Imagine a world where Laval travels to London, Ontario at the end of September to play a regular season football game. The TV cameras are on, the stands are packed. Those scenes could soon be upon us, financed by a Saskatoon mogul and orchestrated by a long-time CIS football supporter and broadcaster.

This story came through the Twittersphere on Boxing Day:
Saskatoon's David Dube, who has pumped a portion of his wealth into the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football program, is floating an audacious idea with the backing of broadcaster Jim Mullin. They're proposing a national interlocking schedule, pitting elite teams from different conferences in head-to-head regular season games with a network television broadcast relaying events to the fans at home. 
They want the interlocking schedule in place for the 2015 season and kick-started things last week in Toronto by unrolling the idea to several CIS football coaches.
Cool! Someone wants to create an interlocking schedule for CIS football and wants to pay for a lot of it. However, this isn't as simple as it seems. I figure the best way to analyze this is to answer the questions that have floated through my Twitter timeline.

Why do Dube and Jim Mullin want an interlocking schedule instead of just televising regular season games from the current conferences?

Because they want to nationally televise games that would feature the best teams playing. Under the old format, that was not possible. Sure, there were televised games where Mac played Western, but there were also games where a top-ten team would beat up on a bottomfeeder. The lack of consistency in quality of game could have made this a difficult product to invest in. One marquee match-up a week that is planned in advance helps eliminate this issue.

There is also the argument that there is more excitement to watch the No. 2 ranked team play the No. 4 ranked cross-Canada team. Theoretically, this would lead to more fans in the stands and more eyeballs on TV. (Related: McMaster hosted Mount Allison in the Mitchell Bowl and only 3,800 fans showed up. One game is not representative of the whole, but it is worth pointing out.)

So, to be on national TV, a team would have to be in the CIS top-ten?

All signs point to that. Here's Mullin in the Star-Phoenix story:
"(We want) a system where the best teams are playing on a national stage for a weekly television game. It's not creating a tier, or a new conference that sits above the other conferences. This is something that's clearly aspirational. If you play well enough, you can play up into it and get on TV. That's what's driving this thing. We need to have a game of the week, once a week, on national TV. And it's our feeling that the only way to get this done is to make sure we're not showing regional games, but we're showing games that have a national impact."
I don't know why you would want a team outside of the top-ten on national TV anyways.

Okay. Dube wants to pay for all the television production costs, right?

Yup. The thinking is that if you eliminate the largest barrier for the broadcasters, they would be willing to pick the product up. Recent Vanier Cup viewership numbers suggest that there is an appetite for CIS football.

It isn't clear how long Dube would be willing do this for, though. If he funds one year and no one picks it up, what happens to the interlocking schedule? While it is premature to ask that question, I think that is something the CIS will be curious about. There is only so many times people can see something fail before it is viewed as a lost cause.

Who pays for travel and all that jazz?

The teams would pay for travel and hotel expenses. This interlock idea relies on teams securing a sponsorship. I use the term "teams" loosely because the definition is glossed over. It is not clear if all CIS teams split those costs or just the 8-12 teams participating in the nationally televised games. I imagine it would be the 8-12 teams, but I could see the "elite" bunch arguing that the other schools are still benefitting from the national TV games.

Sponsorship may not be as hard to secure as I think. Sporting events are one of the few things people still watch live, and a brand would be able to hit a very specific, very engaged demographic by sponsoring CIS football.

And they want this to happen for the 2015 season?

Yes. Meetings are already happening and CanWest executives say they want to meet sometime in January. Top teams met in December to discuss the idea.

As CanWest's executive director Diane St-Denis points out, there are more questions than answers right now, and sorting all these things out takes time. If CIS football wants to sell itself, they need to have their ducks in a row. We're talking about the league that is a month removed from admitting that their largest event of the year basically has no rules leading up to the game. There is no use in rushing this together.

Let's say this all goes smoothly and everyone "buys in." Who owns the CIS regular season football rights? 

