On May 26th, the Sault Steelers will make their greatly anticipated comeback to the NFC (Northern Football Conference) at the Rocky Dipietro field here in Sault Ste. Marie, following a one year hiatus.
The Sault Steelers have been an established presence in our town since 1972. The football program was a popular attraction, accelerating as a result of claiming the national title in 1972.
They spent the next 35 years fighting to claim another, and from 2007 to 2010, they cemented themselves as a dynasty in Men’s Semi-Professional Football, claiming three out of four National Titles during those seasons.
What followed, though, was not good news for organization.
The program slowly deteriorated as they struggled with succession.
A disconnect developed as the older, experienced championship stars began to step away from the game, and younger heirs taking over their roles.
This resulted in a steady decline in practice culture and roster size, as well as fewer wins, and less revenue.
The sad realization came over the organization during the 2017 pre-season; They were not in a position to compete.
it was a group decision to take a year hiatus.
But while they chose not to compete, this did not at all mean that they were giving up on their beloved organization.
During the following months, the organizations worked tirelessly to rebuild their executive core, recruit young talent from the community, and reestablish connections with veteran players who lost their love for the game.
Those remaining with the organization attended the fall Annual General Meeting (AGM) in November, hosted in Sudbury, to start networking and recruiting for the comeback.
At the next AGM in January, the Steelers officially affirmed their commitment to the league.
They diligently pressed on to renew the age-old connection between an athlete and the game.
They now have a number of recruits, some fresh out of high school, some experiencing football for the first time, some veterans of the sport and the team.
None of it would have been made possible without the appointment of new head coach, Brandon Lewis.
Lewis told SaultOnline, “Recruiting was a constant effort, but after committing in January we went that much harder with it to get the word out that we were coming back, communicating, messaging back and forth to organize meetings and indoor workouts.”
He continued, “We are very happy to be returning and representing Sault Ste. Marie again, we are on our way back. The door is always open for new players, everybody is welcome to come out.”
Lewis has been a part of the organization since 1996.
During his time as a player, he saw the club truly flourish throughout the mid-90’s, becoming a force to be reckoned with from 2007-2012, before falling to an all-time low at the end of the 2016 series.
Lewis’s impressive resume includes 20 All-Star awards, multiple defensive player of the year honours and an MVP award; a distinction rarely given to defensive linemen.
Lewis became the face of the organization, knowing the ins and outs of the Sault Steelers and remaining well connected within the football community.
There was no question about who would be the best leader to bring the players back, and there is no greater opponent for them to face on May 26th than the Tri-City Outlaws.
The Outlaws have maintained relevance with greater success than the Steelers, with several key university programs nearby (Waterloo, Laurier, and Guelph), the Outlaws have always had a plethora of talent in their back pocket.
Last year, they finished 1st in the NFC west division and went to the league finals, finishing as runners-up to the eventual National Champions GTA All-Stars – the new age league powerhouse team.
The Tri-City team was the biggest rival during the Steelers Championship years, as the road to the Championship from 2007 to 2011 was a back and forth battle between one of the two team winning.
The Steelers came out on top 3 out of 5 times, and the fuel of the rivalry was ignited by both respect and intensity, a mutual appreciation from team to team, player to player.
This rivalry of mutual respect, appreciation, and competition has come full circle, with both teams coaching staffs consisting of players who were on the field for those battles, Brandon Lewis (Steelers) and Gary Hudson (Tri-City).
This game will usher in the new era of Steelers Football, putting the renewed team to the test.
Jonathon Bujold, executive member and captain with the Sault Steelers, told SaultOnline,
“If we can challenge this team in our first game back, it will show the league and our fans that we are coming back strong. If we can win, then it will not only make us believe that we are a strong team, but it will also make us realistic National Championship contenders once again.”
But the game on May 26th isn’t just about the love of the sport.
The Steelers comeback game will also be a memorial day for Don McBain, or ‘Donnie,’ as he was known in the football community, the president of the Steelers team, who passed away unexpectedly in September 2017.
He was the architect of the 2007-2010 successes, and the key influence in the growth of the Steelers organization in the 2000’s.
Under his leadership, the Steelers won 3 NFC titles and 3 Canadian Major Football League (CMFL) titles in a 4 year span.
One of his proudest moments was seeing the Steelers win their 2009 National Title on home field in the Sault, in front of five thousand fans, the climax of all his hard work coming to life.
In 2007, McBain accepted the Sault Ste. Marie Medal of Merit on behalf of the Steelers for their accomplishments in winning their first national title in 35 years.
In 2008, he was inducted into the Northern Conference Hall of Fame.
Of McBain’s influence, Bujold shared, “Without Don, the years of success this team has experienced would never have been possible.”
SaultOnline had the opportunity to speak with his wife, Sandra McBain, who shared,
“When he (Don) played for the Steelers himself in the late 1970’s, he played linebacker, and he wasn’t as big as the other guys in that position but he would still play as hard as if he was. Even if they were losing, he would still have the same determination, to make sure the game was played to the fullest.
He Kept fighting, down to the last whistle.”
Above and beyond his passion for the sport, McBain’s monetary contributions, organizational leadership, and continued and dedicated lobbying on behalf of the team led to unimaginable success.
Sandra told SaultOnline, “When the bus would break down or if they didn’t have a bus to get to games, everyone would say ‘well Don would figure out a way just to make this work,” and that is because he would put his own money in and would never expect anything in return or to take credit for anything. He loved to work behind the scenes, and was happy to take little credit.”
But it went beyond a determination and humble attitude.
His education in business, and knowledge of how to fundraise for the team is what kept the organization sustainable and running smoothly.
Of her husband’s determination, Sandra said, “even when the organization looked like it wasn’t going to make it, he kept it going.”
Thanks to McBain, Sault Ste. Marie Football has come well-respected amongst the football community across our nation, as our small town of 75,000 people up north was blowing teams from Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary out of the water.
To this day, the Steelers wear navy blue and gold to honour McBain’s favourite college team, the Michigan Wolverines, as the Steelers would never have rose to such prominence without him and the promise that he created.
The Steelers call upon you – the Sault community – to come together and support the team, to honour a great man, the team he loved, and help it continue to flourish in his memory.
The Steelers also want to thank the fans for their past, present, and future support.
The Steelers compete in the NFC, the champion of which will face the champion of the AFL (Alberta Football League).
The governing body of these two leagues is the Canadian Major Football League (CMFL), and they are the organization that hosts the National Title game and awards the trophy.
Tune into ONNtv, launching tomorrow, on May 25th at 8:45am, where Tim and Lou-Anne will have special Steelers guest, Jonathan Bujold, on the morning show!