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Toronto Wolfpack rugby league dream started on a fish and chips wrapper

September 10, 2017 - 10:47 AM

TORONTO - Eric Perez recalls writing down his blueprint for rugby league in Canada on a fish and chips wrapper.

Then he threw himself into reaching his five goals, with the main one bringing a team in Toronto.

"Rugby league has consumed me since 2010," he said.

Some 500 days after announcing the creation of the Toronto Wolfpack to mostly local disbelief, Perez watched his first-year team celebrate winning the Kingstone Press League 1 title and promotion to England's second tier with a 26-2 victory Saturday over the Barrow Raiders before a season-high attendance of 7,972.

"There were times when I didn't even know how I was going to pay rent," said Perez. "There were times when I didn't know if I was going to eat a meal that night — should I have some 40-cent pasta or should I try (to) eat something with some meat in it? That's how it was to start rugby league in Canada.

"So it's kind of a surreal moment right now. It's hard to reflect on all that."

The Wolfpack CEO is far from finished. Now Toronto has its sights on promotion to the elite Super League.

Plus Perez's original proposal to the governing body of rugby league in England called for "multiple teams" in Canada.

His hope is to have an announcement on a second Canadian team by the end of the year. And he predicts there will be at least five in North America in the next five or six years.

"I think it's a blueprint for success and actually I think it's a blueprint for a new road ahead for Northern Hemisphere sports. We need to start working with Europe in all sports if we're going to expand and grow."

Perez had long been a dreamer. A recent cleanout unearthed two cue cards from a Grade 7 speech he gave about the NHL and globalization.

His love for rugby league came later.

A graduate of York University, where the Toronto native earned a degree in business and society, he worked in university advertising with a few friends. That took him to England, where he looked to start up a similar venture.

He was taken by the lesser-known 13-man rugby code when he watched a Super League game on TV in 2010.

"Something switched in my head and I said 'What is this all about?' I did relentless research on it and came to the conclusion that I wanted to bring this sport to Canada. And that's where it all started."

Perez was drawn by the game's combination of finesse, skill and physicality. And he saw a similarity between rugby league's hard men and hockey players' willingness to play through pain.

Upon returning to Canada, he formed the Canada Rugby League Association and started bending ears.

He convinced IMG, which had the rights to Super League, that a highlights show would be good for the sport in Canada. Then he persuaded Sportsnet to air the show, which also featured his fledgling domestic efforts.

The show ran for six seasons before Perez took the year off to focus on building the Wolfpack.

The TV program was integral to his sport's success given the resistance from rugby union clubs who did not want their players heading to the rival code. In forming four rugby league sides in Ontario, Perez was able to attract players by telling them their highlights would be on TV.

In 2012, his efforts with the sport in Canada won him an invitation to a Rugby Football League dinner in London where he pitched the idea of a team in Toronto to then-chairman Richard Lewis, now chief executive of Wimbledon.

"At first he thought it was crazy. But then I further explained the logistics of it and how it's not that crazy. And he started introducing me around the room as the guy with this idea."

One of those he met was Gary Hetherington, CEO of the Super League's Leeds Rhinos, who served as a mentor during Perez's planning. That eventually led to a meeting with RFL executives Ralph Rimmer and Nigel Wood.

A 15-minute meeting turned into several hours. "They loved the idea," said Perez.

After more than year of due diligence by the RFL, the Wolfpack plan was accepted.

There were hard times along the way, with Perez working his way through his savings.

"Money was a very big problem the entire time. Because anything I made I'd have to put back into the federation and to rugby league to try and build it up," he said. "I went without for a long time, to be honest with you. It was tough."

But he persevered.

"Even when I didn't have money and I was doing it, I still had fun. Because to me, the end goal is not money, it's achievement. And when you enjoy the ride, then it's all good times I guess."

Today, the Wolfpack remains a lean operation. Coach Paul Rowley worked with a small squad of some 22-23 players. Perez estimates the team has eight employees outside the players, coaches and medical staff.

Perez, a member of a small ownership consortium, remains the face of the franchise along with former England hooker Rowley and director of rugby Brian Noble, an accomplished player and coach in his own right.

Mining entrepreneur David Argyle, a key member of the ownership group, prefers to remain in the shadows. While he celebrated on the field Saturday with a sizable champagne magnum, he politely declined an interview.

Rowley and Noble were key hires, bringing experience and credibility. Both are larger-than-life characters with Rowley's affable exterior covering a steely interior.

The coach bristled at constant references to his team — the only fully professional side in the third tier — as creatures of comfort. The Wolfpack were almost always on the wrong end of the penalty count, he pointed out.

"It makes it all the more worthwhile," Rowley said Saturday, a cold beer in his hand. "We'll bleed a little bit more, we'll have a couple more stitches under our eyes. We'll do it the hard way and we'll drink a few more beers on the back of it tonight."

A good judge of character, Rowley was also a savvy recruiter, encouraging wives and girlfriends to accompany his English-based players to Toronto while making his sales pitch. Often times the partners helped seal the deal.

And Rowley picked carefully.

"We sacrificed arguably better players that could have joined the group for better people," he said. "We needed to create a family. So away from our own families, we created our own family."

Rowley's recruits became a tight bunch, enjoying each other's company as well life in their adopted home.

"I don't think any other bunch of people could have done what we've done this year," he said. "It's been challenging, it's been fun, it's been everything — the whole mixed bag.

"But I can assure you none of us will be retiring early from the earnings."

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News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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