Fewer on field could boost football

Adding six-, nine-player game could be key to developing Manitoba talent

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More players, more participation, more opportunity — all prevented by a narrative that it’s not real football.

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More players, more participation, more opportunity — all prevented by a narrative that it’s not real football.

Six- and nine-player football have long been part of the fabric of the Canadian game, providing young athletes from even the smallest of communities a chance to play and advance in one of the country’s marquee sports. Yet, they haven’t latched on at the high-school level in Winnipeg, leaving Manitoba behind the times at the amateur level.

These versions of football require a different skillset than the 12-person game. Fewer bodies on the field means more space for athletes to make plays but also demands that players rely on their fundamentals, as one mistake could mean big consequences.

University of Manitoba

Ryder Klisowsky

Any player on offence — including linemen — is eligible to catch the ball, so the pace is heightened and explosive plays are always a possibility.

Saskatchewan is the national leader in the spin-off games, which have been promoted across that province for more than 50 years.

University of Manitoba Bisons offensive lineman Ryder Klisowsky is a product of that system.

“It definitely made you quicker, because it forced you to be quicker because you couldn’t just sit there and block,” Klisowsky, who hails from Watrous, Sask., said recently. “It definitely calmed things down when I went from six-man to 12-man because now it’s just, ‘Hey, you go block this guy.’ You do one job and that’s it.”

In his hometown of 1,800 (which had a mere 200 students attending Winston High School), the six-man game was Klisowsky’s only option to get his start in football. The alternative was to make the 70-minute trek to Saskatoon for 12-man action, similar to the decision many kids in rural communities face.

“If I didn’t play six-man, I wouldn’t have tried out for a junior team and I wouldn’t be here, with the Bisons today,” said Klisowsky, who played junior football with the Saskatoon Hilltops after high school. “If we didn’t have six or nine-man football, you would have so many kids that just don’t play football ever. It definitely gives people a chance.”

“It brings small communities together, it brings towns together. It’s such a missed opportunity for kids to not try out and just see what you can do and be a part of a team.”

Alberta adopted the two styles after Saskatchewan and had great success developing talent. Other provinces have joined in the last decade, including Quebec, which is widely mentioned in the same breath as Saskatchewan as one of the sport’s powerhouses.

British Columbia plays seven a side — a version that has gained mass popularity in the United States — while New Brunswick implements six-a-side for its girls U-18 football program.

Manitoba isn’t completely absent in the smaller games. Nine-man football can be seen in the Rural Manitoba Football League, a nine-team high school league that stretches across the province. Seven-a-side competition is also available to bantam-aged kids in the Manitoba Minor Football Association.

Some believe it’s up to the Winnipeg High School Football League (WHSFL) to get the ball rolling here, though.

Dave Mahussier

Ryder Klisowsky

In 2021, when organized sports returned following the loosening of public health restrictions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Miles Macdonell, Garden City and Sturgeon Heights collegiates adopted the nine-a-side game. The move was made because the schools had a shortage of players and were making every effort to keep their programs afloat.

“I think my biggest takeaway was that it’s still football,” said Dan Washnuck, head coach of Miles Mac and board member of the WHSFL. “What we found is that it’s very similar to 12-a-side football. Once you’re out there, once you’re coaching in it, once you’re playing in it — according to the athletes — it’s 12-a-side football, there just happens to be three fewer people on the field.”

Washnuck said the 2021 season was the only reason Miles Mac was able to field a team in 2022. Just three players returned from the 2019 team (the last time the program played 12-a-side) while the rest of the roster had never played 12-man football at the high school level.

“The translation from nine to 12-a-side was immediate. It’s just football skills,” he said.

The tinkered season appeared to pay dividends this year when the league returned to regular play. Miles Mac qualified for playoffs with a 4-1 regular season record while Sturgeon Heights cruised to an undefeated 5-0 season before narrowly falling in the Division 2 championship.

Ultimately, nine-a-side football fizzled in Winnipeg after its one-year stint.

