The Airdrie Irish may have not won a single game throughout the 2019 Alberta Football League (AFL) season, but the team will get a shot at playoffs, regardless.
The AFL came out with a statement on Facebook Aug. 15 that the league-leading Cold Lake Fighter Jets will not participate in the post-season after being caught contravening the AFL’s Compensation Act, which forbids players from receiving payment or financial assistance.
“After reviewing the evidence and hearing the Fighter Jets' rebuttals, the league council has voted unanimously to find the Cold Lake Fighter Jets guilty of these allegations,” the statement read. “As such, effective immediately, the Cold Lake Fighter Jets football club has been stripped of their playoff eligibility, and fines and suspensions have been levied.”
The same day, the Fighter Jets came out with a statement of its own, saying two Cold Lake players had had their flights to Alberta paid for by another teammate. The statement went on to say the vast majority of the team's players were unaware of the alleged infraction of the league's bylaws.
"This news has come with absolute disbelief from our players and not-for-profit board members," the statement read. "We are incredibly disheartened that our entire roster of athletes, as well as our supportive community members, must be penalized with such circumstances.
"We are doing everything we can to have this decision overturned, and we will continue to keep our fans up to date with any developments.
Irish player James Balsdon said the Fighter Jets' disqualification didn’t come as a shock for him, since he sits on the AFL’s board as the Irish’s representative.
“We got the news a couple of weeks ago that something might be happening, and then I was on the call last night [Aug. 14] for about three hours, trying to sort through everything with the rest of the council,” he said. “I let our team have a kind of a heads up, just so we weren’t blindsided by it.”
With a winless 0-8 record that placed Airdrie firmly at the bottom of the five-team league standings, the Irish was the only squad to not qualify outright for the four-team playoffs this summer.
Nevertheless, Balsdon said, the Irish players are excited to continue their season. The team’s playoff run will begin with an Aug. 17 match-up with the Calgary Wolfpack. Kick off is set for 7 p.m. at Shouldice Athletic Park in Calgary.
“The guys who are still around are really pumped, but it’s going to be tough to get some numbers out,” he said, adding some of the Irish’s recruits from Grande Prairie and St. Albert might make the trip to Calgary for the game. “We’ll definitely try to make a game of it, still.”
While Airdrie lost to every team this season, its games against the Wolfpack were arguably the closest. When the two sides faced each other in Airdrie, the game went down to the wire. Calgary won the tightly-fought contest 21-20, but a penalty call on a two-point conversion by the Irish in the final seconds was all that kept the home team from eking out a victory.
When the teams faced off again July 6, the Wolfpack came away with a 28-9 win. But Airdrie kept with the Calgarians in the first half, only trailing 9-3 when the teams went off for the halftime break.
“[The Wolfpack] are a fun competitive team to play,” Balsdon said. “They’re sort of our direct rival, and I think if we can gel on offence, we can make a good game of it.”
The other semi-final will pit the second-place Central Alberta Buccaneers against the third-place Fort McMurray Monarchs, in Red Deer.