The late great Ronnie Lancaster once said (or maybe just repeated), “It’s called the Canadian Football League for a reason: the team with the best Canadians is going to win.” The little general was usually spot-on with his analysis (and clichés) but this is one where the hall of famer comes up short. Success in the Canadian Football League has very little to do with a team’s Canadian content and even less with the way it drafts them.
CFL Draft Nothing to Get Excited About
Despite the efforts of the league and its partners at TSN, the CFL draft has always been a non-event with the Canadian sports fan. Any thought of putting this thing into prime-time TV or radio has been shot down by atrocious ratings each time they’ve tried. They try to copy the NFL by hyping it up online and through the talk shows but each time it fails miserably.
The problem isn’t the viewing public, but rather the system itself.
Lack of American Presence Makes Draft Nearly Irrelevant
For starters, the draft doesn’t include American players. The problem with that is those players make up nearly 75% of the league’s starters and about 95% of its star players. Fans like to think the Chris Getzlafs are the star players, but Canadian skilled offensive players like him only make a valuable contribution when import teammates are talented enough to draw enough attention from opposing defences to make room for him to get open. He’s a third option in an offensive passing game-plan. Not the focal point.
Most other Canadian players are linemen and usually on the offensive side of the ball which can be tough for fans to follow or identify with since those are not skill positions and only get noticed when they make a mistake.
Some pro football executives didn’t even consider this draft important enough to do any serious research. Roy Shivers kept a team in Saskatchewan competitive for years by having his special teams/linebackers coach Alex Smith handle the Canadian college draft. Could you imagine an NFL team doing that? Smith was a more than competent evaluator of talent, but still, an assistant coach running the whole draft?
The strategy eventually backfired when the Roughriders squandered some great American talent in the early 2000’s only to muddle in mediocrity with the likes of Jason French and Corey Grant as starting receivers. Neglecting their need for Canadian talent front eventually helped run Roy and then-head coach Danny Barrett out of town. But even with that lack of focus on recruiting home-grown talent, that regime did manage to pluck reliable fullback Neal Hughes, star receiver Andy Fantuz, solid placekicker Luca Congi, and consistent offensive lineman Chris Best into the Riders’ stable via the draft.
Those players were a rarity in the fact they made valuable contributions to a team in the decade after they were chosen. But for every Jason Clermont picked, there’s a Chris Bauman, Mike Vilimek, Ducarmel Augustin and Tyson St. James right around the corner. Have any of them torn up the league with their play? Didn’t think so.
Five of the first seven picks in the 2016 draft were linemen (snore). The one skill position player in that crew was Argo receiver Brian Jones who dazzled us all last season with a grand total of 12 catches for a sizzling 128 yards. Did I mention it took him 12 games and the entire season to come up with that?
Including American players in the draft would make this thing far more interesting and perhaps relevant enough to overtake poker, darts and other fine TSN or SportsNet programming in the eyes of the viewing public. But more importantly, rewarding teams for drafting, developing, and starting Canadian quarterbacks would be an outright game-changer.
The on-field product would be much better off fans saw quarterbacks who actually grew up dreaming about playing in this league and didn’t need to be trained to adjust to the three downs, twelve men, or wider field.
Either one or both of these steps would help push the CFL to become more than just a six-month-of-the-year league and actually build enthusiasm for this draft. A perfect way to showcase what it has long before training camp even starts. But until these kind of changes happen, the CFL draft will continue to be nothing worthy of much attention.
With how the draft is set up now, the league should feel lucky it’s getting any attention at all.