It wasn’t that long ago that the “Canadian Air Force” ruled the Canadian Football League. The 2010 Saskatchewan Roughriders boasted one of the league’s top receiving corps, and four of them – Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf, Rob Bagg, and Jason Clermont – were born and raised in Canada (and all played their university ball north of the border as well).
More of the league’s top pass-catchers that season and the seasons around it included Canadians Ben Cahoon (Montreal), Dave Stala (Hamilton), Paris Jackson (BC), and Andre Durie (Toronto). With the exception of Clermont, the other seven receivers all finished in the top 25 in receiving yards in 2010, Fantuz leading the league with 1,380 yards.
A glance at the 2018 CFL statistics paint an entirely different picture. Only one Canadian finished in the top 25 in receiving, that being Ottawa’s Brad Sinopoli, who led the league with 116 receptions and finished third in yards with 1,376 yards. The next Canadian receiver on the list? Calgary receiver Juwan Brescacin, who finished a whopping 27th in the league with 567 yards. Only two other Canadian-born receivers finished with over 500 yards, Nic Demski of Winnipeg (554) and Llevi Noel of Toronto (512). Combined, those three only had 25 more receptions than Sinopoli, and under 300 yards more than the former Ottawa Gee-Gee.
Here is a team-by-team rundown of each team’s top Canadian receiver by yards in 2018.
Ottawa: Brad Sinopoli, 116 receptions for 1,376 yards
Calgary: Juwan Brescacin, 35 receptions for 567 yards
Winnipeg: Nic Demski, 59 receptions for 554 yards
Toronto: Llevi Noel, 47 receptions for 512 yards
BC: Cory Watson, 38 receptions for 406 yards
Edmonton: Nate Behar, 27 receptions for 257 yards
Saskatchewan: Pat Lavoie, 23 receptions for 194 yards (only had 10 for 79 as a Rider)
Montreal: George Johnson, 10 receptions for 147 yards
Hamilton: Justin Buren, 8 receptions for 85 yards (Sean Thomas-Erlington had more yards, but is a running back and for the purposes of this article I am focusing on receivers as listed by their position).
Compare this to each team’s top receiver in 2010, when the Canadian Air Force ruled the league:
Saskatchewan: Andy Fantuz, 87 for 1,380
Hamilton: Dave Stala, 85 for 1,015
BC: Paris Jackson, 61 for 758
Montreal: Ben Cahoon, 67 for 703
Toronto: Andre Durie, 54 for 632
Calgary: Arjei Franklin, 42 for 523
Winnipeg: Brock Ralph, 31 for 394
Edmonton: Andre Talbot, 27 for 301
As you can see, the difference in numbers here is staggering (and this is just team-leading – in 2010 there were more Canadian receivers who had good receiving numbers, but didn’t lead their team). This brings us back to the overarching question which inspired this post: Why the sudden disappearance of the Canadian receiver, especially when the university game in Canada is growing, and more teams are passing more often?
There are many different theories that could exist as to why this is, and I will do my best to present some of them with some evidence.
Since 2013, the CIS single-season passing record has been broken by six players. Three of the top-six all-time passers have been active during this time as well. Somebody has to be catching these passes, and while not many of the receiving records have fallen, it should speak to the number of quality Canadian receivers who should be available and on the market.
The reality is that a part of the reason might in fact be the point outlined above: not many receiving records have fallen in the CIS in recent years, so there hasn’t been a superstar-quality Canadian receiver available in a while.
Since 2011, the season after the 2010 “Year of the Canadian receiver,” 22 receivers have been drafted in the first two rounds of the Canadian Draft. Of those 22, only 10 were active in the 2018 season (two more – Jake Harty and Shamawd Chambers – were on the Injured List all season with season-ending injuries). Some have retired recently (Nate Coehoorn and Marco Ianuzzi), some failed to live up to any potential (Jade Etienne, Addison Richards), some were relegated to primarily special teams roles (Scott Macdonell, Brian Jones), and some did not even sign a contract (Mark Chapman). For those taken in the last two drafts like Behar, BC’s Danny Vandervoort and Calgary’s Rashaud Simonise, there simply hasn’t been enough time gone by to make a big impact.
Part of the reason for this is that teams have found other positions to fill with Canadian talent – here follows a brief explanation of the National/International rules.
