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  • Rob Murphy will leave a void in the CFL both on and off the field.

    The CFL sees plenty of significant players retiring every year, but what's perhaps most notable about this year's class is that the players who have left have been such prominent personalities as well as outstanding players. Doug Brown, Brent Johnson, Gene Makowsky, Taylor Robertson and Bryan Crawford are all going to leave voids in scribes' notebooks as well as on the field, and that class will be further boosted Thursday when former Toronto Argonauts and B.C. Lions' offensive tackle Rob Murphy elects to hang his cleats up. Murphy's long been one of the CFL's most ferocious combatants on the field, but he's also become renowned for his accessibility and candour off the field, both with journalists and with fans on Twitter. Teams are certainly going to miss Murphy's on-field presence, but his off-field engagement with fans and reporters may be an even larger loss for the league.

    Read More »from Rob Murphy’s retirement sees the CFL lose a great personality as well as a top player
  • Gary Etcheverry on the sidelines with Saskatchewan players in 2009.

    It hasn't been a good offseason thus far for the Ottawa Gee-Gees, who earlier saw head coach Jean-Philippe Asselin leave for the offensive coordinator's position at cross-town rival Carleton (which won't even be playing CIS football until the fall of 2013). They've now found the man to replace him, though, at least for the short term. The school has tabbed long-time CFL coach Gary Etcheverry, who last worked in Canadian football as the Saskatchewan Roughriders' defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2010, as their coach for this coming season, and if things work out, it's quite conceivable he could be running the show there for the foreseeable future. There's plenty to like about the hire of Etcheverry, including his willingness to think unconventionally, his CFL ties, his strong and varied resume and his impressive recent record of success. However, there are questions that go along with this move too, including Etcheverry's limited experience as a head coach, the odd circumstances surrounding his departure from Saskatchewan, his handling of criticism and his reported plans to bring in a double-wing offence. Regardless of if Etcheverry succeeds or fails with Ottawa this year, his tenure should certainly be notable.

    Read More »from CIS Corner: Gary Etcheverry takes over the Ottawa Gee-Gees, which should be interesting
  • J.R. Fitzpatrick, Taylor Robertson and the rest of the crew celebrate Sunday's win.

    There aren't too many athletes who can compete in two professional sports leagues, particularly those as different as the CFL and NASCAR, but former Toronto Argonauts' guard Taylor Robertson is proving to be an exception. Robertson, a 31-year-old offensive lineman from Brantford, has been in the CFL since 2003 with the Calgary Stampeders and the Argonauts, but when Toronto elected not to renew his contract this offseason, he decided to pursue his love of stock car racing rather than try and catch on with another CFL franchise, becoming a member of long-time friend J.R. Fitzpatrick's No. 84 Equipment Express Chevrolet team in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. As he told Sportsnet's Perry Lefko, Robertson is happy with his drastic career change:

    Read More »from Taylor Robertson goes from trenches to pit
  • Former NFL player and coach Carl Hairston (now with B.C.) is suing the NFL.

    Concussions have developed into a massive issue at all levels of football, but the responses from former players on both sides of the border have been notably different. In the United States, the lawsuits are piling up, with over 2,200 former players currently suing the NFL in 79 different actions, which you can read more about at NFL Concussion Litigation. Plenty of prominent former players have become plaintiffs in those cases, too, including 15-year NFL veteran and current B.C. Lions' defensive line coach Carl Hairston. North of the border, players are also taking the news of concussions very seriously, with the CFLPA bringing up the issue with some disturbing (if somewhat questionable) statistics last offseason, prominent former players like Matt Dunigan speaking out about their experiences, many former players signing up for studies (including a new one at the University of Toronto, which will include CFL Alumni Association executive director Leo Ezerins and 19 other players with a history of head injuries and compare them to 20 former players without reported head injuries) and grieving families such as Doug MacIver's donating their loved ones' brains to research efforts. However, thus far, that hasn't developed into litigation. Why have the approaches been so different, and will that change?

