Canadian Rugby League set to grow
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: Toronto Wolfpack players celebrate with the Championship 1 Promotion Trophy after victory over Barrow Raiders following a Kingstone Press League 1 Super 8s match at Lamport Stadium on September 9, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

In April 2016, the first-ever transatlantic Canadian Rugby League franchise team was formed. That it was not a part of the National Football league, the National Basketball league or any other established sports group, was a groundbreaking day for the sport.

The fact it was associated with England’s Rugby Football League, a combined professional, semi-pro, and amateur league association in England, was also a first.

The success, and the speed of that side’s success has been unparalleled. Not just in terms of wins, but in staking out new ground. And with the sport set to grow from the continuing progress made, the team members and ‘entrepenuers of Canadian rugby league’ should be applauded.

Toronto Wolfpack born in 2016

Canada’s first-ever professional rugby league team to play professionally in North America. Formed in 2016, the Toronto Wolfpack was officially announced as the RFL expansion team even with the sport in a development stage. The existence of a pro rugby league team in Canada traveling to the United Kingdom and France was met with a lot of skepticism though. However Eric Perez, franchise-founder and former owner of the Toronto Wolfpack, believed Toronto could truly be a ‘rugby league town’.

The playing group achieved that fantastically by winning promotion in its first professional season.

They succeeded on the hopes of fan interest, in continually improving each year-on-year, into securing a strong position in the congested sports market. The Wolfpack have a strong support-base on both sides of the Atlantic, a fact that has eliminated any doubts by non-rugby fans.

The side now holds a commanding place in the Betfred Championship. In fact, they are on a winning-streak of victories and have claimed the ‘League Leaders Shield’ for the second consecutive year.

Success of the Wolfpack linked to growth of Canadian Rugby League

The Toronto Wolfpack proved to be a remarkable success as they averaged almost 7,000 people per game in 2017. This attendance could rival any of the established Super League teams in England and France. This is a big reason why there is talk of more professional teams coming from Canada.

The Wolfpack were promoted in 2017 from the third division League 1 to the second division; the Championship, where they remain currently in 2019. The Wolfpack have played 22 games – winning 21 of those – and are currently 12 points ahead of Toulouse Olympique XIII and the York City Knights.

Eric Perez dreams of having fans all across Canada and not just have the Toronto Wolfpack as the only Canadian team is a ‘step closer’ via the increasing popularity of the game today. There are talks about having teams in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, and St. John’s.

All of these cities listed are all in eastern or central Canada. This could be because of the possible problems that comes with transatlantic travel. However, now there are apparently plans by unknown investors to promote talks of a pro-Vancouver rugby league team in the RFL.

Eric Perez’s vision for Canadian Rugby League

An interview in England with Eric Perez revealed he has plans to have a second Canadian team in rugby league. To help achieve that, Perez plans to leave the Toronto Wolfpack to focus solely on the new Ottawa team, when it is formally introduced to the Canadian public [tbc].

Ottawa joins Toronto to become the second Transatlantic team

Ottawa is set to be the next transatlantic team to be involved with the Rugby Football League according to Howlin Hour Podcast interview with Perez. The capital city of Canada, the to be named side would compete out of the TD Place Stadium, and will be formally introduced to the public later this summer with plans to play in 2020 or 2021.

Eric Perez said in the podcast, “I actually was looking at a few different cities. I was looking at a few different cities and I knew I wanted to keep it in Canada. I am from Canada I feel comfortable here and doing business here and you know, I was in talks in Hamilton, as I own the Hemel Stags. I was looking at Hamilton with the Tiger Cats… I own the Hemel Stags with my consortium wanted to move it to Hamilton was one of the cities that we really looked at, we thought it could work in Hamilton.

“I met the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group and that is really nailed it down for me, their operation is incredible. How they will support us, and how they will be a success, the stadium is unbelievable, the city just has everything to offer for a professional sports city.

“I think it is a bit of an international place and I think Toronto and Ottawa already have some sort of rivalry.”

Furthermore, with Ottawa’s proximity with the province of Quebec, Perez also plans to create an amateur Quebec league.  Quebec would be the fourth province to receive an amateur rugby league in Canada. The three current amateur leagues right now in rugby league are in Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta.

