Thunder Bay may be known as a hockey town, but football appears to be alive and well – and thriving.
On Thursday five grade-school teams in the Summer Knights program head south of the border to do battle with U.S. opposition in the 53-team Minnesota Youth Football Showdown.
Liam Stewart, heading into his freshman year at Churchill Collegiate and Vocational Institute, where he hopes to suit up for the junior Trojans, said the Thunder Bay Minor Football Association has been the perfect training ground for him to realize his goal.
“A lot of the kids aren’t going to have as much experience as lots of players who get to play before they get there. They learn a lot of the basics,” said Stewart, whose been playing the game for seven years.
Stewart has made the trek to Minnesota before, and though his Grade 7 team captured their age category a year ago, he said the competition will be fierce.
“It’s a little hard because we’re the only Canadian team going down there. But it’s fun though and you have a good time.”
Winning was great, but it won’t be easy to repeat, he added.
“It was awesome. The team that we played against (in the final), we lost to by two points before ... a really close game. We only won (the championship) in the last couple of minutes,” he said.
Teammate Darren Schelhaas is another Churchill hopeful and said while most of his friends are hockey addicts, there was a lot to like about football.
“Everybody plays hockey and I wanted to try something new at first, so I came out to football. I met a lot of nice kids and it was fun,” he said.
That’s just what coaches like Rob Thompson are trying to teach the youngsters.
The proof is in the enrolment, he added. This year more than 110 children signed up for the summer session, one of the highest totals yet.
That’s not the way it was in the past, he said.
“It’s come a long way, from even 10 years ago, having teams with 15, 12 kids on them. Now we’ve got teams with 25 players. My team has 26 guys and I think the team below us has 25. And that’s in a summer program. People are giving up their summer vacation, me included, to go down and participate. It means a lot and it’s pretty special that we have it going on this year,” said Thomspon, the Grade 8 coach and president of the league itself.
“We play a lot of other sports, but football is a passionate game.”
With the global dominance of the NFL – the kids this week will have to play American, not Canadian rules – it’s no wonder the sport is taking off in Thunder Bay.
“We want to teach the kids. We want them to learn. But I coach fun-first football, and I think it spreads out. It’s been my message since I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for a long time. We’ve got a lot of coaches who buy into that. It just makes it special.”
The ultimate goal is to create a better football player who wants to play at high school, and possibly further down the line.
Practices take place three days a week.
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