This is the cover story for the Spring 2023 issue of Total Sports Quinte magazine
Peter Gabriel loves football.
He gave other sports like hockey, soccer and lacrosse a shot when he was younger. Nothing appealed to him the way football later did.
“I think football is like no other sport. You can have all shapes and sizes, it doesn’t exclude anyone – you can have a big 6-foot-4, 300-pound guy and then you can have a 5-foot-5, 135-pound guy. Both have extremely great skill sets, but at totally different positions and you value both of them at the same level,” Gabriel said. “I just love the whole team concept about it.”
There weren’t the opportunities for Gabriel and other youth in football when he was a youngster playing like there are today, but then again he played a key role in bringing minor football to the Quinte region. He had to wait until high school to play and there was no summer club football.
Gabriel moved to Belleville in the early 2000s and began coaching at the former Quinte Secondary School as a volunteer. Over the years he heard from players about the lack of opportunities in the area outside of high school football.
“Most times if guys were really serious about football they were going to Kingston to play,” Gabriel said.
In 2017, he explored the possibility of a rep football program as there was an application opportunity from the formerly named Ontario Varsity Football League. Following approval, they spent that year preparing for the inaugural 2018 season.
“Starting the club from nothing with no money, especially football, is an adventure in itself,” Gabriel said. “We spent the year fundraising, getting corporate sponsors, all those kinds of things, but the reason why it started is just because of the pride from the guys that I was coaching saying ‘coach why don’t we have something here?’”
Once just a vision to develop football locally at the grassroots level has propelled the Quinte Skyhawks to great heights.
The Skyhawks fielded its first U16 junior varsity team in the Ontario Football Conference in 2018. The following year they had a senior varsity team as well before the 2020 and 2021 seasons were cancelled.
“We were really moving forward well. We were really concerned when COVID hit because we were so new and what that was going to do,” Gabriel said. “Slowly we climbed out of COVID and were wondering if the people were going to come back.”
Registration numbers were down a bit in 2022, but the teams did well and made the playoffs.
“This year the response has been astronomical where we’re having to do tryouts just because there’s so many guys coming out,” Gabriel said. “That’s been a really exciting thing.”
Leading up to tackle football, the Skyhawks organization first introduced the sport to young players with touch-flag football since 2016. Gabriel and wife Brenda previously founded No Limits Youth Organization (nolimitsyouth.ca), which has dance, basketball and football.
Registration for the 2023 Skyhawks Flag Football League, for ages 6 to 13, is now open. The season runs from late August until the end of October, concluding with the Pumpkin Bowl.
“It’s a great introduction for football, probably the best way for kids to get involved in football at a non-contact level,” Gabriel said. “It really showcases speed and agility and introduces them to what every kid wants to do – catch, run and score touchdowns. It’s a very fast moving game and we’ve had great success over the years and that’s how we started.”
A flag football program was the foundation, but the Skyhawks over the years have added rep teams at the U14, U16 and U18 levels as well as a Canadian Junior Football League U22 team. The plan is to introduce a U12 team next spring as well.
Providing club rugby is a great way to inspire players beyond only playing high school football, should they have bigger aspirations.
“Playing next-level football where they actually see peers across Ontario with that kind of talent. Competing at that level with them just instills confidence, bigger self-esteem and it sets the stage where I just believe if you can drive passion through a kid through sport, drive a passion through their lives, they’ll drive a passion through their schooling, their education will just keep them on track,” Gabriel said.
Great coaches help keep the program growing as well and Gabriel said he always tells players how fortunate they are to have the calibre of coaches they do to learn from.
Head coaches are Aaron Liscombe for the U14 Skyhawks, Mark McFaul at U16 and Justin Shakell at U18.
“I couldn’t be more blessed to have the coaching staffs that we have at all three levels,” Gabriel said. “All the coaches at these levels are coaching either high school or have played at the next level and they love what they’re doing.”
Some Skyhawks alumni are now joining the coaching ranks as well.
“The great thing about our U14 team is we’re seeing some of our Skyhawks players who now play on the U22 CJFL team, they’re giving back and they’re coaching,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel expects the U14, U16 and U18 to have their first home games in late May and fans can expect a number of tripleheaders for a chance to see all three teams in action on the same day. Games are played at Mary Ann Sills Park and Loyalist College.
“It’s going to be great to see all the fans out again,” he said.
As for the U22 Skyhawks, there is optimism for the CJFL season despite a couple of challenging seasons.
For starters, they have a new coach following the hiring of Sean Mellor from the Ottawa area, two years after serving as the assistant offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the Skyhawks inaugural 2022 season.
“This year it feels different. The first two years was kind of finding our way,” Gabriel said. “The hardest thing is losing. It’s hard to build a program and recruit people when you’re not winning games so we’re optimistically hopeful this year.”
The Quinte club has received some interest from international students and a spring camp is in the works. In addition, National Signing Day is June 1.
“Things are going to speed up really quickly for the junior team,” Gabriel said.
In March, it was announced that Belleville’s Loyalist College was launching a new $50,000 sponsorship agreement with the Skyhawks.
Gabriel said the Skyhawks organization connected with Loyalist College as soon as the CJFL team was launched as there is a strong focus from the organization on the development of student-athletes.
“We see the huge value they bring to our program and they also see the value of trying to reach a demographic, to reach more and more students, especially in this region, especially the Toronto to Ottawa corridor,” Gabriel said, noting players from outside the Quinte region can now join the Skyhawks and attend college at the same time.
“The sponsorship and the money that they’re bringing forth is just deepening that commitment to helping us in being a young franchise, giving a financial push that will really help us to get to that next stage so everything from coaching staff, everything that goes along with running the team – the expense of that,” Gabriel said. “When you get to a higher level of football the cost of everything just accelerates higher and higher.”
There’s also hope to form a strong military connection and the plan is to have the Skyhawks parachute team fly in during a Labour Day weekend.
“They’re going to jump in and present the game ball to the referee and to the president of the school,” Gabriel said. “That’s going to be a big event. We’re going to do a huge military appreciation around that.”