Calgary Kangaroos- An International Success Story for Australian Football

Thursday, June 08, 2017

By James Brosnan

PRESEASON footy training springs two thoughts to mind - heat and hard work. 

But whilst we in Australia swelter through training sessions in preparation for the season ahead, there is a completely different set of challenges facing footballers in Calgary, Canada. 

Freezing temperatures and frozen snow covered grounds means that pre-season training for both the men's and women teams are held indoors. 

Originally from Adelaide and now president of the Calgary Kangaroos, Lachlan Griffiths said the club was hopeful they could move outside to kick off their season proper in May. 

“We typically begin our pre-season around Australia Day and we use that as a social event to bring together all the Aussies in town and leverage that into recruitment,” Griffiths said. 

“We start our indoor ‘come and try’ sessions at a local gym and teach the skills to new players and then in April we hope the snow melts so we can get outdoors.” 

Calgary is a popular destination for travelling Australian’s as a gateway to the Rocky Mountains, with countless ski resorts and many employed in the huge oil and gas industry. 

The Kangaroos formed back in 2002, with a couple of Aussie mates just looking to have a kick and quite possibly, an excuse to head out post-match and even, following training. 

While the ‘kick and giggle’  approach grew the club enormously in the early years, the club now realizes to take the next step there must be a focus on the locals and is working hard to ensure the future of generations of Kangaroos. 

“We’ve got to travel such vast distances to play other people, it’s 12 hours across to Vancouver,” Griffiths said. 

“So we figured we would grow our own club organically so we don’t have to travel as much and emulate what Toronto and Vancouver have done and build our own league.”

Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, has a strong and very competitive 10 club competition while over on the west coast Vancouver has a six team league. 

While in Calgary they play for a premiership cup, the Calgary men's teams are forced to play among themselves in a three-team competition as the Bears, Cowboys or Wolves as well as the occasional traveling tournament throughout the year. 

Calgary is continuing to push its growth into the Bow Valley, about an hour west of the city which includes tourist and ski towns such as Banff and Canmore, with the Bisons looking to form Calgary’s fourth team. 

The US Nationals held in October is the Kangaroos main focus each year and in 2016 they claimed the Division 2 title after coming agonizingly close to the Division 1 crown in previous years. 

“That’s been my big push in the last four years to try and grow ourselves to the point where we can travel to play if we want to not because we have to,” Griffiths said. 

“The biggest challenge we’ve got in recruiting new Canadians to the game is people just don’t know the sport. For people in Australia it’s a unique challenge that they probably can’t resonate with. 

“We have to teach people what the sport is and convince them to come and try something they’ve never seen before just to be able to have games.”

The club has a large number of Australians, some for one year, others permanently settled and everywhere in between. 

Some have played state league football, others come from rugby league heartland and a few have never played the game but join first off for the social aspect. 

But the strength of the club according to Griffiths is the quality of the Canadian players that have developed over the years. 

“We’ve really made a focus of trying to recruit Canadians,” he said. 

“You can’t have a sustainable club if you’re relying on the transient Aussies so we’ve been doing a good job of developing the Canadians that do come out and want to play.

“Every year we get new Aussies land in town and come out for a kick which is great, but they’ll find us. Whereas we have to go and find and convince the Canadians to come and try our sport.

“We’ve put so many Canadians through the National Program which is unique to Calgary and certainly part of our success.”

The Kangaroos, and the tightly linked female team the Kookaburras produced three and 10 players respectively and an assistant coach for both teams that will represent Team Canada at the International Cup later this year in Melbourne. 

But what has the club really excited is the huge injection of youth coming into the club via school and Auskick programs in recent years. 

The club last season ran three Auskick programs in different pockets of the city, a number they are always looking to expand. 

“With our junior program the club is just going to a new level now where we had a few hundred kids out last year for our multi-session programs and then in schools we see a couple of thousand kids every year,” Griffiths said. 

“The game sells itself so if we can keep getting into the schools to show these kids the game, we’re going to keep getting interest from the Canadian parents to put their kids in AusKick.”

As well as extending on their school clinics around the city, the Kangaroos are hoping to get an Under 12’s competition off the ground this season. 

“All the focus so far has been on the five to 12 year old bracket, we’ll put leagues in for the kids and as they progress, we progress the competition as a whole,” Griffiths said. 

“Rather than trying to get 15 or 16 year old kids and find 30 of them so we can start a team, we’ve started with the young kids and as they get older we move the leagues up and eventually the plan is to have them as our pipeline of senior players.”

With Andrew McGrath going number one in last years’ AFL Draft, the Canadian kids coming through the Kangaroos Junior program now have a role model they can relate to. Although McGrath didn’t play until he moved to Australia, kids in Calgary now have that opportunity.  

Football in Calgary and its constant growth reflects that of AFL Canada and the sport itself, with new teams being created from Victoria, British Columbia in the country’s west right through to St Johns, Newfoundland in the east. 

Like here, or in Canada, footy is always pushing forward.

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