Forde: A new breed of snowbirds in Florida

Duane Forde
1/22/2012 11:39:44 AM
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The phenomenon of Canadians flocking to Florida at this time of year is nothing new. For years, Canuck retirees and vacationers have fled our harsh northern winters in favour of the warmer climate of the Sunshine State. However, a trend in the world of football is helping to temporarily boost Florida's seasonal Canadian population, and the weather has nothing to do with why this new breed of snowbirds is flying south.

The primary attraction is an opportunity to pursue a career in pro football, particularly for those with NFL aspirations. This week, eight young men with Canadian roots are chasing their pigskin dreams at three different Florida venues.

Four Canadian prospects are currently in St. Petersburg, where they will take part in the annual East West Shrine game on Saturday. For the scouts in attendance, determining which product of the Great White North is the headliner depends largely on which professional league employs them.

The NFL scouts will focus most of their attention on Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford and Connecticut centre Moe Petrus. Petrus, a four-year starter at UConn, was a second round pick (10th overall) of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last spring. The Montreal native and First Team All-Big East selection will suit up for the West squad on Saturday. Among his teammates will be Crawford. Remarkably athletic at 285 lbs., the Windsor, Ontario product is actually the #2 ranked prospect for the 2012 CFL Draft (#1 on my list) but many personnel people north of the border expect the pass rush terror to be in the NFL this fall. So too does National Football Post draft analyst Wes Bunting, who has rated Crawford as the fifth best NFL prospect participating in Saturday's game.

So, despite his obvious talents, you'll have to forgive those talent evaluators who are preparing for the upcoming CFL Draft if they focus more of their attention on a couple of players who appear more likely to compete in Our League in the coming season. University of Saskatchewan guard Ben Heenan, the Canadian Scouting Bureau's #1 2012 Draft prospect, and Laval defensive end Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, the two-time Metras Trophy winner (CIS's top down lineman) and #13 CSB prospect, were selected as the CIS representatives in this year's Shrine Game. They'll combine with Crawford and Petrus to unofficially make the West into "Canada's Team".

However, the East still has the player who represents the most fascinating Canadian story of the week in University of Regina defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. Hicks is actually an American who found his way to the U of R in 2010 after being declared ineligible by the NCAA. Despite finding himself well off the beaten path of most NFL scouts, the former Louisiana State University recruit parlayed back-to-back All-Canadian seasons into a Shrine Game invitation.

It's worth noting that the big Californian was invited strictly on his merit as a legitimate NFL prospect, not as part of the game's agreement to include CIS players. Regardless, he has emerged as one of the week's best stories, impressing with his size (6'5", 325 lbs.), explosive power, and pass rush skills. He is now seen by most as a potential late round pick and was rated by the aforementioned Bunting as the game's 10th best NFL prospect.

Across the state in Boca Raton, Wilfrid Laurier receiver Shamawd Chambers will also be looking to make an impression on Saturday, as he takes part in a another U.S. college all-star game, known as the Battle of Florida. The CFL's #4 ranked prospect and lone Canadian in this game has certainly passed the eyeball test, having measured in at a solid 6'3", 222 lbs.

Meanwhile, in what has become an annual tradition, a number of top Canadian pro football prospects are congregating in Bradenton to work with renowned football trainer Mike Gough, who also happens to be a transplanted Canuck. For years, NFL scouts have been regular visitors to Gough's Athletic Edge facility, as they have checked up on the progress of prospects working out there.

This week, those being put through their paces have included a pair of Canadians in Baylor centre Philip Blake and Virginia guard Austin Pasztor. Blake, the Brampton, Ontario native who was selected by Montreal 23rd overall in the 2011 CFL Draft, will follow in the footsteps of his former college teammate and fellow Canadian Danny Watkins, as he plays in the prestigious Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama next Saturday. Tillsonburg, Ontario's Pasztor is currently ranked third on the CSB list for the 2012 CFL Draft but, coming off a season in which he earned Second Team All-America honours from the Associated Press, he's sure to garner serious NFL interest.

In recent years, Gough has augmented his impressive NFL clientele list by working with many of the CFL's top draft prospects as they prepare for combine season and, next week, when Blake heads off to Mobile, Georgia State defensive tackle Christo Bilukidi (#12 in the January CSB rankings) is expected to join Gough in Bradenton.

It may seem like a mere coincidence that all of these young Canadian football players happen to be in Florida showcasing their talents simultaneously...but the reality is that it's a sign of the times. The Sunshine State is the centre of the scouting world this week and having so many homegrown prospects figure prominently in that picture speaks volumes about the improving quality of player development in Canada.

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