The James Bay Eagles capped a successful 2011 football season with a Junior championship at the recent 6 Nations Challenge, held in Prince Edward Island in late August. But this isn’t your typical brand of football.

The 6 Nations Challenge, launched in 2010, is an annual competition that brings together some of the best 6-a-side football teams from across Canada. Unlike traditional 12-man football, 6-a-side football programs are specifically designed for smaller communities that often do not have sufficient numbers of young people available to form competitive 12-man teams.

The man responsible for the James Bay Eagles’ success is head coach Trevor Allen Monaghan. A Wemindji band member who grew up in Ottawa, Monaghan is a former quarterback at the University of Ottawa, where he also obtained a degree in Leisure Studies. Since his move to Chisasibi in 2008, Monaghan has worked as a personal trainer and manager of the community’s fitness centre. But it becomes quickly evident when talking to Monaghan that it is football that is his passion.

“With the help of the Recreation Department in Chisasibi and Football Canada we decided that 6-a-side football would be a great way to introduce Cree youth to the game of football,” said Monaghan. “It’s a smaller version of the game, but it still has the same technical concepts as 12-man football, but with half the players.”

While the game is relatively new in Quebec, 6-a-side football has been played in Saskatchewan for over 50 years, where 29 schools currently participate in programs across the province.  Indeed, approximately half the players on the Saskatchewan team who participated in the 6 Nations Challenge were from First Nations communities. Other provinces such as Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and New Brunswick also run programs.

“Saskatchewan is the leader in 6-a-side football. They have been playing for over 50 years and have a real stranglehold on the high level competition because they have a provincial championship each year,” explained Monaghan. “But we are moving forward quickly with our program.”

This year, the Eagles sent both Junior and Senior teams to the 6 Nations Challenge that faced teams from PEI and Saskatchewan. The Eagles’ rapid development was evident as the Junior squad went undefeated, downing both PEI teams they faced by scores of 18-6 and 40-7. The Senior Eagles shut out PEI 33-0, but lost on the final play of the game to Saskatchewan by a score of 20-13. This success has lead to plans to launch a Cree Nation Football League in 2012.

“Mistissini developed a football program this year with some of the former coaches from our program last year. We were able to play four games against Mistissini this year, culminating in the Big River Bowl in Chisasibi, which we won 34-32,” said Monaghan. “We travelled back and forth four weeks in a row and the popularity grew from there.”

Four games between two teams may be a humble beginning, but Monaghan and his counterparts in other Cree communities have ambitious plans for the future.

“We do have a format that is being developed with Football Canada and we are members of Football Quebec as of this year,” Monaghan continued. “This means we are developing a football league for the future. We are looking at the developing at the younger ages with flag football and then thru Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget age with tackle football. We’ve spoken with Waswanipi and Wemindji Recreation Departments, and it’s looking like we are expanding more each year.”

To boost this development, Monaghan is leveraging his relationships at the University of Ottawa to hire students who will work next summer as coaches in the football program. The model that Monaghan is seeking to use with student coaches is based on the method that has already been used successfully in Saskatchewan.

“We have the only 6-a-side programs in Quebec that are recognized. So we are a bit ahead. But this is not just about Aboriginal communities trying to develop football players for themselves. We are trying to get more players involved by promoting 6-a-side football in smaller communities across Quebec,” said Monaghan. “This is about developing players for Football Canada teams and for colleges and universities. To play football at a high level like the CFL, you need to go to college. So, even if you don’t make it pro, you can still get an education as result of football.”

A primary objective of the 6-a-side football program is developing the skill sets, discipline and experience necessary to excel at the 12-man game.

According to Monaghan, “Most of the kids that play 6-a-side football learn to play multiple positions. This develops them for the 12-man game. So, if they leave the community here they are better prepared to play at the competitive 12-man game. That’s where we get the slogan ‘half the number of players, twice the athlete’. ”

Monaghan’s program is already paying an early dividend. Chisasibi’s George Neacappo, who played 6-a-side football with the James Bay Eagles, is making the leap to university football this season as a lineman with Monaghan’s former squad, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Monaghan sums up the program objectives enthusiastically.  “We are developing athletes here and that’s pretty neat.”