Each team in the CFL must have 21 players on their active roster (total of 44 players) who are designated as National (Canadian) players. Of these 21, a minimum of seven must be in the starting lineup between offence and defence combined.
When Saskatchewan had the luxury of four starting Canadian receivers, it allowed them to start a primarily American defence. Now, with the emergence of star Canadian talent like middle linebackers Sam Hurl, Alex Singleton and Henoc Muamba, there isn’t a pressing need to fill the seven starting spots with receivers.
Canadian pass-rushers and defensive linemen have also begun to grow in number. In 2016, when the Ottawa Redblacks won the Grey Cup, they did so with three Canadians on the starting defensive line (Zack Evans, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, and Connor Williams). Some of the most impactful defensive players on some rosters are Canadians in the trenches – look at Cleyon Laing in Toronto (team nominee for Most Oustanding Defensive Player), Ted Laurent and Justin Capiciotti (3rd in CFL in sacks in 2015) in Hamilton, Jamaal Westerman in Winnipeg from 2015-2017 (2nd in CFL in sacks in 2015), and even a player like Fredericton’s Jake Thomas in the middle of the Bombers’ defensive line.
Many teams around the league start four National offensive linemen – in fact it is somewhat of a rarity to start more than one American on the OLine – and have one or two Canadian defensive linemen who rotate through the starting lineup. And eight of the nine teams employed a starting Canadian free safety (the exception: Montreal, who started Canadian Tevaughn Campbell at corner).
The Canadian running back has made an aggressive comeback as well. Andrew Harris has been the best running back in the league for a few years, and other Canadians to earn starts at running back this season include Jerome Messam, Sean Thomas-Erlington, Mercer Timmis, and Kienan Lafrance.
The re-emergence of tight end or fullback packages into the CFL have led to more Canadians starting as well. Almost every team has at least one Canadian who “starts” at this H-Back hybrid blocker-receiver position – Rolly Lumbala (BC), William Langlais (Calgary), Alex Dupuis (Edmonton), Pat Lavoie (Saskatchewan), Mike Miller (Winnipeg), Declan Cross (Toronto), and J-C Beaulieu (Ottawa). One could make the argument that Hamilton’s Landon Rice, an offensive lineman, was essentially used in this same capacity as a tight-end who played many snaps per game in the early part of the season.
With more Canadians starting at positions they hadn’t been starting in previously, in particular on the defensive side of the ball, their hasn’t been a “need” to fill some of the 7 mandatory Canadian starting spots at receiver. There is also a common conception that scouts and GMs are more willing to explore American options at the skill positions, leaving more opportunities for Canadians on the lines and in the box.
So in conclusion, there are many different factors that could play into why Canadian receivers aren’t as plentiful as they were in seasons as recent as 2012, when eight Canadian receivers (plus Andrew Harris) finished in the top 30 in receiving yards.
Part of it is a testament to the increase of top-level talent across the board in the Canadian amateur game. With players like Zack Evans, Antoine Pruneau, Mike Filer, Henoc Muamba and others emerging as among the best in their positions, and all Canadian-trained through and through, it allows CFL management to be flexible with where they can start American players on their rosters. With more and more Canadian youngsters committing to top-ranked NCAA programs every year at a variety of positions, there is much more Canadian talent to be spread out among the depth charts of the CFL.
With all that being said, I think there are brighter days ahead for Canadian receivers. With Sinopoli still having many years ahead of him, and Behar and Vandervoort about to come into their own, one can also turn to the 2018 U Sports season to find the next glimmer of hope for Canadian receiving stardom.
Remember these names: Tyler Ternowski, Tyrell Pinto, Hunter Karl, Gordon Lam, Kurleigh Gittens, Jr., Tyson Philpot. These young men are poised to be the next draft-selected receivers, and possibly the next in line to become high-achieving CFL stars.
**Disclaimer: Ticat receiver Mike Jones (49 catches, 841 yards) is listed as a National on the depth chart. He was born and raised in Texas and played all of his football growing up in the state, so for the purposes of this article I did not include him among the list of Canadian receivers since he never lived in Canada until he became a Tiger-Cat.
Ben Cahoon was born in Utah and played his high school and college football in the states, but spent some childhood years in Alberta, and therefore rightfully qualified as a “non-import” during his playing career.