Thunder Bay putting itself in football foreground

The Sir Winston Churchill Trojans celebrate 2017 SSSAA championship in the school’s final year. (Courtesy: Abby Valentine via Karl Waffler)

Thunder Bay.


Two words that, up until three years ago, not many people would have associated with one another.

Thunder Bay – population 108,000 and one of the northernmost destinations in Ontario – is known more as a hockey town. After all, they have produced more NHL hockey players than any other city in Canada.

The City goes by the fitting slogan, “Superior by nature.” That mantra applies not just to topography and its hockey-player-producing prowess, but also – in the case of the last three OFSAA Bowl Festivals – football

“We are not just a hockey town, we are a football city too! We are growing in the sport and clearly making our way to the top,” said Sheri Robertson, President of the Thunder Bay Minor Football Association (TBMFA). “We want to be known as the best football city in Canada. We are on our way and I believe we can reach that goal. We are putting our city on the map, one player, one game and one OFSAA banner at a time.”

That growth Robertson speaks of has been on full display the last three years on the provincial stage. The City of Thunder Bay has captured three straight Bowl games – two by the St. Ignatius Falcons (2016, 2018) and one by the now-defunct Sir Winston Churchill Trojans (2017) – outscoring opponents 82-40 in those games. The last Bowl title for the City prior to 2016 came way back in the 2007 Northern Bowl, when the Westgate Tigers beat the St. Mary’s Knights of Sault Ste. Marie, 21-16.

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St. Ignatius Falcons defensive back Liam Puskas (far right) celebrate with 2016 OFSAA Simcoe Bowl banner. (Courtesy: Liam Puskas)

Liam Puskas was on the St. Ignatius team that brought an OFSAA Bowl back to Northwestern Ontario, and says football’s return to relevance in the area can much be attributed to a renewed sense of belief among the student-athletes.

I believe high school football in Thunder Bay is gaining relevance because athletes are believing in themselves more and beginning to realize their potential,” said Puskas, now a defensive back with the Queen’s Gaels. “More and more athletes are shooting for a university football career and it is making everyone else in the [area] better because of the increased competition.”

Puskas says winning that 2016 title showed the entire football community – not just locally or provincially, but nationally – that Thunder Bay is full of forces to be reckoned with.

Winning St. Ignatius’ first ever OFSAA Bowl was an incredible experience for me; one I will definitely never forget,” said the soon-to-be redshirt sophomore. “For me a big part of that game was just the opportunity to display my skill on a stage where coaches from all over the country were watching.

“However it was also a chance to prove to the rest of Canada that Thunder Bay football should be taken more seriously. To me it meant that the level of competition in Thunder Bay is higher than what people think and that our football programs [are] developing players with real potential.”

Former Falcons Head Coach Tyler Dennis agrees, saying the proof is in the pudding, and citing players like Puskas – who have continued their career at the next level – as evidence.

“I believe we have helped put Thunder Bay on the map for football. We have had over 10 players that have gone on to play at the university level and many others recruited,” said Dennis, who coached at St. Ignatius from 2007-2017, serving as Head Coach for his final six years on the staff. “Our success at OFSAA has put our program on the [national] stage (we are currently ranked #35 [on the CFC100]). The ultimate goal is to have the rest of the country recognize that there is quality talent up here, no matter the school.”

Sr. Ignatius Falcons wide receiver Jake Robertson attempts to evade a tackle during the 2018 SSSAA Championship game vs. the Hammarskjold Vikings. (Courtesy: James Mirabelli)

Jake Robertson, son of Sheri, is one of ten players to have played on both OFSAA-winning St. Ignatius squads. He says the two championships in the last three years has changed the culture of a program that, prior to Dennis taking the reins in 2012, was coming off multiple winless seasons.

“There has been a huge leap in confidence amongst the players and the team as a whole,” said the junior Robertson, who played wide receiver, defensive back and is the punter for the Falcons, and whose final high school game was the 17-10 Metro Bowl victory over the Northern Red Knights (TDSSAA).

“This is the biggest high school sporting event in Thunder Bay. It gives us a belief in ourselves.  If it’s been done once we know we can do it again; it’s really motivating.”

Dennis says the championship pedigree the senior team has built is thanks in large part to a junior program that won six straight SSSAA titles prior to this season, stringing together five undefeated campaigns over that time.

“Our senior success stems from the countless hours that our junior coaches put in for those athletes in grades [9 and 10] before they hit the senior stage,” he said. “Those coaches bridge the gap between TBMFA and senior football.”

