Falls native has grown to love Australian ‘footy’
A trip to Australia in his younger years led Niagara Falls native Eric Klein on a pathway to fall in love with a growing sport in Canada, and one that is rich in tradition in the land Down Under.
And now, the 31-year-old is part of the Canada squad scheduled to head to Melbourne — the birthplace of this brand of “footy” — in August to compete for the International Cup.
Klein said his interest in the game, which he describes as a blend of many sports such as soccer, basketball and rugby, began during a youth trip to Australia for a worktravel program.
“I worked in Perth and it’s one of the many hotbeds in Australia of footy as they call it down there and certain parts of the country,” he said.
“I was fortunate enough to go to a few games and kind of developed an interest for the sport.
“I didn’t get to play the game down there, but I came back to Canada learning what this game was all about.”
Klein said he moved to British Columbia four years ago for work and shortly after got into the “fun and crazy world” of Australian football.
He said the vice president of a company he was working for in B.C. had played the sport in Burnaby.
“I went out one day and kind of the rest is history,” said Klein, whose plays for the Burnaby Eagles in the British Columbia Australian Football League.
He said it’s an amateur league and he plays the centre half-forward position.
Klein said he gets a lot of questions from people when they find out he plays Aussie rules football.
“A lot of people say it’s playing soccer, but you can use your hands as well,” he said.
“It’s 18 players aside and the field is about twice the volume and the size of a soccer field, so as you can imagine in Canada there’s not too many places you can set up a field. But a cricket pitch works, which is why they have one in Toronto, and wide-open spaces and parks work as well.”
Klein describes the sport as an exciting, free-flowing game.
“The play is rarely stopped. It’s a 360-degree game. There are some rugby elements, like the tackling part of it, but you don’t always have to go forward, you can go back.”
He said even if many sports fans don’t understand the game, they may have seen highlight clips.
“Probably one of the first things you see is somebody flying through the air and taking (the ball) well above a big pack of people, or maybe even using someone as a springboard to grab (the ball).”
Klein said he attended the Australian Football League Canada national team’s selection camp in Toronto this past summer and later learned he was chosen to go to Melbourne with a team that’s picked every three years.
“Representing my country is a dream come true,” he said.
“On top of that, going to the birthplace of football, you can’t beat that. Being a fan of the sport you know how passionate they are over there. They pack the (Melbourne Cricket Ground) with 80,000, 100,000 people for games. It’s their football, it’s their Super Bowl.”
Klein said his father and uncle played soccer at different levels for Canada, so “I’ve had that history in my family.”
Klein said he also played fairly high-level soccer in Niagara men’s leagues, but “knew” he wasn’t going to progress any further.
When the chance to play Australian football came up, “it was something I really worked hard towards.”
Klein said there are a number of male clubs in Canada, including in Hamilton and the Greater Toronto Area, and “quite a strong ” female program as well, especially in Ontario.
He said about 30 male and 30 female athletes will be travelling to Australia for the three-week tournament.
The Canadian women are current International Cup champions.
Klein said both the national men’s and women’s teams have a crowd funding page set up (makeachamp.com/aflcanadanorthwind) to raise a portion of the travel costs that are 100 per cent self funded.
“People are doing this out of their own pocket and for the love of the sport,” he said.
“That’s why a lot of fundraising initiatives are being done to try to ease the cost of the trip.”
Klein said the fact the sport is called Australian rules foot- ball, “people just think it’s for Australians and might not necessarily gravitate towards it.
“It doesn’t have a long history in Canada, so it takes a while for people to know about it.”
Klein encourages people to give the sport a try, even if it’s just watching highlight clips or games on YouTube.
He said a good place to start would be to watch the 2016 Australian Football League Grand Final.
“It was one of the best games ever played and if you want to get people excited about the sport … that’s a great place to start.”
For more information about Australian football in Canada, visit aflcanada.com. email@example.com Twitter: @RaySpiteri
Niagara Falls native Eric Klein, who now lives in British Columbia, will head to Australia this summer to play for team Canada in the Australian Football League International Cup.
Niagara Falls native Eric Klein.