Maple Ridge’s Nick Hebeler thought he had already done plenty to change one of the biggest stereotypes in three-down football, but realized a decade ago more must be done to alter the notion among some CFL coaches that there is no place for a non-import defensive end.
One of the best at the position – and certainly the most colourful - with the B.C. Lions, he remembers his stint as a 2002 guest coach, when he had to convince the defensive co-ordinator of the day that there was room on the field for Brent Johnson, a future member of the club’s Wall of Fame.
“I remember asking what do you know about Canadian football and he said he watched a game on TV once,” Hebeler said.
“I remember saying, ‘Get Brent Johnson and start him because he’s your best end,’ and he said, ‘We’re not playing a Canadian at end’.”
It stood to reason that because of his play for seven seasons with the Lions, along with nine years logged by another former defensive line standout, Rick Klassen, the stigma associated with non-imports at some positions would have changed easily.
But Hebeler and Klassen made their name in other ways, forming half of what was once the most dominating defensive front in club history, and are worthy members of the Lions’ 50th anniversary dream team.
It also makes the two home-grown players, products of the golden era of football at SFU, deserving inductees when they were enshrined in the Wall of Fame at halftime of the Lions’ game against Hamilton at B.C. Place Stadium on Friday, July 6.
With imports Mack Moore and James (Quick) Parker, the two B.C. products formed a defensive front that statistically has been the envy of every defensive front to have played since for the Lions.
Hebeler, who pioneered the club’s devotion to all things orange when he first wore shoes of the same colour, played 1979-85 with the Lions.
Klassen, who had two stints lasting nine years in B.C., was part of a group that set the franchise standard in 1986 with 86 sacks.
More importantly at the time were their local ties, which have formed the basis of the team’s vise-like strength today in the community.
Hebeler rode the bus to games at Empire Stadium as a kid from Coquitlam.
“I remember I could buy a house with the contract I signed,” said Hebeler, who now lives in Maple Ridge and runs a group home for autistic children in Vancouver.
Klassen, who now lives in Nanaimo, was from Sardis. “To me, the Lions were like Hollywood,” said Klassen. “It’s not often you get an opportunity to play for your hometown team. It’s even more special to go in with Nick, whom I’ve known since 1977. We always had a fondness for each other.”
Both legends still follow the Lions but aren’t into comparing their position group with ex-players like Cam Wake or the current foursome, partly because the players’ average weight in the two eras makes it an accurate analysis difficult.
There’s certainly no way to compare their relative monetary worth to the Lions.
There is a way to measure their contribution to the franchise, however, and it was done at halftime on July 6.