TORONTO — Former NHL executive Brian Burke’s love for rugby started after his hockey playing career ended.
Having won the Calder Cup with the AHL’s Maine Mariners in 1978, he started that fall at Harvard Law School. Burke found a new sport there, playing tighthead prop for the Harvard Business School for 4 1/2 years.
“I love rugby. It’s my second favourite sport,” said Burke, who now works as a TV hockey pundit.
Burke has remained involved as a member of Rugby Canada’s board of directors. And now he is part of the ownership group of the expansion Toronto Arrows, who kick off their inaugural season next month in Major League Rugby.
Burke, like others involved with the fledging franchise, hope the Arrows will both give players high-level club rugby and serve as a pathway for Canadians into pro rugby. The team is planning its own rugby academy to help prepare young talent to rise up the sport’s ranks.
Arrows assistant coach Aaron Carpenter, who retired as a player last January with a Canadian-record 80 caps, believes the Arrows will leave a legacy.
“For myself it was a big step to take from playing club rugby and then playing international rugby,” said the former forward, who started his pro career in England at the age of 26. “It was easier when I started but now it’s become a giant chasm, that hopefully we can bridge.”
Season 2 of the North American pro circuit will feature nine teams: Austin, Houston, Glendale (Colo.), New Orleans, Rugby United New York, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Toronto. Washington, D.C., is set to join in 2020.
The Seattle Seawolves were crowned the MLR’s first champions in July, beating the Glendale Raptors 23-19 in the final. The Seattle roster included player-coach Phil Mack and fellow Canadians Ray Barkwill, George Barton, Cam Polson and Brock Staller.
Arrows co-founder Bill Webb, a partner and chief investment officer at Waypoint Investment Partners, and vice-president and GM Mark Winokur, longtime Ontario Blues and Canada men’s team manager, have been the driving forces behind bringing pro rugby union to Toronto.
The Arrows ownership group also includes Boat Rocker Sports (a division of Boat Rocker Media), Canadian women’s team assistant coach Duncan McNaughton, Kevin Reed of AR3 Capital and John Ferraro of Mass Marketing Inc.
The Arrows have grown out of the Ontario Blues, who have won the Canadian Rugby Championship six of the last eight years.
On Tuesday, the team confirmed its coaching staff and announced another batch of players signings including John Moonlight. The former Canada sevens captain, who retired in April to become a firefighter in his home town of Pickering, Ont., does not expect to play every game but hopes to add some experience and leadership.
Blues coach Chris Silverthorn will lead the Arrows as director of rugby with help from Carpenter and fellow assistant coaches Cory Hector and Peter Smith. Hector has coaching experience from the University of Guelph and Canadian under-20 side while Smith, an Australian, played fly half for Seattle last season.
The latest group of signings brings the Arrows’ roster to 34. MLR teams operate under a salary cap of US$450,000, so they will not be getting rich. But it is a step in the right direction.
Back-rower Lucas Rumball will use the Arrows to help hone his game for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. He had been training with other domestic-based Canadian internationals in Langford, B.C.
“They have excellent facilities out there and Rugby Canada does a fantastic job. This just allows me to have more of an opportunity to play some high-level games and get myself ever better prepared for these (coming) internationals.” he said.
Due to the Canadian winter, the Arrows will play their first eight games away from home starting Jan. 26 at New Orleans. The home opener April 7 will mark the first of eight straight games in Toronto.
The regular season wraps up June 2, with the top four clubs making the playoffs.
The Arrows start fitness testing this weekend with pre-season training starting indoors Jan. 3 at Whitby, Ont.
Webb says the team will announce where it will play its home games next week when it releases season ticket information. York University had been previously been cited as the Arrows’ primary home but Webb declined to confirm that Tuesday.
Canada already has a pro rugby league team in the Toronto Wolfpack. Debuting in 2017, the Wolfpack play the 13-man version of the game in England’s second-tier Betfred Championship.
Rugby union, which has 15- and seven-player versions, is the more widely played code around the world.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press