This would also help Montreal promote their ambition to have a rugby league team, as they are located in the province of Quebec.

Montreal and Vancouver are two other cities interested in joining the English RFL system (Davidson, Neil. CBC Sports Report, 2019). This would be huge for Canada, as Montreal and Vancouver are the second and third-biggest cities by population in Canada. However, both of these cities will most likely have to wait a few years for an RFL franchise. This is because Ottawa and New York City will try to find new life and fit in with the RFL.

Montreal and Vancouver future expansion options

Possible new team bases: (1)  Montreal

It is no surprise that Montreal is in the conversation as it is the second biggest city in Canada and was the city Eric Perez initially mentioned to be Canada’s second rugby league team back on April 11, 2016.

At this time, the only thing we know is that there are investors behind the Montreal bid. This would make Montreal the third to the fourth-largest city in the RFL to have pro rugby league team. Montreal would be behind London, Toronto, and most likely New York City.

(2) Vancouver

The biggest surprise is Vancouver, British Columbia, a rugby hotbed located on the western coast of Canada. The distance between Vancouver and London, England is about 9-10 hours by plane.

However, it is positive because Vancouver is probably the best market to have a pro rugby league in Canada. British Columbia has a strong amateur rugby league presence in Canada, which could help Vancouver get an RFL team.

Like the Montreal bid though, the Vancouver investors behind the bid remain a mystery. One can assume though that Francesco Aquilini, owner of Aquilini Investments Group could be involved with the bid. He owns one professional e-sports team and two professional sports franchises in Vancouver, including Vancouver’s most popular team the Vancouver Canucks. He wants to own more sports team in Vancouver and is interested in getting a pro rugby team – so rugby league could benefit from the exposure and injection of capital that future expansion could bring.

Current state of Professional Canadian Rugby League

Rugby League is still in its early days in Canada. Currently, there are two professional rugby league teams in Canada; with the Toronto Wolfpack and the soon-to-be-introduced Ottawa team.

The Ottawa team will be formally introduced by the end of the summer by Eric Perez and his ownership group. Having more league sides could create a ‘derby match’ between Toronto and Ottawa for rugby league fans to saviour over. Perez is open to creating a possible Canadian version of the ‘Challenge Cup’ between the sides.

If Montreal and Vancouver get teams established it would change rugby league in Canada forever as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver are the three biggest cities in Canada, with combined population of 9-11 million. Sports fans are eager for entertainment, and the Wolfpack always have a great home crowd for their Championship fixtures.

Furthermore, an increase in teams it would create rivalries in Canada with Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. A huge prospect, as these cities have always held sports, economic, and political rivalries with each other.

Rugby league could add to that regional-rivalry theme.

Rivalries with Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa

Canadian Rugby League would benefit greatly if Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto all had rugby league teams. This is because these regions have deeply entrenched rivalries with each other that span decades…. if not centuries.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators had a big rivalry in the early 2000s in the NHL. The Leafs and Sens met each other four times in the playoffs. The Leafs have won all four playoff series against Ottawa, much to the Senators fans dismay. Toronto also has a historical rivalry with Montreal dating back to 1917.

Toronto and Montreal also have rivalries, most notably the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. These two franchises have won the Stanley Cup the most of any teams in the NHL. The Canadiens have also recently developed a rivalry with the Ottawa Senators, not to mention the Edmonton Oilers and other longstanding rivalries.

In basketball, the Toronto Raptors success in 2019 cannot be ignored. They are developing cross-border rivalries in the NBA, while internally, the Canadian Elite Basketball League is where sides like the Saskatchewan Rattlers, the Hamilton Honey Badgers and the Fraser Valley Bandits ‘battle it out on the boards’.

All in all, the current iteration of rugby league in Canada which did not exist until 2010, now has two quality teams in Canada. This is a remarkable achievement as rugby league did not exist at one point this century. There are also plans to increase the number of teams in Canada. This will spread the game of Canadian Rugby League outside of Toronto and Ontario.

It would really grow the game of Canadian Rugby League if Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal all had teams. It would also grow the game of rugby league globally, which has a core-following in only a dozen countries around the world. If North America and Europe can benefit more International interest via trans-Atlantic competition, then it will lead. One expansion side, who are reaching new levels of success.

And that can only be good for league right across Canada.

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