No one, really. It's technically CanWest-OUA-RSEQ-AUS regular season football, and the conferences are tasked with managing their own television contracts. For example, the OUA lost their contract with Sportsnet this past summer and they could not find anyone else to pick up the coverage.

What category this entity would fall into is complicated. CIS regular season football is a new entity. It didn't exist when the contract was signed, so it is possible that the CIS would be allowed to manage this itself. But by definition, this is a CIS event, so I could see Sportsnet still owning the property.

Of course, that is all speculation. Please treat that as food for thought rather than a media law opinion.

What if Sportsnet doesn't own it?

Then Dube and Mullin want to pitch this to TSN and CBC. They obviously want to pitch to Sportsnet too, but that is a given. Here's Mullin on the reasoning for targeting those two broadcasters:
When you take a look at the media landscape in Canada right now, CBC is reassessing what they're doing in terms of wanting to do more amateur sports, so there's a fit there. TSN has more platforms, they're looking for content, and this is strong Canadian content. I think there's a fit there. And Sportsnet, after their deal with hockey, they're still the carrier for CIS, so there might be a fit there.
Okay, let's look at the CBC first. The public broadcaster is undergoing massive structural changes and say that they want to showcase Canadian talent instead of professional sports because of the rising costs. CIS football fits what the CBC is looking for.

TSN does have more platforms, but the launching of the TSN 1-5 was a tad misleading. They are regional channels, akin to Sportsnet Ontario, Central, etc. They don't need to fill five stations 24 hours a day; channels can air the same content at the same time. There is no reason TSN couldn't air it, but there isn't the need for content that some speculated about during the summer.

The biggest hurdle: Sportsnet still owns the Mitchell Bowl, Uteck Bowl and Vanier Cup. I don't know why TSN would want to build a product up when the championships are on Sportsnet. That's like going to a job interview and gushing about another applicant to the hiring group.

Where do we go from here?

We wait. As pointed out above, meetings need to happen and questions need to be answered. But the CIS is absolutely talking about it and the possibility of getting CIS football back on TV is very real. This may be one of the most important winters in the history of the league.

Memorial University and CIS basketball as a whole has been shook by the sudden passing of Waterloo, Ont. native Jacob Ranton.

The details come from the Waterloo Record:

The day before his death, Ranton went to basketball practice at Waterloo Collegiate, hit golf balls with his brother who is going to Indiana University on a golf scholarship next year and then hung out with friends watching Monday night football.
He came home late that night and left a note on the counter, telling his parents he was taking the car and going out for food.  
Ranton didn't come home Monday night. Instead, his body was found in the Conestogo River beneath the train bridge in St. Jacobs by a citizen late Tuesday morning.
The Record also says that there were no signs of depression or problems at school.

The Memorial University coach Peter Benoite told the Telegram that Ranton was "the most enthusiastic, energetic athlete we had this semester" and that "no one saw anything." Ranton was also having a good season on the court, scoring 20.2 points per game, good for third-best in the AUS.

This tragedy should prompt every CIS program to reevaluate the way they talk to their athletes about mental health. Unfortunately, Ranton's struggles are not an isolated issue: UFV basketball player Jasper Moedt detailed his battle with mental health issues in 2013 and Carleton basketball player Krista Van Slingerland left the team in 2013 before their national championship run because of her own mental health struggles. Both athletes said they contemplated suicide.

It's well-documented that the student demographic is more likely to experience battles with mental health. I'd argue that student-athletes are more vulnerable, with the added stress of balancing school with athletics. Athletes may not want to disclose how they are feeling because they want to be "tough" and power through the problems and -- I'm speaking from experience here -- that is an ineffective approach to coping with things like depression and anxiety

This isn't to say that athletic departments aren't doing enough right now. As an outsider, it is hard to make that judgment. The point is, universities should take the time to evaluate what they are doing to see if they can improve.

