Naylor was anti-CFL, which Naylor later addressed.

Naylor then wrote about the lack of Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL, getting consensus from CFL coaches that Canadian university QB‘s will never get a shot to develop in the CFL without a roster spot dedicated for them. Naylor later defends his opinion that Canadians QB‘s cannot compete with QB‘s coming out of Division I colleges in the US.

This led to the story of a potential lockout, though some players are confident they will be playing next year and the commissioner stating they are attempting to negotiate an agreement fair to all parties.

The idea that these two issues — work hours and Canadian quotas — are hurting the league seem to come from the Toronto Argonauts, where coach Bart Andrus has stated that fitting in the needed practices and meetings into a 4.5 hour day is challenging. Other coaches agree, but there has not been any vocalization of this issue from coaches before. There may be a consensus among coaches that Canadian talent is down right now as well, but the need to adjust the ratio also seems to come from Toronto, whose woes can be placed partially on their lack of Canadian depth.

The Three Pillars of the CFL

The Canadian Football League is built on three pillars that makes it unique and identifiable to Canadians — Canadian rules played with Canadian players in Canada. Any attempt to adjust any of these to mirror its American counterpart will result in its destruction. While there are improvements the CFL can make, eliminating Canadians or changing the rules are not one of them. The CFL needs to ask for an increased commitment from the players’ association and in return should receive some concessions as a result of the growth the league has seen.

How did we get here?

In the early days, roster sizes were small and imports were limited to a quarter of the players, gradually increasing with time. Canada attracted many quality American football players as the salary gap favoured the CFL. In time, the NFL began to be able to exceed Canadian salaries as television revenue allowed them to scale economically faster than the CFL. This led to the CFL downsize in the 1980’s. However, Canadian players were always able to compete with Americans on the field, even when the split became 50-50, although at what were generally considered Canadian starter positions (offensive line, kicker, interior defensive lineman, linebacker, defensive back and inside receiver).

There was some tinkering with the rosters — adding the third quarterback and increasing the size slightly. When the CFL expanded to the US in the mid-1990’s, rosters continued to expand under American influence and Canadian teams began to compete against full American rosters. Originally a single position when introduced, the number of designated imports (which require them to replace a starting import only) was increased to three with roster expansion to protect Canadian starting positions.

However, the major result of these changes is the change in philosophy that there be dedicated positions for Canadian players. Now Americans play the offensive line and kicker positions, which 20-25 years ago were the sole domain of Canadian-born players. Canadians had evolved into non-skilled positions, and since every team played Canadians at these positions, there were plenty of Canadians to fill them, and all at the same skill level. Fullbacks or linebackers would be converted to the offensive line if needed, and if they wanted to play football they did, to fill the need for Canadian starters.

The whole game changed when coaches decided to not stick with the status quo when rosters expanded, but put the best players at the right positions, which might mean an American on the offensive line or as a kicker. Now Canadians must compete as athletes for any position, with no position directly their domain. As football does not attract the best Canadian athletes, with most of those going to hockey, the talent level is not as high as it was 30 years or more ago. At the same time, more Canadian football players go to US colleges, are drafted and play in the NFL, with other Canadian-born players working towards an NFL opportunity as well (see Jesse Lumsden, Andy Fantuz). Twenty-five years ago the CFL didn’t lose players this way, even for part of a season.

This appears to some as a shortage of Canadian talent. Yet some teams are deep with it. While some of their success may be luck in obtaining players that work out, some also has to be in the grooming of the talent. Canadians, under-developed by the time they reach the pros, will need additional reps, practice and coaching to overcome the lack of football they have played growing up. If you treat Canadians as lacking talent, show no confidence in them and don’t give them the coaching and reps needed, expect a poor performance from them when they do play.

Give and Take

The CFL should have some goals that they want to achieve with the new CBA. Increasing the professionalism and on-field performance of the league as well as providing drug treatment and performance enhancing drug testing seem to be high on the list. In return, the CFLPA will want concessions in the form of a raised minimum salary and roster sizes.

Increasing the work day is an issue that was coming. Jumping from 4.5 hours to 7 hours as reported seems extreme. I would propose increasing the workday by 1/2 hour per year over the term of the agreement to a maximum of 6 hours (a 33% increase) would be a fair agreement and set the CFL up for the next decade and beyond.

Adjusting the roster restrictions to eliminate the designated import, as reported, effectively reducing the Canadian starter positions from 7 to 4, is very short sighted for developing Canadian talent. In the long term this will have the opposite effect, giving Canadians less practice and playing time, providing less incentive for Canadian athletes to choose football as their sport and reducing the Canadian talent pool further. Instead, increase the size of the practice rosters and the number of positions that must be filled by non-imports on the practice squads.

It is also time for the CFL to make a visible change to encourage Canadian quarterbacks. This is a very tricky change to make as it needs to be phased in; mandating a roster spot for a non-import QB will make it tough for all eight teams to find a quality player immediately and they will end up being the token position. The Canadian quarterback debate has raged for decades, the difference now is Canadian university quarterbacks do not even consider the CFL as an option. Canadian university QB‘s who have CFL dreams must switch positions to catch on with a CFL team. Those that don’t are accepting moving on to a career in their chosen profession after their university career. There are perhaps one or two Canadian university QB‘s graduating each year that show the promise necessary to be considered for a professional career. Perhaps the CFL should require that a certain number (say two to start) of non-import QB‘s be employed in the league and provide a reserve roster spot and salary cap exemption for them. They will have to put in more time, all year long, to catch up to their American counterparts, but with intelligence and a greater experience with the Canadian game, within a couple years they should be able to compete with many of the second and third stringers in this league who last a season or two before they are declared failed experiments.

Expansion is also named as an issue affecting the Canadian talent pool. With the current rules, the number of Canadians employed if Ottawa joins the league in 2013 would jump from about 160 to 180 players. Future expansion would have the same problem, with the Canadian talent pool not deep enough to handle a 12% jump in experienced talent. There are a few things that can be done to mitigate this without giving away Canadian jobs forever. First, in advance of expansion, expand the practice rosters and the non-import spots on them as mentioned previously. Second, include in the CBA article on future expansion that expansion teams are provided a 3 or 5-year time frame to adhere to the roster restrictions, allowing them to dress 24 imports on their active roster their first year, decreasing by one per year until their adhere to the same roster restrictions of 19 imports in their sixth year, for example. This not only allows Canadian talent to develop, provides an increase in Canadian player employment, but provides for an more competitive expansion franchise. Not negotiating such an article in the upcoming CBA will make the CFL and CFLPA look very shortsighted when expansion does come.


There is no real need for the radical changes being proposed to rosters for the upcoming CBA. This seems to be the result of American coaches who have come directly from the US to work in the CFL and are immediately overwhelmed by the roster management they must perform. Previous American coaches (Bob O’Billovich, George Brancato, Al Bruno) worked with much greater restrictions without complaint, but they had played in Canada and knew what they were getting into. It appears the league made a huge misstep in thinking that reducing Canadian presence in the CFL would go over well with fans and Canadians. I won’t be part of reducing salaries in order to turn our league into a possible profitable American farm circuit (rule changes would be next) at the cost of losing a dream for Canadian kids.


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The Three Canadian Pillars was published on November 11, 2009 2:19 PM by dbo.

2,033 words.

This article is categorized under Players and tagged with cba, cflpa, roster and sms.

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