    Read More »from As concussion legislation piles up in U.S., ex-CFL players take more conciliatory steps
  • Niagara players Ray Harris (L) and Matthew Levasseur (R) with coach Geoff McArthur.

    Not all of the football played in Canada is "Canadian", especially at the high school level. B.C. has used the U.S. National Federation of High School Associations' four-down rules for some time, and now a new Ontario program is following suit with an even more ambitious plan; pull together elite Canadian football talent and play a 10-game schedule against U.S. schools using American rules. As Michael Woods of The Toronto Star writes, the idea is to try and help top Canadian prospects to land NCAA scholarships:

    The program will provide an education suited to students applying for NCAA scholarships and will work around practice and travel schedules. The team plans to play a 10-game schedule starting in August, all against U.S. schools, playing with American football rules.

    Coaching the team will be Geoff McArthur, a former All-American who is the University of California Golden Bears' all-time leading receiver and was a favourite target of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, now with the NFL's Green Bay Packers. McArthur, 29, was an NFL prospect before a leg injury ended his career.

    In January, he made the move to the Niagara region from Los Angeles.

    "It's going to help people get noticed and bridge that gap between Canada and America, because I truly believe that there's a lot of talent out here," he said.

    McArthur's certainly a big name from a playing perspective, and his involvement with the program will certainly help pull in some top talent. So will Niagara Academy's reputation, as the school has a long-running tennis academy along the same lines; students aged 8 to 19 do five and a half hours of class, three hours of tennis and one hour of fitness per day, and school founder Lezlie Murch told Woods that 100 per cent of their graduates have received scholarships to NCAA schools. Moreover, the idea of a top-tier team of Canadian kids playing against American high schools in order to try and improve their southern exposure and receive NCAA scholarships will certainly be appealing to many athletes and their families, so it's not hard to see plenty of talented kids' families paying $14,000 a year ($20,000-plus if you include billeting with a host family for out-of-town students) to get involved in this program. The question is how well it will work, and if it's a good thing for the state of Canadian football as a whole.

    Read More »from Niagara Academy instills four-down football program to help kids land NCAA scholarships
  • GM Eric Tillman made the unpopular decision to trade Ricky Ray this offseason.

    Continuing on with our series of training camp previews, here's a look at the Edmonton Eskimos based off this week's conference call with president Len Rhodes, general manager Eric Tillman and head coach Kavis Reed.

    — The Eskimos' offseason has largely been defined by their biggest move: shipping star quarterback and long-time Eskimo Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and the second-overall pick in this year's CFL draft. As such, that trade was the focus of much of the discussion on Thursday's call. Tillman said it can't be evaluated simply on the basis of the players and pick Edmonton received, as one of the most crucial elements involved was the cap space it freed up.

    "It was a very, very difficult decision but at some point you have to make a transition for the future," Tillman said. "A disproportionate amount of our money was tied up in our starting quarterback."

    Read More »from CFL Camp Countdown: Eskimos move on without Ray, but not necessarily with Jyles
  • New Argos' head coach Scott Milanovich faces a lot of pressure for a quick turnaround.

    Continuing our series of CFL training camp previews, here's a look at the Toronto Argonauts, based on of this week's conference call with CEO Chris Rudge, general manager Jim Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich.

    — There's no question that there are off-field business issues in Toronto; the Argonauts' average reported attendance of 20,018 fans per game last season was by far the worst in the league, and the situation's bad enough that they (and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) will be getting subsidies to try and turn things around. Not all of their struggles are strictly because of the team's 6-12 record in 2011 (worst in the East Division), but on-field struggles tend to produce off-field issues. The reverse is also true, in that creative marketing ideas and solid fan outreach can help to revitalize a team's attendance and bottom line, but the most important criteria for success remains winning. Fortunately, Rudge seems to get that.

    "The thing that counts most is the product on the field," he said. "Without that, everything else is in vain."

    — There's a lot of pressure on the Argonauts to turn things around immediately, as they're hosting the 100th Grey Cup this fall and a strong season could go a long way towards revitalizing their brand in Toronto.

    "We have a unique opportunity here," Rudge said. "We won't have another opportunity like this in the near future."

