Eric Perez is looking to ramp up the Battle of Ontario by bringing a pro rugby league team to Ottawa.
Perez, who helped bring the sport to North America via the Toronto Wolfpack, is part of a Canadian consortium that has acquired the Hemel Stags team.
Hemel withdrew from England’s third-tier League 1 for the 2019 season with an eye to returning in 2020. Perez’s plan is to install the team in Ottawa, playing out of TD Place Stadium.
“If everything goes well, 2020 kickoff,” Perez said in an interview.
“I just want to get the approval so we can get to work,” he added. “There’s plenty of work to do.”
He hopes to have “this whole process wrapped up at some point in April.”
Perez’s consortium — which numbers some 15 people — has already submitted the paperwork to the Rugby Football League, the governing body of English rugby league, at its board meeting last week.
“I’m sure it will be received really well,” Perez said. “It’s different from a new application (for a team). We’re relocating a current member.
“They’ve already got a Toronto team so it makes sense to further expand in Canada and, to me, Ottawa’s the next logical choice.”
Perez, who calls the Ottawa market “amazing,” said his ownership group is working with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which owns the CFL Redblacks, OHL 67’s and USL Championship’s Ottawa Fury FC (USL). OSEG also manages TD Place stadium and arena.
“We’re working with an incredible partner … who are super-excited to bring professional rugby league to Ottawa and to facilitate and help us by allowing us to be part of their incredible infrastructure,” Perez said.
A native of Toronto, Perez also has ties to Ottawa through his parents and other relatives who live there.
“It’s a second home to me,” he said.
Perez, who plans to leave his role on the Wolfpack board of directors once Ottawa is given a green light, believes a team in Ottawa would complement the team in Toronto.
“Far enough that it doesn’t impede on their market but close enough to be a major rival,” he said.
The RFL is also reviewing a separate application to launch a club in New York.
Hemel is a team in name only right now. Its players were on contracts that have since expired.
The Stags debuted in 1981 in Hemel Hempstead, located 35 kilometres northwest of London. The club says it will continue to operate a community rugby league side, the Hemel Hempstead Amateur Rugby League Club.
Should Hemel resurface in Ottawa, it would start in the English third-tier as the Wolfpack did when they first took the field in 2017.
Perez originally hatched the idea of bringing the sport of rugby league — and a team to Toronto — to Canada on a fish-and-chips wrapper. And as founder and CEO, he was the front-office face of the Wolfpack when its blueprint was announced in 2016.
But he has since stepped back from the Wolfpack to work on further expanding the game while remaining on the team’s board of directors.
David Argyle, a Toronto-based Australian entrepreneur who heads up the Wolfpack ownership group, has taken a more prominent public role with the team.
The Wolfpack entered the league in 2017, winning promotion that year to the second-tier Betfred Championship. Toronto missed out on promotion to the Super League last October when it lost the so-called Million Pound Game 4-2 to the London Broncos.
The Wolfpack (6-1-0) currently top the Championship. The club also now holds a minority ownership in the London Skolars, who play in League 1.
Rugby league is the 13-man version of the game, distinct from 15-man rugby union.
In addition to Toronto, the RFL currently has two French clubs in Catalan Dragons (in the Super League) and Toulouse Olympique (in the Championship).