Former CFL star Tony Gabriel knows what striking CFL players are going through

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Tony Gabriel can sympathize with striking CFL players.

The Hall of Fame tight end was involved in the league's first strike in 1974, which was staged during training camp but settled before the season began.

Players with seven of the CFL's nine teams didn't report for the start of training camp Sunday after contract talks between the CFL and CFL Players' Association broke down Saturday.

Edmonton Elks and Calgary Stampeders players reported to training camp because they're currently not in a legal strike position under Alberta labour laws.

"I definitely have sympathy for them," the 73-year-old Gabriel said in a telephone interview Monday. "I think the guys seem quite resolved to hang in there to get something that's fair."

In 1974, veterans boycotted training camp to back demands for an increased per diem ($10 a day from $3) and to be paid $150 per exhibition game (they were getting nothing at the time). Also that year, the Eastern Conference increased its regular season from 14 games to 16, something the Western Conference had been doing since 1952.

Trouble was, Gabriel, who was entering his fourth season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, suggested players should get two additional game cheques. However, standard CFL contracts didn't stipulate how many games made up a season, so Gabriel's pay was divided over 16 contests.

Once the strike ended, Gabriel returned to Hamilton and posted Ticats career highs in catches (61) and yards (795). But after also being forced to take a 10-per-cent pay cut in '72 (when Hamilton won the Grey Cup at home) because he was entering his option year, Gabriel had become disenchanted and asked then Ticats general manager Ralph Sazio to be traded and was sent to Ottawa.

"I said, "Ralph, you're unhappy, I'm unhappy, go ahead and trade me,'" Gabriel said. "It was kind of prophetic that I was traded to Ottawa because in the '74 playoffs (21-19 loss to the Riders in conference semifinals) I had 15 catches in that game.

"But on one of my last attempts I went up for the ball and was hit high and low by (Ottawa linebacker) Soupy Campbell and one of the safeties. I landed on my neck at the Ottawa sidelines and I'm standing there dazed beside (Riders head coach) George Brancato. I thought it was so prophetic because they ended up trading for me."

Gabriel spent the final seven seasons of his 11-year career with Ottawa, catching the game-winning TD pass to lead the Riders past Saskatchewan 23-20 in the '76 Grey Cup. Four times Gabriel was named the league's top Canadian and twice its outstanding performer en route to being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1985 with 614 catches for 9.832 yards and 69 TDs.

Moments after contract talks ended Saturday, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie went public with the league's final offer. It included the minimum salary increasing $10,000 over the term of the seven-year proposal and a whopping $18.9 million in total guaranteed increases to the salary cap league-wide.

However, upon closer examination, the cap would increase at least $100,000 per season, starting in 2023. That would add up to $5.4 million over the course of the agreement, some $13.5 million short of Ambrosie's projection.

But what caught Gabriel's eye in the proposal was clubs being allowed to have an American (non-quarterback) who's been in the league for at least four years or played with the same team for at least three years being considered a Nationalized American. That player would count as a Canadian on the roster and could stand as one of a franchise's seven Canadian starters.

Gabriel said back when he played, Americans were considered Canadian after five years.

"Why wouldn't they just go back to the five-year rule?" he asked.

Gabriel also liked the league's provision of allocating $110,000 for players to make personal appearances.

"We did quarterback clubs, which were very big in Ottawa, and it was all through local associations," Gabriel said. "There's a lot of good that can come from this . . . it can bring back a younger crowd, I think."

The CFL's proposal also wants to allow teams to have one hour of padded practice per week during the regular season, to a maximum of 12. The league would also extend player rehab and medical coverage to four years, starting in 2025.

"If (padded practices) create more injuries statistically, and that can be shown, then why not (extend coverage) to 4 1/2 years?" Gabriel asked.

The CFL's offer would also give the league the ability to begin a season up to 30 days earlier, starting in 2023.

"I went to the Grey Cup (Dec. 12 at Tim Hortons Field) and it was a great show," Gabriel said. "I don't know why the CFL came up with this thing about the timing of the season, it's not needed.

"We've created this tradition . . . and looking back to '72, that game was played Dec. 5. I think the cold weather plays into the game at that time of year."

Gabriel said it's essential the CFL and CFLPA get back to the bargaining table and offered a suggestion to make that happen.

"I'm not sure if they can get someone to help as a mediator like (former commissioner) Mark Cohon," Gabriel said. "To have someone the league trusts, the players trust and the board trusts, I think Mark would be the guy.

""As a former player and CFL advocate, please get back to talking about your differences, where you can come together and compromise. I just think they should try and get back together and talk."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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