If you are concerned about your mental well-being, there are simple ways to learn more. Here are some helpful resources:

Chris Bertoia will take the reigns of a floundering Warriors football program
The CIS football offseason has seen a ton of change already. We'll run down the notable moves and provide commentary when possible.

Blake Nill leaves Calgary for UBC 

In a rather surprising move, Nill left the University of Calgary for the University of British Columbia. UBC was in need of a coach, firing Shawn Olson after four seasons at the helm of the program.

The reason this is a surprise: Calgary was a perennial Vanier Cup contender and consistently produced CFL-level talent, meaning Nill had a relatively easy recruiting pitch. He's had a couple suspensions in his time as the Dinos's head coach, with the most recent issue coming in October 2014. Outside of that, it seemed well and good. Yet, Nill told the Canadian Press that there have been situations that "maybe caused a drain" on him, but UBC has been a CanWest bottom-feeder for a while and turning a program around is no simple (or quick) task.

As Neate Sager points out, Nill could make $200,000 annually, and this could have detrimental effects on any attempt towards increasing parity. Sager outlines the problems well, so read his piece (if you haven't already) to learn about the potential problems.

In the meantime, Calgary offensive line coach Steve Buratto takes over as the interim head coach.

Chris Bertoia hired as Waterloo head coach 

Bertoia, a UW alum, leaves Western to joining a rebuilding Warriors program.

The talk around Waterloo is encouraging. Bertoia says that Waterloo athletic director is committed to the football program. "From the top down everyone is on board," Bertoia told the London Free Press.

A Waterloo football revival would be great to see, but don't hold your breath. Until we start seeing some tangible evidence and increased funding, there is little reason to believe that the Warriors will quickly turn things around. Don't get me wrong; Bertoia seems like a great hire and his Western years should give him a great foundation for being a head coach. But rumours about the elimination of a program don't just happen to football teams. There are problems here, but Bertoia seems especially eager to solve them.

McGill, Regina still in search of new head coaches

The Redmen program had a 2014 to forget: they went 0-8 with some ugly losses. The university administration flip-flopped on their stance about Luis-Andres Guimont-Moda's eligibility and drew national media coverage. Their head coach, Clint Uttley, quit because of the administration's view.

Now, they need to try and hire someone to coach in the RSEQ conference. That's not a great gig: Montreal and Laval are (obviously) powerhouses with huge wallets. Coaching McGill means that you are fighting an uphill battle, except the hill is 45 degrees and you're wearing roller blades. Their head coaching search is ongoing.

Regina needs a new coach after Frank McCrystal's retirement. Jim Mullin of Krown Countdown U confirmed that Paul Dawson (currently the Rams defensive co-ordinator), Jerry Friesen (defensive co-ordinator, UBC), and former Redblacks offensive co-ordinator Mike Gibson interviewed for the gig.
Can any team outscore the Gee-Gees? This may be head coach James Derouin's reaction.
Coming into the 2014-15 season, we knew the Gee-Gees were going to be good. Sure, they lost Terry Thomas to a pro contract in Europe and he was a major piece in their run to the national championship game.

A slight regression was an understandable expectation. Thomas used 28% of the possessions when he was on the floor and was damn efficient, shooting 54.1% from the floor and 45.2% from three. Replacing that production is no simple task, although not impossible. This team dealt with the loss of Warren Ward the year before, a player of more importance to the offence.

Instead of mediocre start, Ottawa looks better than ever. The Gee-Gees are 8-0 and they've rolled over their top-ten opponents, besting McMaster 106-83 and Ryerson 93-64.

Those wins are impressive and the metrics back it up. Right now, Ottawa owns an offensive rating of 134.1. They are shooting just under 41% from three and 52.5% overall, with an effective field goal percentage of 61.8%. Through eight games, 46% of the Gee-Gees field goal attempts have been threes.

