Pictou Advocate sports

Schooners again in turbulent waters


Right now, I wouldn’t bet a wooden nickle — or a roll of extinct pennies — that Halifax will get its Canadian Football League franchise onto the field.

To be frank, I doubt the Schooners will ever sail.

A failed launch occurred before — almost four decades ago. And, under the circumstances, there’s no reason to anticipate a more successful result this time around.

If you’re still a believer, a word of caution: Don’t hold your breath.

An Atlantic Canada franchise has been the wish of football fans for ages. Each time a significant attempt is made, something has gone wrong.

Well, it’s deja vu all over again.

Nobody needs to be told that the year 2020 will be remembered for the rest of our lives as the year COVID-19 took over the world.

Almost everything was affected in one way or another. Professional and amateur sports — from the kids to the big leagues — came to a full stop.

The National Hockey League, with three weeks left in its 1999-2000 regular schedule, “paused” for an unknown length of time. The National Basketball Association never reached its post-season either. Major League Baseball shut down halfway through spring training. The National Football League kept fingers crossed.

With the top four leagues jolted by the pandemic, how could the CFL ever be an exception?

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, one of the personalities pushing for a Halifax-based team, probably lost a great deal of sleep when the sports world shut down. It became a worrisome off-season for the Canadian league.

As the coronavirus spread across the land, Ambrosie feared the football circuit might lose its entire season. If so, he said $150 million from a federal government would be required to save a league he considered “very much in jeopardy.”

At present, there’s hope a delayed start to the 2020 campaign will happen about Labour Day, with the Grey Cup game, no longer automatically going to Regina, being scheduled for sometime in December. That way, Santa can bring the silverware in his bag.

Lest we forget, there’s the Schooners dilemma in Nova Scotia. What a forgotten subject. Nobody in the league office had expansion thoughts dancing in their heads. The idea was pushed aside when Anthony LeBlanc, a founding partner in the club, left his Halifax interests behind when he became president of business operations for the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.

The Schooners, who were supposed to host the Touchdown Atlantic regular season game between the Toronto Argonauts and Saskatchewan Roughriders at Huskies Stadium in July, had no say as that event got axed.

So here we go again.

It was in 1983 that the first expansion bid — baptized the Atlantic Schooners — was introduced by long-time CFL executive J.I. Albrecht.

I don’t need to check my records to recall how that 37-years-ago undertaking began with optimism and ended with failure.

I was close to it.

Albrecht was busy putting the franchise together in his mind, even if serious matters like building a stadium were never seriously addressed. He was already selecting head office personnel without a head office.

One early morning my phone rang. It was J.I. inviting me for dinner that evening at what was then the classiest restaurant in Halifax. Steak and wine, he said, was already ordered.

I was pleased about one thing — nobody spilled the bottle of wine. I had noticed the price. It would have taken three weeks of my salary to have paid for it.

In his way, Albrecht came right to the point. He wanted to name me the team’s director of community relations. He said I could take lots of time reaching a decision. Just one roadblock — I was happy in the Chronicle Herald’s sports department and hoped to remain there for a long time.

He told me distinguished New Glasgow industrialist R.B. Cameron became an intended investor in the club. Former newspaper reporter Jack Conrad, who worked in New Glasgow briefly, was being added to the front office staff. He even had a head coach in mind — former Acadia Axemen boss John Huard.

I thank God I didn’t sign up. As I wrote in my column back then, I had dodged a bullet.

But give Albrecht credit. He moved to the Nova Scotia capital and worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, putting the pieces together in his jigsaw.

Not everyone wanted aboard. He was unable to get necessary government financing for a stadium. Cameron soon withdrew his involvement.

Soon J.I. shredded his blueprint.

He hung around, writing for newspapers, including the Evening News. He managed radio stations. Then, to be occupied, he served as athletic director at the University College of Cape Breton.

Then, for ages, I never knew his name — until March 11, 2008, when he died in Toronto at age 77.

His obituary described him this way: “Famous for telling it like it is, doing whatever he could, whenever he could for his friends and family, and chewing on an ever present cigar but never smoking one, he passed away in peace while still wishing he could have done a little more for us all.”

Albrecht never lived to see another serious attempt by football people to spread his beloved CFL from coast to coast.

He never got to know his Atlantic Schooners name would be resurrected in the latest bid to have a team in the Maritimes he had gotten to love.

He never knew the new backers had developed the gridiron dream — the one with no stadium, the one with no government financing.

And he wasn’t around to see the CFL, like all sports leagues, become one of the many victims of a pandemic that started on the other side of the world.

But J.I. Albrecht would have been terribly disappointed to have known that the latest Schooners — like his Schooners — were drowning in turbulent waters.