Defending AFL champion Gators are Calgary’s other high-level football squad

Calgary Gators

Calgary Gators quarterback Jordan Heather throws the ball during the third quarter of a 79-0 shut out against the Lloydminster Vandals during Alberta Football League action in Lloydminster last June. (Eric Healey/Postmedia Network)

Daniel Austin – Calgary Sun – Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Like so many Canadians who have starred at quarterback at the CIS level, Jordan Heather wasn’t given a shot in the CFL.

Instead, after graduating from Bishop’s University, Heather took his talents across the Atlantic and played professionally in France for the St. Etienne Giants before returning to Canada and settling in Calgary.

He wasn’t done playing football, though. After years of devoting himself to the sport, the 2013 Hec Crighton Award winner didn’t want to just give up the game he loved and throw the occasional pass in a beer league.

Enter the Calgary Gators.

As the reigning Alberta Football League champions, the Gators are providing dozens of former university, high school and even CFL players the chance to extend their time playing competitive football. For Heather, it was a perfect fit.

“I came out and checked it out and I was like, ‘This is definitely not a beer league,’ ” said Heather, who originally hails from New Brunswick. “It’s really competitive. Some of the smaller-market teams aren’t quite as good, but there are games where you feel like you’re playing a really high level of football because the competition is strong.”

When the Gators kick off their season on Saturday against the Edmonton Raiders (7 p.m., Hellard Field), they’ll be sporting a lineup that includes former Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Cassidy Doneff.

The team is coming off a massive season in which it won its second AFL championship in three years. The 2015 Gators rolled through the best that the rest of the province had to offer and finished the season with an undefeated 10-0 record, and then advanced to the Canadian Major Football League national championship.

That game, in Hamilton, Ont., saw the Gators fall just short in a 39-38 heartbreaker to the GTA All-Stars. With whoever wins this year’s Alberta championship set to earn the right to host this year’s national final, the Gators are carrying high hopes into Saturday’s season-opener.

Despite their undefeated record last season, though, Heather says no one on the team is expecting a cakewalk.

“The AFL’s been around for a long time and it’s been really developing much more into an actual viable situation for guys who are coming off of university careers or professional leagues,” Heather said. “There were a couple guys for other teams last year who were signed to contracts or got try-outs with CFL teams, so it’s a way for guys to continue their careers.”

While it’s true that the league boasts a number of former pros and CIS stars, Heather also noted that it serves as an opportunity for lesser-accomplished players to work on their games. The Gators roster is usually made up of around 45 to 55 players, and even with the season’s kick-off only days away, the team is eager to welcome new players who might be interested in joining for the season.

The team, which hosts charities games for Wounded Warriors Canada and Inn from the Cold Calgary, operates on a pay-to-play system and practises twice a week, but Heather said they generally don’t play on long weekends, so playing for the Gators doesn’t completely eat up all of the players’ social lives.

“At this level, you’re doing it for the love of the game, really,” Heather said. “You’ve got guys who’ve never played before and want to learn the game and then guys who have played at the highest level in Canada, so it’s a good mix of people.”

daustin@postmedia.com

@DannyAustin_9