There's a couple of reasons for that: their assist to turnover ratio is the best in the country (the Gee-Gees are the only team in the country averaging single digit turnovers in the country) and their offence is balanced and willing to share the ball. Look at the usage percentage from their starting five (numbers slightly rounded):
  • Johnny Berhanemeskel - 27%
  • Caleb Agada - 25%
  • Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue - 19%
  • Mike L'Africain - 16%
  • Vikas Gill - 12%
Berhanemeskel's usage number looks a little high, but it is justifiable: he's shooting 61.1% from the field. He has more ball-handling responsibilities than you would think, and he is averaging 4.8 assists per game with only 1.5 turnovers. Berhanemeskel is fourth in the country in scoring, but from an efficiency perspective, Tommy Scrubb is the only other top scorer on a ranked team that rivals his marks. 

Caleb Agada deserves credit for his growth too. He started as a raw athlete and blossomed into one of the best all-around wing players. Agada has length that allows him to bother shooters and disrupt passes. Offensively, he has a quick first step and improved his three-point shooting. Last year, he shot 17-58 beyond the arc but he's already made 12 threes on 30 attempts through eight games.

Gabriel Gonthier-Dubue and Vikas Gill represent the Gee-Gees two greatest assets: continuity and spacing. The ball zips around the floor and these two are great cutters, but their skills are only emphasized because they have so much room to operate because of the three-point threat. That being said, great cutters do not always get the opportunities they have earned. They either get missed or they get the ball late. Part of that is because players just don't expect the cutter but this squad looks for the man diving to the hoop. Head coach James Derouin deserves credit for turning this into one of the most unselfish groups in the country. Mike L'Africain, is the only starter shooting under 50% -- he's at 43.8 right now -- but since his usage is low, that is an easy pill to swallow. If L'Africain can push his shooting percentage north of that mark, this team becomes even more dangerous.

Their bench is doing well too. The next five guys in the rotation are combining to shoot 47.8% from the floor, with Moe Ismail and Matt Plunkett hitting 43.8% and 41.9% respectively from three. Those two shooters help maintain the critical spacing this offence needs. Mehdi Tehani hasn't shot up to his capabilities, meaning they may have a little extra bump to their offensive numbers come 2015.

Naturally, Ottawa will get compared to Carleton at every turn. It's a worthy exercise here, as the two have played the same regular season season and are one-two in the CIS top ten.

Offensive rating
Defensive rating
Net rating

Some quick thoughts on those numbers: the net ratings are probably higher than what we will see at the end of the season. Carleton's pace seems high too; I ran the numbers a couple of times to double-check. I say that because the Ravens have traditionally played slower, but without a real post threat anymore, a quicker tempo makes sense.

Of course, the major takeaway is the defence. Its the same old story: the Gee-Gees struggle defensively. It is fair to wonder whether this team is capable of crafting a defence that will shut down other top teams, but that may not be the issue. Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely an issue and I think Derouin would agree. But right now, no one is capable of taming Ottawa's offence to a manageable point, and if you can outscore your opponent like the Gee-Gees do, you mask your defensive shortcomings.

We get to see if this team can either tighten up their defence against the other top offence in the country or whether it will even matter on January 10, when the Gee-Gees and Ravens square off in their first match-up since the 2014 CIS Final 8 championship game.

All advanced statistics used in this post were created following formulas from Basketball-Reference. For questions about the statistics, please contact scott1hastie [at] gmail [dot] com. 

(Photo by Shelby Blackley)
We're at the halfway mark for CIS women's hockey, and if the season were to end right now, I couldn't tell you who would be the now eight teams — thanks to a revisit of the structure — heading to the national championship. Last year, the McGill Marlets, Montreal Carabins, the Saskatchewan Huskies, the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, the Moncton Aigles Bleues and the St. Thomas Tommies made up the national bracket, which, for the most part, made sense. Montreal and McGill fought in one of the best gold medal games that went to two overtime periods before McGill buried the winner. Saskatchewan foiled Laurier's plans for bronze, essentially silencing the Hawks and taking home a medal for the first time in their program's history.

The only thing that wasn't shocking was that the host St. Thomas went 0-3 in the tourney despite having one of the best fan bases I've ever seen.

