National team experience helps development of CFL hopefuls
Photo credit: USA Football
By: Kevin Hirschfield
As several CFL draft hopefuls await to hear their name called Sunday, they’re looking back at experiences with Team Canada as pivotal points in their career.
Offensive lineman Jean-Simon Roy, product of the Laval Rouge et Or, was not expecting to play much of a role at the 2012 U19 World Championship in Austin, Texas with Team Canada.
Turns out he worked his way to a starting guard position and was an important part in Canada’s first place finish, including a 23-17 victory over the United States in the gold medal game.
An unforgettable experience for Roy which boosted his confidence.
“You have to believe in yourself and I wasn’t expecting to be on the team and I ended up playing a good tournament,” said the 6-3, 285-pound Roy.
“I think every time you get out of your comfort zone, going into something you don’t know, like this tournament, playing against people you don’t really know, you need to push yourself and reevaluate where you are.”
“I think that’s good for any sports player to do that, get to know their coaches, techniques, other challenges, and pretty sure that helped me with where I am right now.”
The IFAF U19 (Junior) World Championship was established in 2009 and now takes place every two years. Canada and the United States have met in the gold medal game each of the first four tournaments, with the Canadians adding a gold in 2016 to their 2012 triumph.
Former national junior team coach Warren Craney says the compactness of the tournament helps players with several skills.
“The tournament format, you’re playing a lot of football in a short period of time, you’re learning a completely new offence, defence and special teams in a short period of time,” said Craney who served as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2009 and 2012 before adding the head coaching duties from 2014-2016.
“That alone would help prepare for a CFL training camp, being able to pick up systems quickly which is what they did.”
Craney, the current coach of the York University Lions, also made sure the players appreciated the magnitude of the event.
“You need to soak in every second, the last two tournaments were in Harbin, China and Kuwait,” Craney said. “You have to soak in the culture, soak in every second of what’s going on, because if you don’t appreciate it, you’re going to be on the plane home, wondering what just happened. I think it made it that much better.”
University of Saskatchewan receiver Mitch Hillis remembers a scorcher of a tournament in 2014 in Kuwait.
“Everything we did was at night, it was super hot, we couldn’t do anything in the day but meetings,” Hillis said.
The heat didn’t stop Hillis from picking up many valuable pieces of advice and techniques which have helped him leading up to draft day. Suiting up with the best of the best in Canada allowed Hillis to see what made other players successful.
“You do watch other guys, pick up some of their little nuances on the field, and try them out to see if they work for you,” said Hillis. “Being able to coach yourself with a bunch of people to model yourself after.”
Hillis has a ton of national and international experience, not only hitting the field in Kuwait, but playing with the U19 Canadian team in the 2014 International Bowl and representing his home province of Saskatchewan at the 2011 and 2012 Football Canada Cup.
Memories and contacts will last a lifetime for the 2015 first-team U Sports all-Canadian receiver.
“You make friendships for the rest of your life even if you rarely see them often,” Hillis said. “I think having that network of people you can gain knowledge from, if you need advice, you have guys who have the football knowledge to help you out.”
Hillis and Roy are just two of a dozen players who attended the recent CFL Combine in March that have either participated in the Football Canada Cup, International Bowl or IFAF U19 World Championships.
They will be tuned into the CFL Draft on Sunday beginning at 7 p.m. ET. Seventy-one players will be chosen with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers having the first overall pick.
About the author
Kevin is a writer, reporter and producer based in Manitoba. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_hirsch.
This post is also available in: French