Despite having to delay the Ottawa Aces' debut until 2022, president/chairman Eric Perez is confident his new rugby league team has staying power.
He knows the timing of the Aces' announcement is unfortunate coming the same week that Super League voted not to reinstate the financially troubled Toronto Wolfpack, the team he founded. But he believes the Ottawa foundation is solid and that the team can emerge out of COVID.
"I think we will show the right way to expand into this league. And we'll be a perfect template for future clubs," Perez said Friday. "Sometimes the first guy out of the foxhole gets his head blown off. And the second guy knows where to go after and he can survive."
The Aces, formerly the Hemel Stags, were slated to debut in 2021 in the third tier of English rugby league — the Betfred League 1. But citing the global pandemic, Ottawa and the Rugby Football League announced Thursday that was being pushed back to 2022.
"With the pandemic, there was nothing we could do. There was no way we could start in 2021," Perez said. "And in the last three weeks, it's just got way way way worse."
The British government announced 24,141 confirmed cases on Thursday, with a seven-day average of 22,551. There have been 1.12 million cases in total there, with more than 48,000 deaths.
"This is not like moving a canoe," Perez said of starting up the Ottawa franchise. "This is like moving an aircraft carrier."
COVID-19 has never been far away from the Aces. Perez officially unveiled the franchise on March 9, two days before the NBA halted play due to the pandemic. Other leagues soon followed.
Ottawa players already signed will be allowed to join other clubs for the 2021 season with Perez hoping most will return to the fold. Head coach Laurent Frayssinous and his staff are staying put.
Like the Wolfpack, the Ottawa team will pay the travel and accommodation costs of visiting teams. But unlike Toronto, the Aces are a full member of the Rugby Football League and will be able to take part in league decisions.
Ottawa will also get some of the league's central distribution funding, although that is far less at the lower levels than in Super League thanks to the top tier's TV contract. The Wolfpack didn't get any of that in its climb up the ladder.
The Aces will not get as much as other teams to start but have a pathway to reach full funding.
Perez did the heavy lifting in bringing rugby league to Canada and was the face of the franchise in its 2017 inaugural season. But he was rarely seen after that as majority owner David Argyle stepped forward.
The Aces have taken a more modest approach to team-building, looking for young talent and diamonds in the rough rather than marquee names.
Perez also has the support of a bigger ownership group and a partnership with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the CFL's Ottawa Redblacks and OHL's Ottawa 67s and runs the arena and stadium at TD Place where the Aces will play.
"We'll run this thing in a sustainable way," said Perez.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press