CFL’s international player combine a small step in the right direction

Dan Barnes, Postmedia
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To no one’s surprise, the architect of the Canadian Football League’s global outreach strategy declared victory here on Sunday.

“I think by all accounts this was a blockbuster success,” said CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

If he had broadcast anything less about the league’s first international combine — featuring 18 European players and 46 nationals — it would have been a complete shock. He has been the driving force for this so-called CFL 2.0 initiative and his foot has really been on the gas in the last couple of months.

So his super-charged optimism was totally in character. And not totally unfounded. As a group, European receivers stood out. So did defensive end Valentinois Gnahoua, a six-foot-two, 235-pounder from Le Mans, France who plays with the Berlin Rebels of the German Football League and spent the 2016 U Sports season with the McGill Redmen.

“There’s enough athletes and there is enough football acumen and skill set so they’re not out-of-place,” said Edmonton GM Brock Sunderland. “I think there were three or four receivers that if you put them in U Sports jerseys, they fit, they are right there.”

Not all 18 European players are ready for even a diminished role on a CFL team. But if there are even nine who could help out, and Winnipeg GM Kyle Walters thinks that’s the case, then it’s another baby step forward for CFL 2.0, which kicked off in earnest with a combine and draft in Mexico City in January.

“I think like in Mexico, the players who were taken in the first round of that draft can come to a training camp and compete and not look out-of-place,” said Walters. “I think the same thing here. I think each team would be able to find a player to come in and not look out-of-place. And I think it would be more in a special teams role.

“I think the upper echelon of the Mexican players were the receivers and a couple really good kickers. Here it was the bigger guys. I think you saw some linebackers here and a couple D linemen. The better players here had some more size to them.”

Vincent Desjardins of Quebec City takes part in on field tests during the CFL combine in Toronto, Sunday March 24, 2019. MARK BLINCH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The CFL is committed to expanding the brand, to finding players in Mexico and Europe, eventually in Asia, South America and Australia, all in the concurrent hope of also driving new fan interest that somehow turns into new revenue streams.

This is happening at warp speed and in conjunction with important negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement with the CFL Players Association. So it’s a fluid work in progress, and nobody knows when a draft of these European players will occur, or how the league and CFLPA will agree to adjust the player ratio to accommodate these new draftees.

But CFL 2.0 obviously isn’t going to wait. This is the present and the future, or at least as long as Ambrosie is driving the bus.

“I feel like a bit of an interested bystander,” said Calgary head coach Dave Dickenson. “I get Randy’s vision and I’m all for it. I’m anxious to see how it all fits. There are great athletes across the world. We’re crazy if we don’t think there are athletes in Japan, Australia. How do you find them, how do you get them interested in Canada? How do you make it a little bit more fair so we don’t have to scout the world and spend all our money doing it? Those are all things I’m sure have come up in league talks.”

Ambrosie has to address those questions even as he dives further into relationships with football federations all over Europe. He said the CFL was a top priority of the German Football League at its annual meeting on Saturday.

Max Zimmermann of Germany takes part in on field tests during the CFL combine in Toronto, Sunday March 24, 2019. MARK BLINCH / THE CANADIAN PRESS

“There was a real push to get further into this relationship with us, how to get more of their very best players here next year. There was talk about how we might take a more systematic approach, more of a focus on training their kids for this event. Maybe that’s a December kind of focus, rather than in February.”

In an email, GFL chair Carsten Dalkowski confirmed Ambrosie’s take on it.

“GFL team presidents approved the ideas about a close partnership. I guess it’s up to us now (to) make something great out of this.”

It’s a good idea under construction right now. Over time, let’s call it years, it can be something great.

“Everything takes time,” said Sunderland. “One of the (European) players interviewed said we know we’re probably not going to reap the benefits of it, but we’ll lay the foundation so the players after us are going to reap the rewards of it.

“That was refreshing. A lot of those players have jobs and are a bit more mature because of where they are in life, so they see the big picture.”

Ambrosie, a decidedly big-picture guy, would call that a win.

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