But right now, if we were to see who would go to the national championship, I wouldn't be able to tell you. Aside from RSEQ, where McGill and Montreal continue to run the show, every other conference is jumbled and full of unexpected and questionable records. Add that to the new format of eight teams going to the national championship, and we have a load of potential for teams. Let's take a look.

East coast worst coast? 
The stigma with teams that come from the AUS is that they are the worst of the pack. Coming from one who sat in the beautiful press box at the arena in St. Thomas and watched part of the Tommies' opening game against Saskatchewan (they lost 3-2), the fact of the matter is they aren't as weak as people perceive them to be. Moncton — the winners of the AUS — had more trouble sticking with teams than St. Thomas did, and both teams really lost by a lack of speed rather than a lack of skill.

But currently, St. FX sits atop the AUS with comfort of an 13-1 record while Moncton trails with a 10-3-1 record. St. FX's only loss? To UPEI, a team that has a 4-7-1 record and sits second-last in the six-team conference. St. FX could very well be the team that comes out this year from the AUS — they were supposed to last year, but the Mount Allison Mounties came out of nowhere to send St. FX packing. If they can keep composed and focus on their physical game — speed, strength and endurance — St. FX could compete on the national level, and should be a team we see at the national championship in Calgary in March.

A five-way race for top of the West
I went to look at the standings for the West, and literally was shocked by how close it was. Currently, six teams sit less than seven points apart. Saskatchewan sits at the top with 32, but closely behind is Calgary followed by Manitoba, Alberta, UBC and Regina. Really, the only teams out of that race are Lethbridge and Mount Royal.

Calgary already has their ticket punched to the national championship as the host team, which could be a factor in not dominating the West like they usually do — or it could be the lackluster season of a certain women's hockey icon. What's also interesting to note is that many of the games those five top teams have played have gone to overtime — Saskatchewan has played five, losing two. Regina has played in an astounding seven overtime games, only losing one. This conference is so close that any slip-up once the playoffs begin can send anyone home — and I don't have a prediction on what's going to happen. It'll be the most interesting one to watch to see who will claim that provincial banner.

Quebec's two-way race
This might be the easiest one to figure out mainly because thanks to McGill's victory last year, the RSEQ will most likely get the second assigned berth this year into the championship. And in reality, who else can compete with the big, bad McGill and Montreal? The conference standings seat Montreal and McGill respectively on the top, with Concordia six points back from first and an under .500 record. This is the easiest one to pick for me because there is no competition — McGill proved they are a powerhouse with speed, skill and national talent, and Montreal is right there with them.

What the hell is going on in the OUA?
I left the Ontario conference last for a number of reasons. 1) I have spent the last three years, three months and 13 days covering this conference, especially in women's hockey, to the bare bones of its structure. 2) The conference has the most teams, making it harder to analyze and really get a feel for how the playoffs will play out. 3) I'm slightly biased toward the conference.

But most importantly, 4) I actually don't know where to start.

At the beginning of the season, I knew from covering the Laurier Golden Hawks that they would have a target on their back. They're the defending OUA champions with a glowing resume. They came fourth in the country last year. But the loss of Candice Styles, one of the top converted defencemen in the country and speedster Devon Skeats, a very young team and no real good depth have been hindrances on their year. They sit at .500 and were pushed out of the Top 10 ranking for the first time since at least the 2003 season — which is when CIS records of women's hockey begin, according to Michel Belanger.

So now, the OUA looks like a cluster of teams that make no sense with a bunch of questionable records, making deciphering true contenders from lucky teams pretty hard.

Let's start with who's currently at the top — the Western Mustangs are the only team in the entire country that has not lost a game in regulation. They are good. They are a powerhouse and have a solid group from their leading scorer to their fourth-line defencemen. Western deserves to be running circles around the rest of the OUA because they are taking advantage of the convoluted conference. As long as nothing goes awry with injuries or sudden flattening in the second half of the season, Western is my pick to come out of the OUA.