Washnuck has since been banging the table to get the smaller game in the WHSFL permanently but hasn’t gained much traction.

“I’ve made it very clear to the league that I would very much like to see our direction in the future be 12-a-side and nine-a-side (for varsity) and nine-a-side and six-a-side (for junior varsity). I think that’s an opportunity for us to really help grow participation in our league,” he said.

Washnuck could be on to something — the WHSFL comprised of 36 schools this season. Comparatively, Saskatchewan had 107 between the three versions (51 in six-a-side, 20 in nine-a-side and 36 in 12-a-side).

The Free Press was unable to uncover how many youths play football in Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Part of the reason for the WHSFL’s lower numbers is schools need at least 30 players to start a team. While smaller rosters would work for six or nine-a-side, the current rules have prevented programs such as Tec-Voc High and Neelin High School in Brandon from returning to the league since the pandemic.

Dave Mahussier

Ryder Klisowsky

For all Washnuck’s efforts, nine-a-side just isn’t being embraced by players and coaches. For students, there’s a stigma that nine-man football is a lesser game, he said. For coaches, especially those who have coached one style of the game for decades, adjusting to a different game could be intimidating.

In Saskatchewan, however, not only do the smaller games boost participation, they’ve helped the province produce more elite players who go on to play at the university level.

The size of the school in the neighbouring province dictates which style each school plays. Schools with the smallest enrolment (fewer than 200 kids) play six-a-side, those with 200-450 kids play nine-a-side and the largest schools (more than 450 kids) play 12-a-side.

John Svenson heads the nine-man program at Melville (Sask.) Comprehensive School, and he’s a believer.

“There’s a lot of skill development for those players, whereas, in 12-a-side, you wouldn’t have that many eligible players that could even catch a ball or run the ball and those types of things,” said Svenson, who owns two provincial championships in his 16 years as head coach.

“It allows more athletes to participate in the sport. So overall, I think that, in itself, equates to benefits. Not only to our post-secondary programs, but our minor programs are feeding our high school programs and those players already have the skills built in.”

Indeed, the smaller games are so ingrained in Saskatchewan, it’s created a pipeline of never-ending wealth for the province’s junior and university teams.

Between 2001-2019 in the Canadian Junior Football League, the Saskatoon Hilltops won the national championship 13 times. The University of Saskatchewan Huskies have been a dominant force in U Sports in recent years, appearing in the Canada West conference final in each of the past four seasons, winning three times.

The Huskies have lost the last two Vanier Cup national championships.

Brian Dobie has tried to attract many players with Saskatchewan roots to his University of Manitoba Bisons program during his 26 years at the helm but has rarely been successful.

“It’s tough getting kids out of Saskatchewan, which says a lot about their system,” said Dobie. “Literally, their model is the model in the country. I’m not talking about comparing the Bisons to the Huskies, I’m talking about the entire model, from bottom to top in Saskatchewan football.”

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Brian Dobie has tried to attract many players with Saskatchewan roots to his University of Manitoba Bisons program during his 26 years at the helm but has rarely been successful.

He said the goal should be to teach young athletes the skills and techniques of football — increasing their football IQ — at the high school level. It’s a principle that often falls by the wayside when winning in 12-man football takes precedence.

“The problem is more with buying into the concept… because of that, it potentially gets in the way of more appropriate development of more athletes,” Dobie said.

He supports the notion of offering six- and nine-man programs in Manitoba, and specifically in Winnipeg, noting it wouldn’t cost schools nearly as much money to start a smaller-style program as it does a 12-man program.

“At the end of the day, math kicks in. The more players that are getting quality development throughout their development process, of course it’s going to create more better football players,” he said.

“The more kids you have playing the game, the better off all the kids are going to be, the more competitive they’re going to be, the more challenged they’re going to be, the more interest there’s going to be. When numbers dwindle, so does challenge and so does interest.”

jfreysam@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam
Reporter

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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Updated on Tuesday, December 27, 2022 8:28 AM CST: Changes headline, deck

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