Welcomes Skyhawks to the Fold

By Paul Svoboda Total Sports Quinte

Jim Pankovich isn’t sure how the 2020 season will unfold for the Canadian Junior Football League.

But, one thing he knows for sure is that the Quinte Skyhawks will be part of the season-opening kick-off for the 2021 CJFL campaign.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the CJFL’s plans for 2020, Pankovich, the league commissioner working out of Edmonton, is already looking ahead to 2021. Several weeks ago, the Skyhawks were approved for a CJFL expansion franchise to begin play next year.

The Skyhawks already operate local minor and U16-18 competitive programs out of MAS Park. They’ll now take a giant leap into the top junior football league in Canada.

“The Skyhawks submitted a proposal, it’s a good organization with a solid track record and business plan, and we understand they have support from the municipality,” said Pankovich. “Our Ontario representative helped them work on their proposal and, ultimately, to get approved.”

The CJFL currently includes 18 teams, six in each of three divisions — the Ontario Conference, the Prairie Conference and the B.C. Conference. Quinte will join the Ontario Conference along with existing franchises in London, Windsor, Hamilton, the GTA, Ottawa and Niagara Region.

The Skyhawks could soon be joined by other new entries from Ontario, said Pankovich.

“We’d like to see about 10 teams in Ontario, which we think is doable,” he said. “Some other Ontario communities and organizations have expressed interest and some, like Quinte, already have minor football programs in place. Some, like Quinte, are looking to supplement their minor programs with a junior program.”

Joining the CJFL is a tall order for the Skyhawks. The league is regarded as the elite national circuit for Canadian athletes not playing football at the USports or NCAA levels.

“We’re nationally recognized as a high performance program,” said Pankovich. “We’re somewhere between top-level high school football and USports. Some of our top teams are comparable to USports teams, but in reality we’re one step below because our athletes tend to be a little bit younger.”

Athletes from the ages of 17-22 are eligible to play in the CJFL. Some are students, some are not.

“We don’t limit our athletes,” said Pankovich. “Whether they are in school or have an occupation, they’re eligible to play.”

Pankovich says some CJFL players attend community college or are involved in apprenticeship programs while extending their football careers in the league. Others play one or two seasons, then will try their luck at the USports level if they qualify academically for university studies.

Like the former OHL Belleville Bulls, Pankovich said future Skyhawks players in the CJFL could come from anywhere in Ontario — or, beyond. Also like junior hockey, billet families are an integral part of the league.

“Quinte will absolutely be a regional team,” said Pankovich. “Some 

of our model franchises in B.C. really appeal to their communities but also draw from other areas. Most of our players come from a 100-kilometre radius of where their team is. Some players will need to stay with billet families, or at residence if they’re studying at community college.”

The CJFL features teams in large urban centres, like the GTA, Hamilton and London. But it also includes clubs in smaller markets such as Nanaimo, Chilliwack and Langley, B.C.

“We believe that’s a strength of our league,” said Pankovic. “The smaller market teams really become a part of their community. They become embedded members of the community and can really get into a lot of community sponsorship opportunities.

“That’s how a lot of our clubs operate.”

CJFL franchises must be not-for-profit organizations, said Pankovich, and most play in facilities that are owned and operated by their municipality. There are minimum standards for league playing fields and the Skyhawks have already approached City Hall in Belleville, receiving a favourable reception to their requests for upgrades at MAS 2 Field like permanent stands, a press box, change facilities and other amenities.

“Minimum standards are expected and we’ve provided a list to Quinte,” said Pankovich. “We understand there is a partnership between the city and the organization. I’ve talked to a lot of mayors about these things and there are resources and grants available.

“We understand these things don’t happen overnight, and most of our stadiums are nice and cozy.”

As for what local gridiron fans can expect when the Skyhawks make their debut in the CJFL in 2021, Pankovich believes they’ll be impressed. “It’s very competitive and anything can happen,” he said. “Ideally, we believe our games take place in a good environment with good competition and fans leave feeling they’ve enjoyed a good experience.”

They might even see a future pro in action. Seven former CJFL players were selected in the 2020 CFL draft while the 2019 Grey Cup MVP, Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Andrew Harris, is a CJFL graduate.

“Our goal is not to produce professional athletes,” said Pankovich. “But some have gone on and done quite well. Like Andrew Harris.”

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