Earlier this week a representative of the Ontario Australian Rules Football league reached out with a request to see if I could put names to faces on an old football team photo dating from 1990.
At the time I was the playing coach of the Mississauga Mustangs from 1989 – 1993. Owing to work commitments I returned as a player in the 1994-95 seasons.
And in 1996 helped form a new club – The Toronto Dingos football club. Serving as its playing coach in its first year before retiring at the end of that season.
In addition, over the course of this period, I also was the playing coach for Team Canada in all the international matches.
But now for the back story…
As many of you know I moved to Toronto in 1988, and in early May of 1989 I noticed in the sports pages of the Toronto Star newspaper a small advertisement asking if any Aussies living in or around Toronto wanted to get together for a “kick of the footy”.
A slice of home! Woohoo….sign me up. 😎
By this time, I’d already spent time with my Canadian mate – Sandro explaining the game and having a kick at the local park.
Being the athlete he was (competitive hockey player with a keen eye for sports) there was no surprise that he quickly picked up the nuances of the game.
I convinced him to attend the meeting to see what it was all about and found ourselves at an industrial complex in Etobicoke late one spring day…
There were only a small number of people who attended that day, but the upshot was that we seemed to have enough interest to get some guys together for a kick.
As is often the case there was a lot of talk but little action and so of the originals who attended that first meeting only half actually showed up for our first kick and actively participated.
To ensure we had some structure to our thinking and perhaps with an eye to the future we created an executive working group to get things moving in a more formal manner. We needed a permit to use the field and had to procure some footballs etc…
We put word out on the street that our first get together was going to be at Centennial Park in Etobicoke by the indoor soccer venue at one of the cricket pitches.
Upon arriving at our first practice, we had a few Irish guys show up. They were keen as Gaelic football and Australian Rules football share many similarities between the two codes.
Awesome! The more the merrier…
It also drew a few more Aussies and interested Canadians and so I think we ended up having around 18 guys show up on our first night.
Given my coaching experience I led the warm ups before getting down to kicking the footy, with a few of the experienced players helping instruct some Canucks on how to kick and handpass.
It was a fun couple of hours. At the end of the session, we asked them to come to our next practice and bring a friend.
By the end of the third training session, we had around 30+ guys…. enough for two teams.
After each training session we’d retire to the indoor soccer venue on the other side of the car park for drinks at the bar.
Another Aussie, John Pearson had a significant football background and was also interested in coaching.
We now had the bones of two teams with two experienced coaches.
After the following training session we decided to have a draft of the players that had shown up and assign them to a team.
To say it was a rudimentary affair is an understatement as John and I flipped a coin to see who would choose first. A fun night to be sure!
We now had the first inaugural clubs – the Mississauga Mustangs and the Toronto Panthers.
It was also around this time that the Australian Football League targeted Toronto to play its International Fosters Cup match between two of the year’s best teams from the professional competition in Australia. ❤️
This was scheduled for Friday night, October 6th at the Skydome (now Rogers Centre) in downtown Toronto.
Over the ensuing couple of months, we played a series of five games leading up to our “Grand Final” on the Saturday after the exhibition game. With each game we garnered more interest and before long we even had people coming to watch our games.
Two of the AFL’s powerhouse clubs were playing in the exhibition game – Melbourne and Geelong.
Prior to getting started we had reached out to the AFL and petitioned them to provide us with two sets of football uniforms which the happily provided. We would be playing in the same colors as the two pro teams.
Again another toss of the coin to see which team would get which uniforms. I won the toss so chose the dark blue and red jerseys and John took the blue and white.
The Fosters Cup game was a huge success and certainly buoyed our fledgling competition. Melbourne won the game by 13 points in front of approximately 25,000 people.
We all attended the exhibition game, including the after party at the Royal York Hotel with the players…it was a BIG night!
The next day we played our “Grand Final” at Centennial Park, with many of the AFL’s dignitaries and players attending the game.
In fact, I had Ron Barassi (one of the most famous AFL coaching legends came and listened to my halftime speech) and gave me a “good speech coach” as we broke the huddle to begin the third quarter. 🙌🏼 😳
He and the President of the AFL presented the first ever Conacher Cup to the winning team. It was quite the beginning to AFL football in Canada…
Today, AFL is played across Canada in almost every province with both men’s and women’s competitions including an Auskick program in schools. In fact, it’s now been recognized as an official Canadian amateur sporting body.
I enjoyed having a “kick of the footy”. 🙌🏼
Until next week
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