New league starts foot­ball tier­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MIL­TON

The cre­ation of the On­tario Pro­vin­cial Foot­ball League is the harbinger of ma­jor change in age-class foot­ball in this prov­ince but might seem a lit­tle con­fus­ing to par­ents, play­ers and fans.

And not all par­ties in­volved are over­joyed at the es­tab­lish­ment of an­other provincewide league for On­tario mi­nor foot­ball play­ers.

Pro­po­nents of the OPFL, which be­gins play this weekend, say the new loop is the first step “to­ward a level play­ing field” for On­tario mi­nor foot­ball. The guid­ing prin­ci­ple is match­ing teams from rel­a­tively equal foot­ball-pop­u­la­tion mar­kets.

But its crit­ics say the league fur­ther frag­ments the game, could marginal­ize or­ga­ni­za­tions that won’t be in the OPFL’s Premier Divi­sion, and will be more ex­pen­sive.

Al­though there are sev­eral leagues in the prov­ince, there had been two pri­mary com­pet­ing leagues in On­tario for top play­ers aged 18 and un­der: the On­tario Var­sity Foot­ball League, which counts the Hamil­ton Iron­men among its mem­bers; and the On­tario Foot­ball Con­fer­ence, which in­cluded the Burling­ton Stam­ped­ers and the Hamil­ton Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion, op­er­at­ing the Hamil­ton Var­sity Tiger Cats and the Ju­nior Tiger-Cats.

Both leagues con­tinue to ex­ist but an ex­ec­u­tive of the OVFL says it has lost eight of its 19 or­ga­ni­za­tions to the new OPFL.

The Tiger-Cats and Stam­ped­ers have left the OFC and are now both in the Premier Divi­sion of the OPFL.

Don Ed­wards, pres­i­dent of the On­tario Foot­ball Al­liance, the gov­ern­ment-rec­og­nized pro­vin­cial um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion for mi­nor foot­ball, says, “This is the first step to­ward tier­ing foot­ball … larger foot­ball cen­tres will play against larger cen­tres.”

The con­cept of tier­ing age-class foot­ball was dis­cussed at the OFA com­mit­tee level, then the idea of the new league was put to its board of di­rec­tors. OVFL rep­re­sen­ta­tives voted against the con­cept, but it car­ried.

The new league will have ban­tam (ages 13 and 14), ju­nior var­sity (15 and 16) and var­sity (17 and 18) teams.

There is a “premier” divi­sion for larger foot­ball cen­tres, and a “re­gional rep” divi­sion for smaller pro­grams, both based on “foot­ball den­sity.”

Premier divi­sion teams that have enough play­ers for a sec­ond team can also en­ter those teams in the re­gional rep divi­sion. Many pro­grams in the old On­tario Mi­nor Foot­ball League, which in­cluded a num­ber of smaller cen­tres and some sec­ond- and third-tier teams from the OVFL and OFL, have joined the OPFL re­gional reps. Ac­cord­ing to its web­site, the OMFL still has six teams for 8-to-12-yearolds, none of them near the Hamil­ton-Burling­ton area.

“High school foot­ball pop­u­la­tion is the de­cid­ing fac­tor,” in tier­ing, says Bert McCal­lum, one of the founders of the OFA and the OPFL.

“Es­sex will play Burling­ton on Open­ing Night, and those pro­grams have never played each other be­cause they’ve been in com­pet­i­tive

leagues. There is a close bal­ance in the num­ber of high school teams that they each can draw from.

“Both the OFC and OV are good leagues, but there were too many teams and some good teams had six of their eight games against weaker teams. There were lots of ab­so­lute blowouts.”

The Hamil­ton Iron­men re­main in the OVFL and vice-pres­i­dent Gord Duffield says, “We were never asked about tier­ing. The first I ever heard about it was in The Spec­ta­tor.

“It may be a good thing, it may be a bad thing. It may give more kids an op­por­tu­nity to play, but it might wa­ter things down be­cause it sep­a­rates dif­fer­ent cen­tres.”

Duffield says things won’t change much for the Iron­men teams be­cause they’ll play most of the same com­pe­ti­tion as be­fore, such as Toronto Thun­der, Metro West, Corn­wall and the Oshawa Hawkeyes.

Joe Sardo, com­mis­sioner of the Hamil­ton Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion, feels the OFC may even­tu­ally amal­ga­mate with the OPFL. Al­though the HFA first teams will play in the OPFL premier divi­sion, any sec­ond teams will re­main in the OFC.

“Our un­der­stand­ing is that it’s the first step to­ward uni­fy­ing foot­ball in the prov­ince,” Sardo says.

“Take Ju­nior Var­sity: we’ll have 110 kids try out. That gives us a huge ad­van­tage over, say, Port Dover, where they might have 30 kids. Us oblit­er­at­ing a team does not help foot­ball.”

How­ever Sousa ar­gues, “Once you are stig­ma­tized as not a Tier 1 club, kids don’t want to play and I don’t think they’ll travel to play in an­other or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Ed­wards coun­ters, “It’s not whether you’re Tier 1 or 2, it’s not based on the cal­i­bre of foot­ball, but the size of the foot­ball pop­u­la­tion.”

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