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Iconic Junior Team Leaving Burlington- Steve Milton
Nobody knows more about what Burlington is losing than the man who finally had to pull the plug.
Team president Larry Irish began his association with the Burlington Braves in 1971 as a player, stepped off the field and into the board of directors three years later, and ever since has been a driving force behind keeping junior football on the field at Nelson Stadium.
But at the Royal York Hotel, Irish officially notified the Ontario Football Conference’s annual general meeting that the franchise was moving to St. Catharines this season to become the Niagara Raiders.
So the second-longest uninterrupted tenure in the OFC (behind Windsor AKO) comes to an end. The OFC is a football league for players 17 to 22 years of age, with franchises in Hamilton, London, Waterloo Region, Ottawa, Etobicoke, Windsor and, now, St. Catharines.
The iconic Braves began play at Central High School in 1958, then shifted to MM Robinson and in 1967 moved into a then-state-of-the-art clubhouse and football complex at Nelson Stadium, a major project spearheaded by team executive Ken Allen.
“It was a tough decision and I’m very sad to do this,” Irish told The Spectator Monday. “But we just didn’t have the infrastructure or the volunteers.
“The last three years we’ve been just spinning our wheels. We weren’t getting the players. You need more than three people to run a junior team.”
Many more, said OFC president Darren Cocchetto, who complimented a small handful of men — Irish, Dr. Dan Higgins, Jay Stillie and coach/GM Brad Anderson were the main movers — for keeping the Braves on the field. Irish is one of the few lifetime members of the Canadian Junior Football League, which runs junior football in this country.
Cocchetto said the OFC was told in November that the Braves might not play the 2016 season but the anticipation was that if they did not field a team, it would fold. In January, the more promising scenario of a move to Niagara was floated, and that move was confirmed Saturday, keeping the league at seven teams.
“There’s a lot of history in Burlington but the last few years, player numbers were not high and the support was lacking,” said Cocchetto.
Among the well-known Brave alumni are CFLers Tony Gabriel, Peter Dalla Riva, Ian Sunter, Marv Allemang, John Bonk, Andre Durie and Rob Maver, plus CFL team owner David Braley, CFL official Dave Hutton and Ron MacVinnie, the president of the Lakeshore Officials Association.
The relocation fractures one the local area’s staunchest sports rivalries.
“They’ll still be our closest competition but it’s just not the same,” said Mike Samuel, president of the Hamilton Hurricanes. “The Braves and Hurricanes were like the Argos and Ticats rivalry. That’s what builds fans: rivalries. We played Burlington twice a year for the last eight years.
“I’ve got a great deal of respect for Larry, he’s been doing this forever.”
Both the Hurricanes and Braves had Niagara players on their rosters. Those with Hamilton will be “grandfathered” and can still play for the Hurricanes, but new players from the area will be part of the Niagara team’s protected area. Samuel said the Hurricanes have been developing some Niagara-area players for a couple of years and they are coming into their junior-career prime. But, he added, the team would not stand in the way of any player who would rather not travel here from Niagara.
The last junior football team in the peninsula was the Niagara Region Raiders, who played from 1973 to 1978.
While the OFC loses a long-term member which helped define the league, it has also broadened its footprint with the Braves’ relocation.
“They’ve got a board and a base of volunteers already,” Cocchetto said. “There are a half a million people in the area, so it will be good for the game.”
Irish said he’s promised to spend one more year with the team’s board before he retires.
“We’ll be pretty well starting from scratch down there,” he said. “But there are 29 high schools in the area, so there are lots of kids available to play.”
The Hurricanes’ Samuel recognizes that the Braves will have a better chance to be successful in St. Catharines, but also acknowledges what will disappear.
“I’m sad that we’re losing the bay rivalry,” he said. “They were just a bridge away.”
Article Credit to Steve Milton of The Hamilton Spectator