Following up the introductory press conference for the Ottawa Aces on Monday, Eric Perez was still gushing. Not just about his new team, but about the sport in general.
‘I’ve dedicated my life to it (Rugby League)’, Perez laughed over the phone. ‘It’s the best sport of all time.’
His love for the game is well-documented. And it’s how the world ended up with its first Transatlantic sports team, the Toronto Wolfpack. A franchise Perez played a key roll in.
But, as with the Maple Leafs and Senators, as well as the Argos and Redblacks, the rivalry is on. Perez made no secret about his hope that the Aces can take the baton from the Wolfpack, and one day challenge them.
Likening it to the Space Race between the Soviets and the United States, Perez acknowledged that the Wolfpack entered uncharted territory, manning the first trip to space.
But he wants the Aces to be the first ones to land on the moon.
1-on-1 with Eric Perez, Ottawa Aces Chariman
Defend the Den: First of all, congratulations on today. What’s the experience been like over the past year since becoming a part of the group that purchased the Hemel Stags?
Eric Perez: Thanks. Today’s been great. The culmination of a lot of hard work. It was a hard road to get to where we are today; we had to do a lot of negotiating, a lot of politicking, we had to shake a lot of hands. But it was a really good test of character, and this club wasn’t born out of, let’s say, an easy time. It was a hard road, we had to fight for what we got, and now that we’ve gotten it, it’s all been worth it.
DtD: You saw a lot of the growing pains with the Toronto Wolfpack, how was this process different after going through it with one expansion project?
EP: It’s very different because this is a relocation rather than an expansion. So in that, it had its own set of challenges, but we were also able to learn from what happened before, make the right choices and make it happen the way we wanted it to happen. Before it was on other people’s terms, now it’s on what’s right for the sport.
DtD: What did you learn from that experience, despite the differences between expansion and relocation, and change this time around?
EP: Basically the terms. The terms of our entry. Being able to get central distribution, being able to get treated equally as the other clubs, that was the main thing. We could have started this whole thing last year but we had to fight for that. There were a lot of casualties along the way and at the end of the day, we got what we deserved and it made sense.
Before it was on other people’s terms, now it’s on what’s right for the sport.
DtD: Was there any difference in the RFL’s approach this time?
EP: Initially, no. Even though we were relocating they tried to make it as if we were an expansion club. We fought for months and months, talked until our faces were blue, and had various motions from the club to be able to change their mind on that, and we were able to do that.
DtD: Will there be any carryover from the Hemel Stags?
EP: Mostly fresh. I’m not 100% sure what’s going to be, who’s going to be coming over player-wise and what not, but as of right now it’s mostly fresh.
DtD: Although you said you’re five or six weeks away on naming a coach, is there anything more there?
EP: No, not at all. We haven’t even started the process.
DtD: In terms of executives and those that would help build the club, how far along are you in that process?
EP: We have a president already. We’ve got heads of a couple of departments, marketing and a couple of things like that, but as far as performance-wise, we’ll get started on that probably tomorrow (Tuesday).
DtD: Despite it being early in the process, is there a chance any familiar names surface on or off the field?
EP: Oh for sure there’s a chance. Let’s see what happens. I can’t say for sure because we haven’t started yet but there’s definitely a chance.
DtD: So the interest that was there five years ago with the Wolfpack is still there?
EP: Definitely. Definitely. Once you play in Canada, it’s like a bug that bites you. It stays with you forever. It’s something different than what they’re used to, and if they like Toronto, they’ll love Ottawa. The facilities are first class here and it should be pretty exciting.
DtD: During the press conference, you seemed to emphasize that, as much as this is similar to Toronto, it’s very different. What kind of approach do you envision for building this team? The Wolfpack are heavier spending, but winning really paved the way for Ottawa, so are you planning on taking a slower, more methodical approach?
EP: Yes. More sustainable, slower, more methodical. We think it’s important to get out of League 1 as fast as possible, so we’re going to try and win that league. And we’re going to try and make a real build towards Super League.
DtD: One of the biggest setbacks for Toronto so far is a lack of resources. You emphasized this on Monday, an academy. So in seeing those issues, did that change your mindset and shift things more towards that goal?
EP: That was always my mindset and that was always my goal, and that’s why I’m here in Ottawa now and not Toronto. Because I never thought the direction that they took it was the right direction, so that’s why I’m here in Ottawa. That’s always been my mindset.
Once you play in Canada, it’s like a bug that bites you. It stays with you forever.
DtD: The lack of North American players with the Wolfpack; essentially over the last three years its been just one. How heavily will the UK influence the roster and in a perfect world what’s the roster composition when it comes to North America, the UK and the Southern Hemisphere?
EP: I don’t know because when the Raptors won the championship last year, no one seemed to mention that there were no Canadians on the team. It’s conveniently left out of it. So, end of the day, it’s not just up to us to try and develop Canadian players. We’ll try to find them, but an infrastructure has to exist underneath. It’d be great to have Canadian players, but it would also be great to win, so we’ll see what kind of balance we can strike. In an ideal world, I don’t think that someone’s passport should determine whether they get a job or not but it would be nice to have Canadians. I’m a Canadian, so I’d like to see other Canadians doing stuff.
DtD: It was really interesting during the press conference when you called it a ‘generational thing’ because there’s so many people that are so protective of the sport, that don’t quite see that no one understood Rugby League in Canada before 2017. It’s new, so it’s going to take that time.
EP: Yeah, if Rugby League was the kind of sport where you could just step in without having played it and get to a professional level, then it wouldn’t be worth watching because anybody could do it. So it’ll take time to build to that.
Dtd: Thanks for this Eric, and best of luck in 2021!
EP: Awesome. Thank you.