    — However, while the organization has made several big moves that should make them more competitive this year, in particular the Ricky Ray trade, Barker said they haven't abandoned all thoughts of the future. In fact, he believes Ray will be leading their team for years to come.

    "At 32 years old, we think Ricky's got some great years ahead of him," he said.

    Read More »from CFL Camp Countdown: Argonauts need an on-field turnaround for off-field success
  • Former McGill QB Matt Connell scrambles in a 2006 game, the last time the Redmen made the playoffs (The Canadian Press)Long story short, Montreal's McGill University has deep-pocketed donors who are loath to pay for mediocrity on the football field. And the university football league in Quebec long been wracked by tensions between its French-language programs — including the colossus Laval Rouge et Or — and the three English-language teams.

    So perhaps it comes as no shock that the Redmen, who are the oldest football program in North America but have also gone winless in four of the past five seasons, have decided to take their ball to Ontario. There has been some deep tension within the Quebec university football league for some time, especially after an ineligible player controversy with the Danny Maciocia-coached Montreal Carabins last fall. (Long story short: the Carabins lawyered up and got to keep a win where they played an ineligble player.)

    McGill athletic director Drew Love announced Thursday the Redmen will apply to join Ontario University Athletics for football in 2013, creating a 12-team league in one province and leaving an odd-number five-team loop in their own. With the type of support McGill gets — one alumnus just gave the program $1.5 million last fall, seriously, who does that for CIS football?! — it's not surprising they want to scramble away to get out from under the Laval Rouge et Or's boot. There's no other way to read the decision to apply to be the 12th team in Ontario University Athletics football other than McGill admitting it can't compete against Laval.

    Read More »from CIS Corner: McGill Redmen plan move to OUA, but is it for the greater good of the university game?
  • Wally Buono would love to hoist another Grey Cup this year.

    Continuing our CFL Camp Countdown series of training camp previews, here's a look at the reigning Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions based off Monday's conference call with president Dennis Skulsky, general manager Wally Buono and head coach Mike Benevides.

    — There are plenty of notable storylines with the Lions this year, including Buono's move to take just the GM job, Benevides taking over as head coach, the development of QB Travis Lulay and the difficulties in defending their Grey Cup title. However, one of the most intriguing elements comes from what they've done this offseason, particularly in the secondary; a group that already looked like a strength of the team last season now looks like the most fearsome corps in the league, thanks to Buono electing to bring back Dante Marsh and Ryan Phillips, keep Korey Banks and add all-stars Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker. Every GM would love to bring in all-stars, obviously, but many would first focus on positions that didn't necessarily look as strong to begin with rather than work on building a super-elite group. Buono said that's not his philosophy, though; he's always looking to improve his squad, regardless of how strong they are in a certain position already.

    "The job of the GM is to always try and improve his football club," he said. "When you want to be the best, you've got to bring in the best guys to compete."

    Read More »from CFL Camp Countdown: Lions’ general manager Wally Buono isn’t easily satisfied
  • Darian Durant is still the Riders' chosen quarterback despite a down 2011.

    Continuing our CFL Camp Countdown series, here's a look at what's ahead for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, based off Thursday's conference call with team president Jim Hopson, general manager Brendan Taman and head coach Corey Chamblin.

    — This offseason saw plenty of moves made at quarterback, with Hamilton and Toronto both making notable trades to try and upgrade their starters. The 5-13 Riders finished below both of those teams last season, but are standing pat with Darian Durant. Chamblin said his role as starter heading into the season isn't in question.

    "Darian is our leader," Chamblin said. "We know he'll take us where we need to go, where we want to go."

    —That makes sense from this standpoint; Durant didn't have a great 2011, but was very solid in both 2009 and 2010, and was a crucial part of the Riders' back-to-back runs to Grey Cup games. Taman cited that success as the main reason behind their faith in Durant.

    "We were struggling last year; there were a lot of reasons for that, but our starting quarterback has been to two of the last three Grey Cups," Taman said. "I don't think that's luck."

    Read More »from CFL Camp Countdown: Riders double down on Darian Durant

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