New Falcons bench boss Jason Moore, who we featured in our ‘Coaches Spotlight’ series last year, admits that, like in every football community, there are many challenges the region faces. In spite of these barriers, however, the rookie Head Coach says football is flourishing in Thunder Bay during a time where, in many municipalities like it, the game is floundering.

“Our football community has been able to support and thrive within our minor association as well as [five] high schools programs. These programs have generated great football players from our community that are being recognized at the [U Sports] and CFL level,” he said. “This year alone, [three] of the [five] high schools in Thunder Bay, were able to field [more than] 40 players per team, at both the [junior] and [senior] level, which is the culmination of continuous improvement in our sport, year [after] year.

“The success of our high schools at the provincial level has also been reflected within our minor association, with the TBMFA growing in participants yearly over the last five years. We are drawing in other athletes, from other sports, and they continuously comment on the nature of the team and how the teams unify through a strong sense sportsmanship and brotherhood. Football in Thunder Bay has developed well on the field and off the field. Our players mature with a strong sense of self-worth and confidence, they are prepared to fight through the adversity of life and succeed.”

Members of the St. Ignatius Falcons hold up the 2018 Metro Bowl banner and trophy. (Courtesy: Jason Moore)

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Moore, like many, sees the City’s recent success at the high school level as all the evidence you need to see that the words ‘football and ‘Thunder Bay’ do belong in the same sentence.

“Winning OFSAA is energizing and fulfilling for everyone that has supported our school sport. The players are ecstatic, the coaches fulfilled, and the school is proud of what their students have accomplished,” he said. “To be able to compete at the provincial level is a testimony to our development..Any given Sunday you can win or lose, but we are competing provincially.”

As ‘feel good’ as it was to see St. Ignatius bring a championship back to the region two years ago for the first time in almost a decade, Sir Winston Churchill’s triumph in last year’s Northern Bowl over West Ferris of North Bay – coincidentally enough, in a battle of the Trojans vs. the Trojans – was as picture perfect as it gets: a provincial title, in decisive fashion, in the final game in school history.

Former Churchill Head Coach Mike Doromko said the win was the culmination of an immense amount of dedication, not only to the team, the game and each other, but to 54 years of history.

“To win an OFSAA bowl in the last year of my tenure at Churchill meant the world to all of us. I made a statement to my coaches and athletes once we learned the fate of the school and it was, ‘How do we want to be remembered?,’ said Doromko, now the Offensive Line Coach and Run Game Coordinator for the Westgate Tigers. “I had an amazing group of young men that didn’t hang their heads but instead worked their tails off in preparation [for] the 2017 season. My coaching staff [was] outstanding in their efforts toward skill development and preparation.

“I asked for a lot of their time and efforts and it was endless; I guess I should thanking their wives and kids too,” he joked. “It ended up being the ‘perfect ending’ to a storied program.”

To cap it all off, the title also pulled the Trojans even with Westgate for the most league championships since 1967.

The Sir Winston Churchill Trojans pose for a team picture with the 2017 OFSAA Northern Bowl banner. (Courtesy: Mike Doromko)

Karl Waffler, a defensive end on the final Churchill team, was happy to end his career on a championship-winning note, and says the OFSAA victory brought much joy to the school community at a time when such a thing was difficult to come by, knowing the end of an era was approaching.

“It was awesome to win OFSAA,” said Waffler, whose father – Rolf – is the commissioner of SSSAA football. “It was great for our final school year especially since we had won OFSAA in the past and it brought a lot of pride to our city and school. I also knew it was my final football game and to go out winning OFSAA and being 10-0 was special.”

Jake Robertson believes the community of Thunder Bay is deserved of the increase in attention, and says the effort (some of which, as you’ll see, is above and beyond that of other markets) the city has made to grow the game at the grass roots level is finally paying off.

“We deserve the attention. Often we feel like people forget about us way up here in the North. We deserve the attention because we know that we are not only have the best hockey players, but also the most physical and tough football players in the country,” he said. “For example, we play in the freezing cold. This season we had more practice days below zero than above zero temps. We as a team shovelled our practice field three separate times just so we could practice and the two teams that play in the finals shovel the game field.

“Our community support us, too,” he continued. “Last year our community volunteer shovelled the game field for us. We are untapped; we are the new and upcoming talents. We have a great minor program; I started playing when I was only 6 years old! I have also participated in the U16/U18 programs as well as attended camps too. This attention will most definitely help grow the game up here. With more opportunities comes greater attraction to the sport. If kids know there is a dream that can come true then this gives them something to strive for.”

