In 1984, I found myself in the middle of J.I. Albrecht’s strong-minded vision to bring a Canadian Football League franchise to the Halifax-Dartmouth region.
Albrecht, the flamboyant former executive with several National Football League and CFL organizations, was working seven days and seven nights a week to turn his dream — the Atlantic Schooners — into reality.
One evening, over prime rib roast and expensive wine at one of Halifax’s finest restaurants, J.I. tried to persuade me to serve as the fledgling club’s director of community affairs. He told me — several times in the two hours we were there — that he would double my Chronicle Herald salary if I accepted his offer.
All I needed to say was “yes.”
For the last 34 years, I’ve been thanking my lucky stars that, though I thanked him graciously, my answer was “no.”
I just didn’t believe, in my own mind, that the Schooners were going to happen.
Too many people I had talked to at sports events, in coffee shops, and on the street were skeptical. Most just felt the proposed team would never happen. Most thought it would be a mistake to proceed.
Within weeks of our meal together, Albrecht’s efforts officially failed when the conditional membership was withdrawn. The Schooners would never sail.
There was a primary reason — no stadium.
There wasn’t even a firm location for a team. And there certainly was no sign of public money being dished out, which Albrecht insisted had to be part of the deal. Pictou County-born industrialist R.B. Cameron, the main investor, bailed out when things weren’t developing as planned.
During Albrecht’s many months trying to float the Schooners, he fell in love with Halifax and Nova Scotia. He would remain in the province, jumping from job to job.
As athletic director of Cape Breton University, he got the island school into university football. He wrote newspaper articles and he got into radio. Eventually he went to Toronto where, in 2008, he died at the age of 77, never seeing Halifax as a CFL city.
Three years after his death, there was some talk about a CFL franchise in the province. But it was more like a whimper.
Take a Hail Mary pass to 2018.
What’s going on? Well, for one thing, you’d have to be both blind and deaf not to know another determined effort has been going on to get a CFL club in Nova Scotia.
It’s now 12,418 days since Albrecht’s Schooners sank to the bottom of Halifax Harbour.
Can a team happen this time?
That’s what Nova Scotians have been debating since the issue was revived by a group called Maritime Football Limited, headed by Anthony LeBlanc, former co-owner and president of the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes. Cheering from the sidelines — officially and non-officially — has been CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie.
This is, whichever way you look at it, a serious bid. A very serious one, perhaps even moreso than the attempt back in the 1980s.
For one thing, there is a site in mind for a stadium. The Shannon Park location, near the Dartmouth end of the MacKay Bridge, is the ideal place, methinks. It’s just a five-minute drive from Dartmouth Crossing, the big development that’s well known to thousands of Nova Scotians coming in Highway 118.
Shannon Park is certainly the best spot for a proposed 24,000-seat facility. Suggestions of downtown Halifax, in my opinion, are foolish. Where in heaven’s name could you place a stadium and thousands of parking spots in that part of metro? There just aren’t enough parking meters.
Significant advances have been made. There’s a name-the-team contest and there are plans to begin selling season tickets for a very reasonable down payment.
But — and this is the big but — there is no sign of public money for a project estimated to be in the $190-million neighbourhood.
To use a Yogi Berra-ism, it’s deja vu all over again.
I don’t think I need to explain that I’m a football fan, just as I’m a hockey and baseball fan. I can enjoy just about any sport if there’s lots of action and keen competition. I’ve been that way all my life.
In the 1970s and ’80s, my personal interest in the CFL was at its height. I had the privilege of covering Grey Cup games in Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal. CFL football, to me back then, was more exciting than the product dished out by the NFL.
In more recent years, however, I’ve drifted away from the Canadian version of the game, gobbled up by the achievements of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They’re my priority nowadays. Yet I’d still welcome the opportunity to watch the CFL just minutes from home.
Nonetheless, I’m not one bit convinced that Nova Scotians, as a whole, are ready to have big tax dollars spent on a stadium.
If you read letters to the editor of Nova Scotia newspapers, you’re aware that the majority of writers are opposed to public money being used for the stadium. There are various reasons being given.
An example: I have a personal friend in Pictou County who had to be taken to the Aberdeen Hospital recently. He spent something like seven and a half hours waiting for medical attention. That simply isn’t acceptable.
Those kinds of tales — and I’m sure everyone hears them — are obviously the result of doctor and nurse shortages.
What’s more important? Use millions more tax dollars for badly-needed improvements to the medical system or spend the money on a football stadium?
The answer should be academic.
It will be at least spring before the stadium issue is advanced or scuttled. A decision by the regional municipal council to do an analysis of the project will take something like six months.
That’s time, too, for Nova Scotians to make their views known.