Want to see Canada? Join the CFL.
Jeff Treftlin is living proof of that statement.
But the Fort Frances native, who now resides in Winnipeg, isn’t shy about professing where his heart lies.
“I wouldn’t want [the Fort] to change,” declared the eight-year CFL veteran, who was announced earlier this month as among those being inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in Thunder Bay next month.
“It’s the best place ever.”
Treftlin overcame the odds of being less than a physically-imposing specimen—a mere 5’8” and 170 pounds in his playing prime—to establish himself as a skilled punt and kick-off returner, as well as a defensive halfback, for four different teams.
His roots in the game, though, can be traced back to when he still was in kindergarten.
“Since I was five years old, I knew I wanted to be a football player,” recalled Treftlin, who actually lived in Devlin during his childhood years.
“I remember my dad’s love of football,” he noted. “We were both big Minnesota Vikings’ fans.
“Every year, I would read books and fantasize about football, talk about it with my friends, and wonder what it would be like to play for the Muskies,” Treftlin added.
“I have such good memories of my dad chucking the football with me all those years and playing the game with everyone in my neighbourhood.”
Treftlin finally realized his dream in Grade 9 when he joined the Westfort Spartans—the Muskies’ junior varsity program.
It was there where he connected with a special network of teammates whom he would move up through the ranks with.
“I had such great friends growing up in the country and then when I came to Fort Frances and wound up playing football, I made new friends with so many great guys,” he recalled.
“Guys like Jeff Maher, Gord Kitzul, Howard Fawcett, and Mike Allison, although Mike moved to Kenora for hockey when he was in Grade 10,” added Treftlin, who turned 55 last Thursday.
“We all just loved sports and loved football, and worked out all year after school to get better.
“And we such good mentors in the older guys on the team like Greg Allan, Sandy MacFarlane, Ross and Chuck Quirry, and Pat Gartshore,” noted Treftlin.
“Then there were guys like Scott Fawcett, who went on to play at the University of Manitoba and showed us younger guys you could leave Fort Frances and keep playing football.”
The coaching staff of the Muskie teams in Treftlin’s time in black-and-gold in the late 1970s also earned his respect and admiration.
“[Head coach] Dave Montgomery is someone I liked as a person, and liked his intensity towards football and his obvious love of football,” he remarked.
“All that together made him a good coach. . . .
“[But] all of our coaches were good role models, including Jack Cameron, who got us all started off in Westfort football.”
Treftlin’s work as a top-flight running back and defensive halfback for the Muskies netted him a spot on the McMaster Marauders in Hamilton to play at the university level.
He impressed the scouts enough to be drafted in the second round of the 1984 CFL entry draft by the Edmonton Eskimos.
What Treftlin lacked in size he made up in drive as he tried to prove his worth with the Eskimos, who were just one year removed from their five-in-a-row Grey Cup dynasty from 1978-82.
“I would get out there early, catch punts and kicks, stay out late, catch punts and kicks, and just worked hard every day,” he noted.
“The big-money signings, they had to do the same job, liked running east and west on their returns while I went north and south,” he added.
“The coaches really liked that.”
Treftlin primarily was a kick returner with the Eskimos, scoring two touchdowns in his rookie season—his first one a memory for all time and, ironically, not via the return game.
“It was the Labour Day game in Calgary against the Stampeders and it helped change the game,” he said.
“John Mandarich and I hit the ball carrier and the ball was just lying there,” he recounted. “Suddenly, we’re all running down the field together.
“No one knew I had the ball until I scored.
“I scored two touchdowns that first season and thought, ‘Hey, this would be all right, getting a couple of touchdowns each season.’
“And then it never happened again,” he chuckled.
Two seasons in Edmonton ended with Treftlin being dealt to the Montreal Alouettes, who were in serious financial straits at the time.
Treftlin would blossom as a starter at defensive halfback and became one of the CFL’s best return men, earning East Division all-star status after leading the league in kick-off returns (46) and yards (964).
Then came 1987 and the cessation of the Alouettes for the time being.
“There were three of us left in the locker-room at the end of the final day of practice as we were getting ready to head to Toronto the next day,” Treftlin recalled.
“A team official came down and said, ‘I didn’t think there would be anybody left here,’ then told us, ‘Don’t go to the airport tomorrow, come here for a 10 a.m. meeting.’
“I thought, ‘Holy [expletive].’ That was the end of Montreal.”
Treftlin wound up being chosen by Winnipeg in the second round of the dispersal draft, but only lasted nine games with the Blue Bombers before being put on waivers.
“Mike Riley was the head coach and we had a good bunch of guys,” Treftlin said.
“But [Winnipeg general manager] Cal Murphy and I had money issues,” he added. “He wanted me to take a cut in pay and it didn’t make sense.
“I had an all-star year the year before and all-stars don’t take a cut in pay,” Treftlin reasoned. “He [Murphy] was really sneaky about money.”
Treftlin was pleased to get picked up by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and finished the season in the city where he both went to university and had plenty of family and friends.
But then came along the 1988 equalization draft, which was created to help reduce salaries league-wide while making the CFL more competitive overall by helping add to the depth of the bottom team in each of the East (Ottawa Rough Riders) and West (Saskatchewan Roughriders) divisions.
Treftlin wasn’t protected by the Ticats and was selected by Saskatchewan, although he had been promised by Hamilton head coach Al Bruno that the team eventually would bring him back.
That never happened—much to Treftlin’s good fortune in 1989, despite his physical misfortunes.
In his second season with the Roughriders, Treftlin was beset by injuries, including a broken arm and a torn hamstring that kept him out of action for most of the campaign.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t front and centre helping out on the sidelines as Saskatchewan beat Treftlin’s former employer in Hamilton by a score of 43-40 to win the Green Riders’ first Grey Cup in 33 years.
“It was so frustrating. To play in the game would have been wonderful,” Treftlin admitted.
“But I remembered my contributions throughout the year.
“It was crazy in Saskatchewan after we won,” he added. “You could go around town everywhere in Montreal and not have anyone know you.
“In Regina, you walk around and everyone calls you by your first name.”
Treftlin’s career ended after the 1991 season in abrupt fashion, courtesy of Saskatchewan head coach Don Matthews.
“Don called me in and said they had got some guy from Georgia, taller and faster, and they were going to go with him,” said Treftlin.
“And that was it. I never played in the CFL again.
“It was pretty weird for a while. I wasn’t ready to be done,” he admitted.
“It can happen in the CFL from one day to the next,” Treftlin reasoned. “It’s not like the NFL.
“It’s a very insecure existence.”
Treftlin finished his professional tenure with a return average of 20.6 yards on kick-offs and 7.1 yards on punts.
And he possibly may be the only player in CFL history with career totals featuring one sack (1985), one interception (1986), and one pass reception (a 36-yarder with Saskatchewan in his final season).
The father of four has found a new calling as a firefighter with the Winnipeg Fire Department, which he proudly has served for the past 23 years.
“It’s been remarkable. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he enthused.
“It’s like football in that it’s very much a team atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, Treftlin’s induction into the Northwestern Ontario hall also means an automatic entrance into the Fort Frances Sports Hall of Fame next August.
“It’s terrible to say since I only live in Winnipeg, but since my family doesn’t live there anymore, I haven’t been back there for 15 years since the Fort Frances High School 75th anniversary reunion,” he chuckled.
“I’ll definitely be there [for the induction dinner].”