This season marks the 10th anniversary of football returning to Dalhousie University — and what a ride the past decade has been. The Tigers have won their league championship in two of the past three years, and so far this season (as of Oct. 11) post a respectable three wins and one loss record.
“Things have only been looking up,” says Casey Jones, president of the team executive. He played for the Tigers from 2014-17 and has been an assistant coach since then.
Establishing this record of success has been a long time coming. This is Dal’s 10th season competing in the Atlantic Football League (AFL), but the team’s history stretches long before that. They reformed in 2010 after a 34-year hiatus.
1950s and ’60s
Before the Tigers football club as we know it today got started, Dal had a team that played in the Atlantic Football Conference decades earlier. Now, the most recognizable name from that era’s Tigers is Frederick B. “Ted” Wickwire.
A quarterback from 1956-62, Wickwire helped transform the Tigers from a team who lost every game to a competitive team that challenged for championships.
Dal’s football program folded.
The Tigers’ home turf was named the F.B. Wickwire Memorial Field in Wickwire’s honour on Oct. 2.
The Atlantic Football League was founded.
It took the efforts of chairman and founder Jim Wilson and general manager Rick Rivers to reinstate football at Dalhousie as the team joined the AFL in 2010 and played their first game at Wickwire Field on Oct. 2 of that year. The Dal club is student and volunteer run. They get later practice slots at Wickwire Field: 9-11 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
“It’s not the most glorious time, but guys are happy to be there,” says Jones. “They look forward to it.”
The AFL is a small league; Dal is one of four teams. They compete for their league championship, the Moosehead Cup, against the University of New Brunswick Red Bombers (the Fredericton campus’ team), the University of New Brunswick Seawolves (the Saint John campus counterpart) and the Holland College Hurricanes.
Dal made it to the league finals in their first year of play, but struggled after that. The program saw a big development with the addition of now head coach Mark Haggett in 2014. He started recruiting players not just from the Atlantic region, but from all across Canada, and created what Jones calls “a really supportive environment” that is focused on both competition and enjoyment of the sport.
Under Haggett’s leadership, the team has made it to the Moosehead Cup finals every year since 2015. That season, they lost to the Holland Hurricanes, but in 2016 they went undefeated and captured their first championship in 59 years.
Jones, who at that time was playing on the offensive line, still remembers the sold-out final, which remains the highlight of his Dal football experience.
“We beat Holland College on a cold November afternoon on a Saturday and it was pretty sweet,” he says.
Last year, the team again went undefeated all the way to the Moosehead Cup, where they handily triumphed over the Hurricanes by a score of 27-3.
Football at Dal provides an opportunity for players to continue to play the sport after high school, especially if they aren’t ready for the varsity commitment or skill level of the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) league, says Jones. He has seen players from the AUS switch to Dal for a more balanced environment, but he’s also seen former Tigers move up to the varsity level.
Zacchary Kuhn was a running back at Dal in 2017 and 2018. He now plays for St. Francis Xavier University, an AUS team. Likewise, former Tigers defensive back Will Keneford is now on the Saint Mary’s University Huskies.
“We’re really proud to be able to coach these guys to go to the next level,” says Jones. But even if they don’t, he wants the team to “upportive football experience at Dal while getting a great education.”
Part of that supportive experience is making sure players stay healthy and the Tigers took a big step toward protecting their athletes when they got new helmets that help with concussion detection earlier this year. The Riddell SpeedFlex helmets detect head impacts in real time, which helps coaches make the game safer by deciding during a game when a player should be removed from play and assessed for injury, or by planning practices to minimize head contact.
From winning league championships to being at the forefront of player safety, the past 10 years of Dal football have been exciting and full of change, and the team looks to be competitive in the Atlantic Football League for years to come.