After that, everyone's everywhere. Who would have expected the Windsor Lancers to be third in the province? Queen's lost their fifth-year goaltender Mel Dodd-Moher, yet their third-year starter looks like a true veteran between the pipes — and it's showing. Guelph still sits among the top calibre, but the most surprising is the Toronto Varsity Blues, who are currently just above the Hawks in fifth.

Toronto was feisty in the playoffs last year against Laurier, forcing them to a game three situation in the semifinals. However, what is important to note is that their goaltender, Nicole Kesteris, is headed for the Winter Universiade in February and this could be a big factor in how Toronto fairs in the final weeks. Granted, many of the best players from across the country will also be joining her.

With those big players gone in the final weeks, it's going to come down to the depth of benches and the strength of players to vault them into the playoffs. From there, as we've seen, anything can happen. But I would not be surprised if we see Western and Queen's in the OUA final.

Midterm analysis is hard because there are so many factors, but from what I've seen across the country — aside from RSEQ — it's going to be an interesting ending to the year.

If I currently had to pick right now, this would be the eight-team national championship contenders I would pick:

OUA: Western Mustangs
OUA: Queen's Gaels
CWUAA: Calgary Dinos (host)
CWUAA: Alberta Pandas
RSEQ: Montreal Carabins
AUS: St. FX X-Women
1 additional assigned berth: If the berth goes to RSEQ like it should, it'll no doubt be McGill, and they'll benefit. They compete better on a national level than provincial, and there is no other team remotely close to them in Quebec. If it goes to OUA, it'll be either Windsor or Laurier — Guelph tends to crack under playoff pressure.
1 at-large wildcard berth: Mount Allison. Because who can seriously count them out?

Our friends at Yahoo's Eh Game site have the numbers, and they look pretty good: the 50th Vanier Cup averaged 320,000 viewers on Sportsnet.* This number doesn't include streaming -- either the CIS feed, or Radio-Canada stream or (obviously) illegal ones -- and those figures would bump this number up significantly. NCAA football games in the same time slot averaged 91,000.

So, what does 320,000 viewers actually mean for the future? Quick answer: probably nothing.

According to the Toronto Star, regular season OUA football averaged 28,000 viewers in the 2013 season. The 2013 Vanier Cup averaged 301,000 viewers.

I actually think 320,000 viewers this year is more impressive than it seems.  I cannot find the tweet, but Jim Mullin made a good point during the Mitchell Bowl: the lack of weekly television coverage hurts the product and people are unaware of what is going on. Mullin is bang-on here. Dropping a product on viewers, starting with two oddly named games that are confusing in nature, is not the easiest way to draw people into your product. Seriously, the Mitchell/Uteck Bowl make it hard for people to understand what they are watching. Is it a championship or a semi-final? Is it...both? That is a conversation for another day, but a contributing factor nonetheless. To get 269,000 without building the hype for four months is impressive.

But I doubt that this figure pushes the needle for Sportsnet. It isn't a large enough number for Rogers brass to say "maybe we made a mistake" and get their ducks in a row to start broadcasting the OUA again. It would be nice I'm wrong, but their stance seems like a firm one: production costs are too high.

In that same Toronto Star interview, Sportsnet president Scott Moore said that production costs needs to be closer to "5 to 10 cents." Moore says that "other sports" cost a similar amount. The Sportsnet executive also said that OUA football games cost $3 a viewer. Using that production cost as a similar mark for the Vanier, the per viewer cost was 26 cents. A Vanier Cup production likely costs more than a regular season football game, so the per viewer cost is going to be higher. Regardless, you can see that number is still well-north of what Sportsnet is aiming for.

I don't think this changes much. It is good to see the Vanier get support despite the odds stacked against the event, but don't expect to get regular CIS football coverage back on your TV anytime soon.

* Correction. When this was originally posted, the number read 269,000 viewers. This number did not account for Sportsnet 360's numbers. Thanks to Chris Black for the assist.

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