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The UPEI football Panthers are shown in action during a game in 1978. With a new track and field athletics venue coming to the university campus, hopes are resurfacing that the football program will be making a comeback. Guardian graphic

The legacy of the 2009 Canada Summer Games on P.E.I. could very well be the return of varsity football to the University of Prince Edward Island.

It's a sure bet the athletics facility will be constructed at UPEI and now there appears to be a groundswell of interest in resurrecting football on a campus which hasn't seen the pigskin in almost 30 years.

"At this point it is certainly moving along to the next stage and where that lies is with the architects,'' UPEI athletic director Ron Annear said of the facility. "From what I understand, all the necessary approvals have fallen into place or are falling into place.''

UPEI's board of governors recently gave its approval to the facility and the shovels are expected to hit ground this spring with completion by late fall. It is expected to cost $5-$6 million, money that will flow from the various levels of government.

Coun. Mitchell Tweel, chair of parks and recreation for the City of Charlottetown and a well-known football booster, points out that the rationale for moving the athletics venue from Stonepark Intermediate School to UPEI was to ensure it had long-term sustainability.

"Varsity football is a sport that will be able to bring life back to the university but we've got to make sure the facility is truly going to be able to accommodate it with the proper field dimensions,'' Tweel said.

UPEI hasn't had varsity football since 1979.

Ann Hilton, widow of longtime Panthers football coach and UPEI athletic director Ed Hilton, said her husband was "crushed'' when the program was cancelled but that it was done purely for financial reasons.

UPEI president Wade MacLauchlan declined to comment on this story, deferring to Annear.

Annear said the facility will be designed in such a way as to make football possible.

"It does open up some opportunity from a facility perspective for the sport of football. There would need to be some additional runouts (end zones) because, right now, they'd be running out on the track,'' Annear said, noting that some other venues do just that.

"Ultimately, we will have a venue that will be ready for the sport of football so there's no question that is exciting from a minor and from a senior, and potentially, from a varsity perspective.''

Annear is researching the cost of bringing back varsity football and, from his informal research, it would take $1.5 million just to get the program up and running.

Most football experts The Guardian talked to think that figure is high, saying it can be done for much less than $1 million.

Steve Sumarah, head coach of the Saint Mary's Huskies men's football team, said it would likely cost UPEI between $750,000 to $1 million to start and another $150,000 to operate it on an annual basis.

"It would be absolutely awesome to have UPEI back in the fold,'' Sumarah told The Guardian in a telephone interview from

Halifax.

The price tag for creating a program includes helmets (about $350 each), shoulder pads, a locker room, scholarships, athletic awards and at least two full-time coaches (approximately $70,000 for one full-time coach). Annual operating costs wouldn't be cheap either, including such things as road trips.

Sumarah said bringing in varsity football would be a significant

Sboost for UPEI enrolment, considering rosters hold about 70 to 80 players.

Annear said he is talking to other athletic directors in Atlantic Canada about their football programs.

"I've been putting together some information for my own resources," he said.

Vernon Pahl, a two-time Grey Cup champion (1984, 1988 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) and a former UPEI football Panther, said he's ready to help recruit for UPEI.

"I think it's a great idea and I don't see any reason why it can't happen," Pahl, who played for UPEI from 1976-79, said in a phone interview from Vancouver where he practices law. "I think, though, they have to plan for every financial contingency.

"It's certainly worth looking at seriously but it is a lot of money but (universities) always seem to find it."

Les Parsons, who played for the Panthers from 1971-75 as a defensive end, says it would take two to three years to build a program from the ground up.

"It would require corporate support, that's the success of programs," said Parsons, now the chair of the Charlottetown Harbour Authority.

UPEI was approached, informally, within the last five to 10 years about bringing varsity football.

"We were flatly told there was no interest so we just gave up," Parsons said.

Parsons says schools such as Mount Allison, St. F.X. and Saint Mary's receive considerable financial support from alumni.

"The long and short of it is you can't rely totally on the university to fund it but the university has to make some form of commitment to it. That's where we never seem to get that moved forward."'

Jack Kane, an assistant coach with the Panthers from 1963-76, said he doesn't see football coming back anytime soon.

"The university can't support the programs they have (now) to sufficient standards," said Kane, who coached under Ed Hilton. "I always disagreed with the end of the football program."

Kane pointed to the cost of a program and the lack of a high school league as big challenges standing in UPEI's way.

"Basic funding would have to come from UPEI . . . there would have to be a strong alumni push. At this point and time, I don't think the university has that desire."

Steve Lalonde, head coach of the Mount Allison Mounties men's football team, said recruiting players can be quite a challenge.

"A lot of times, the first question out of a recruit's mouth is 'What can you offer me'," Lalonde said in a phone interview from Sackville, N.B.

"Although I don't like it that much, for us to be competitive and keep improving our program we've got to be able to do what the other programs are doing."

Jeff Cooke, president of the P.E.I. Tackle Football League, suggests the AUS (Atlantic University Sport) consider a two-tiered conference, one for the big spenders (Acadia, SMU) and one for smaller schools like UPEI.

"I think varsity football will come back, it's just a matter of time," he said.

Cooke points to the growing success of the tackle football league, which added a team in Summerside last year as proof the sport is expanding in popularity again across the Island. The league also has teams in Cornwall, Souris and Charlottetown.

"We had 40 kids the first year and they were coming from Lennox Island, Borden, Kensington . . . that's just year one. The kids are looking for it."

Grant Canvin, who quarterbacked the Panthers from 1971-74, said there needs to be a base of talent in the province to choose from.

"My fear is the lack of a base on the Island to support it," said Canvin. "It's more than just picking up the top 10 players and bringing them in. You need a core, core crew of fine athletes."

Regardless of how many people want to see football back, UPEI's athletic director says people have to want it back bad enough to make it so.

"Anything can happen," Annear said. "There has to be a will of many to put in the support in place to make it happen at all different

levels, not just the university's level."


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