John Ryerson has lobbied the Canadian Football League to expand to Atlantic Canada for nearly two decades.
He's promoted the fictional Atlantic Schooners at the past 15 Grey Cup games, staging Maritime-style kitchen parties and flying in hundreds of pounds of succulent Nova Scotia lobster to draw attention to his cause from Vancouver to Montreal.
Tomorrow, the league takes its first step, staging a preseason game in Halifax between the Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to test fan interest in the region for a possible expansion team by 2010.
Ironically, after waiting all these years, Ryerson will miss the event to attend his niece's wedding in Calgary. The groom is former Stampeders slotback Dan Disley. Still, he remains torn.
"I'm struggling with it," Ryerson said. "I am going to miss what I've been working on 15 years. But some things are more important."
With temporary bleachers, Huskies Stadium at Saint Mary's University will accommodate nearly 12,000 fans instead of the usual 3,500. Local organizers have worked to ensure the occasion is more than four quarters of passes, punts and pick-offs, tackles, touchdowns and turnovers. Billed as Touchdown Atlantic, the two-day event will offer open practices and an arena-sized party. Tickets, which cost $40 to $62.50, are virtually sold out.
Will all the hoopla persuade CFL commissioner Tom Wright that the Atlantic Schooners should drop anchor in Halifax?
"[Tomorrow's]game isn't the be all and end all, but it's an important litmus test to see how it will be received," Wright said. "If and when it's right for a community is when it will happen. Certainly before the end of the decade we're going to have to decide if this is going to work or not."
The CFL in Halifax is one of those unshakeable regional daydreams like the tunnel to Labrador, Turks and Caicos becoming a Maritime province, IKEA in Nova Scotia and the Rolling Stones playing in Moncton.
Oh wait, the Rolling Stones actually are coming to Moncton . . . and that city wants a CFL team, too.
The idea of a Maritime CFL franchise has been around for 30 years, with Moncton and Halifax the main rivals. Wright's dream is a coast-to-coast league presence and balanced divisions.
A fifth team in the East would accomplish that, but the obstacle to landing a franchise has always been lack of a stadium that seats at least 20,000.
In 1984, the Atlantic Schooners, headed by Mississauga trucking firm operator John Donoval and Halifax millionaire Robert Burns Cameron, seemed ready to kick off. But a stadium agreement could not be reached and the team folded.
"You can't have a stadium without a team and you can't have a team without a stadium," Wright said. "The next step is to find an organization or process by which we can end up with a stadium in the region."
On that front, Moncton is steps ahead. The New Brunswick city is bidding for the 2008 International Association of Athletics Federations world junior championships. Bid organizers will travel to Ottawa next week to ask for $10-million in funding to build a state-of-the-art athletic centre at L'Université de Moncton if the city is chosen. They already have provincial support worth $5-million for capital and operating expenses.
If built, the stadium would boast 4,000 permanent seats with room for an additional 6,000 and land to expand.
Ian Fowler, Moncton director of community development, said the city's immediate focus is landing the international track event, but a CFL team is also a goal.
"We have an active committee pursing the file but are waiting for some further direction from the league at this time," Fowler said. "Halifax won this [preseason]game fair and square and we indicated to [the CFL]that if we could assist in making the event more successful we would.
"When it is time to do so, we will fire up the engines again."
Fred MacGillvray, chairman of Events Halifax and a long-time stadium advocate, said a 25,000-seat venue would cost $75-million. He plans to lobby all three levels of government for support, although Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly has said the municipality has no money and historically, provincial governments have shown little interest in funding such a project.
MacGillvray believes tomorrow's game will pique political interest.
"It's going to send a clear message to the potential partners we'll require that there's a lot of momentum for the CFL here," he said. "It's time for us to recognize that a city the size of Halifax is significant and to complete the national sporting piece we need something here.
"It's obvious Halifax is the place to do it. With infrastructure brings a stadium which brings a CFL franchise."
While Moncton's plans are for a smaller stadium, expansion is possible and the location is prime. The city is more central, with 1.2 million people within a three-hour drive, more accessible to fans in Fredericton and Saint John than Halifax.
"That's a very important part of what we would look at," said Wright, who expects to meet informally with representatives from both cities this weekend.
Ryerson, who lives in Yarmouth, N.S., but spent 16 years in Regina cheering on the Roughriders, does not really care where the team locates.
"It needs to go where it will survive," he said. "To put it in Halifax and have it only last a couple of seasons would be an embarrassment to Atlantic Canada. We can't have that. I sense that Moncton will wrap the Atlantic thing around it a lot better than Halifax, that they will share the team a lot better than Halifax."
Although rumours that New Brunswick's wealthy Irving and McCain families have in past expressed interest in a franchise, no ownership candidates have emerged in either city, though Wright said he has had "early conversations" with potential owners.
In the end, Moncton just might want it more. When the two cities were bidding to land this preseason game, New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord called Wright to lobby. When Halifax got the game, local politicians failed to show up at the announcement.
"We had tremendous meetings with the officials in Moncton and were very impressed with their planning, approach and enthusiasm," Wright said. "But wherever the team is based, the entire region has to adopt it for it to be successful."