Despite Thunder Bay putting itself back on the football landscape in recent years, Waffler says there’s still plenty of work to be done in the area of recruitment for players from the area.

“We are overlooked [by Universities] because we don’t have the name or money larger organizations and cities have and college coaches rarely come here to see us,” he said when asked if players from the area are still seen as inferior by coaches at the next level. “College coaches don’t look at us and the only time they do is when we are at OFSAA – and then they are only looking at one team, not [necessarily] the best players from Thunder Bay.”

St. Ignatius Falcons running back Nicholas Doucet is tackled by Colton Dowhoszyia and Sam Krawczuk of the Hammarskjold Falcons during the 2018 SSSAA Championship game (Courtesy: James Mirabelli)

Puskas, on the other hand, says playing in a non-traditional football market like Thunder Bay only increased his appetite to show U Sports coaching staffs across the country that, ‘Hey, I can play, too,’ and wishes other players would exhibit a similar approach.

For me, playing in a community that isn’t viewed as a proverbial ‘hotbed’ for football motivated me to pursue my goals of playing football at the university level even more. The idea that I was at a disadvantage just because of where I lived made me work harder to become recognized as U Sports football material,” said Puskas, who made eight tackles, while also racking up three interceptions and a forced fumble in the 2016 Simcoe Bowl against the Bear Creek Kodiaks (GBSSA).

“I take pride in where I come from and believe that there is just as much talent there as anywhere else. Unfortunately, because many athletes in Thunder Bay don’t think a university football career is realistic for them so much talent goes to waste.”

Puskas says his area code has been less of a disadvantage in his transition to university ball, and more of an eye-opener.

I definitely take pride in coming from a place that isn’t considered a [traditional] football centre,” he said. “Although some people may see it as a disadvantage, I see it as having given me a different perspective over most other athletes in university football.”

For as much as we’ve focussed on the success of the high school teams in the area, much of it wouldn’t be possible without the TBMFA, which Doromko says has fostered the development of the sport throughout the city.

“TBMFA is doing a great job of getting kids into the sport and providing a safe and effective opportunity for kids to learn the skills, teamwork [and] concepts of football,” he said, “as well as their U16 and U18 programs that get our kids names out there to recruiters prior to their grade 12 year.”

Karl Waffler (middle) and his teammates celebrate with the 2017 SSSAA Championship trophy. (Courtesy: Abby Valentine via Karl Waffler)

As the Association celebrates its 60th year, Sheri Robertson says she and the TBMFA is continuing to get larger and larger, not only with more athletes, but also in providing more offerings for their players.

“We have been committed to expanding our programs and providing opportunities for football players of all ages,” she said. “In particular, over the past decade, we have been expanding our U16 [and] U18 programs to include off season training, skill development camps and spring teams that travel and compete.

“This high performance program has continued to grow in interest and talent. We are keeping up with the changes recommended from Football Canada by expanding our programs which includes coaches training programs, player skill development camps and introducing flag football as well.”

The TBMFA provides flag football for players aged 7-14 and tackle for U10-U18 players. The city averages three players per year recruited to the OUA, according to Robertson.

The organization has field time for much of the year throughout its different age groups. The U8 flag team plays in September and October, while the U10-U14 team play August-October. The U16 and U18 teams play from February to May or June, and is a rep travel program, having been to places like Manitoba, Sault Ste. Marie and Minnesota. These teams also compete against prospect teams from Manitoba.

In terms of participants, the U10-U14 teams draw a total of close to 300 players a season, while the U8-U14 flag team is capped at around 125 players due to limited field space. The U16 and U18 teams, meanwhile, have anywhere between 30-40 per team.

When asked whether the TBMFA has ever considered competing in one of the Ontario rep leagues – the Ontario Football Conference or Ontario Provincial Football League – Robertson didn’t rule it out, but says the biggest roadblock to that is travel.

For sure, we have definitely talked about this,” she said. “We certainly have the athletes up here the are fully ready to take the on, but the biggest issue is the distance we are from everyone else.”

To put that in perspective, St Ignatius traveled by bus to Ottawa for their Bowl game, which took a full 24 hours each way.

Whether a team from the region joins the OFC or OPFL or not remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: while you may be hard-pressed to locate it on a map of Ontario, the City of Thunder Bay can be seen quite clearly on the gridiron globe.

St. Ignatius Falcons running back Nicholas Doucet tries to elude three defenders in the 2018 SSSAA Championship game vs. Hammarskjold. (Courtesy: James Mirabelli)

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