A Sherrin among the pucks

By Sallese Gibson

Scores are tied.  Less than two minutes of play remain.

You can feel the tension in the air as the players jostle for best position.

Play resumes and two opponents sprint towards each other.  You can hear the thud, like a thunder clap, as their bodies collide and they fall to the ground.

Within seconds, both men bounce back to their feet, scrambling to win any advantage for their teammates.

It’s exciting, hard-hitting, entertaining sport.  And there isn’t a puck in sight.

This is AFL – that is, Australian Rules football.

But it’s not as far-fetched as you may think.  In fact, it’s taking off right here in Canada.

The Ontario Australian Football League was established in 1989 when a group of expat Australians living in Toronto congregated to play a few games of AFL.

Today, the OAFL is made up of 11 clubs, which are situated throughout Southern Ontario and Quebec.

Clubs play a 14 round regular season with finals in September – just like their Australian counterparts.

What may surprise many is that the OAFL isn’t just for Australians.

As the league has expanded, so have the number of Canadian players who have taken to the quirky sport from the other side of the world.

Marc Nord is one of the Canadian players at the Toronto Eagles Football Club.

He grew up playing a range of sports including hockey, basketball and American football.

But in 1998, Nord realised it was time to try something new.

“I was playing summer league American football when I was 20 and just finished playing my final game because at 21, I would be too old to play in that league,” he said.

Mark Block, who was the head coach of the Toronto Eagles at the time, approached a group of Nord’s friends at a pub and asked if they would be interested in trying a new sport.

“They tried it and loved it – then I was recruited by my friends and I started playing AFL the following year,” Nord said.

Now in his 13th season at the club, Nord said he couldn’t imagine life without AFL.

“I still play hockey from time to time but after playing my first game of footy, I was hooked.”

So what makes AFL so special? Nord said it’s so much more than just a game.

“AFL brings my mates together every weekend to play and watch footy.  But it’s the club culture that is the most important and is what keeps guys involved with the team long after their playing days are done.  The friends I have made on this team, both Canadian and Australian, are friends for life.”

One of these Australian players is AJ Alister.

Alister joined the Toronto Eagles after moving to Canada in 2009.

“I had lived in Australia my whole life and was coming to the end of my apprenticeship as an electrical fitter and was tossing up what to do with the next phase of my life.  I sent an email to the Toronto Eagles and got a really good response from them and then decided to make the move,” he said.

Having grown up playing AFL, Alister said the game would always have a major impact on his life.

“AFL is my number one sport without a doubt.  Hockey is a fun game to play to make the winter months go a bit quicker, but no other sport gets me quite as excited as AFL.”

He said it was the team dynamics of Australian Rules that set it apart from the rest.

“The bonds that you form with the people that you play with are amazing – just knowing so many people with the same passion for such an awesome game is great.”

The strong team ties that Alister talks about are renowned of AFL clubs across the globe.

But with every location comes a different way of playing and interacting.

The mix of Canadian and Australian players at the Toronto Eagles ensures a fresh approach to the game.

“It is impossible to replicate the way things are done in Australia compared to here, but that is what makes it a unique sport,” Alister said.

The result is a game where the Australian and Canadian players can share their skills and pick up new things from one another.

“Having lived with a Canadian who plays the game and shares an equally great passion for the game is amazing,” Alister said.

“Many Aussie traits such as the typical butchering of the English language and certain jokes that traditionally a foreign person would not get have been passed onto the Canadians.  It’s quite an amazing cultural exchange.”

Alister said it didn’t take long for the Canadian players to pick up a bit of Australian slang.

“There would be a lot of Aussie ‘footy talk’ around the club,” he said.

At the same time, the Canadians bring an aspect to the game that is new to the Australian players on the team.

Toronto Eagles President Salv Capoferri said the locals bring a bit of hockey to the game by putting their bodies on the line to win the ball.

“This style of play is good because they are essentially making the game their own, which is helping to grow the game here in Canada,” he said.

It’s not just the Australians who are benefitting either.

Nord said the ‘culture of footy’ is something that he has picked up from the team’s Australian players.

“The club aspect of the game is something that the Australians have bought to the game in Canada and all members have embraced it.”

He said the club often gets together and has huge social gatherings in the off-season – something he hadn’t really experienced while playing other team sports.

“At the Eagles, players are not just part of a team – they are part of a club.  It is like being a part of a large family,” Nord said.

Every year, on the last Saturday in September, Australia stops for the AFL Grand Final.

One hundred thousand people pack the Melbourne Cricket Ground to cheer as their team kicks the Sherrin through the four white goal posts.

It is unlikely that Canada’s AFL will ever challenge the popularity of the Australian league.

But Canada’s Aussie Rules offers something different.

The mixture of Canadian and Australian players in each team allows for a cultural exchange, a sharing of skills and a new approach to team sport.

Canadian players pick up Australian ways and vice versa, making a unique style of AFL – both on and off the field.

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