Michel Belanger

OTTAWA (CIS) – Laval’s Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Saskatchewan’s Ben Heenan and Regina’s Akiem Hicks have been selected to represent Canadian Interuniversity Sport football in the 87th edition of the prestigious East-West Shrine Game on Saturday, January 21, 2012 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET, live on the NFL Network.

Every year since 1985, CIS players are invited to the all-star showcase which features over 100 of the top university players in the United States. After Calgary offensive lineman Tom Spoletini was selected in 1985, two CIS representatives have made the trip annually with the exception of 2008, when four players received an invitation, and now 2012, with a trio heading south.

The Shrine Game has been played annually since 1925 to raise funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children and to raise awareness about the expert orthopedic, burn, spinal cord injury rehabilitation, as well as cleft lip and palate care, available at no charge to patients and families through the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children.

The impressive list of past CIS standouts invited to the Shrine Game includes current Chicago Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije, who starred at the University of Manitoba from 2000 to 2002; former Queen’s University offensive tackle Matthew O’Donnell, currently on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad; Mike Schad (Queen’s), Randy Chevrier (McGill), Dan Federkeil (Calgary) and Samuel Giguère (Sherbrooke), all of whom played in the NFL; as well as Hec Crighton trophy winners Don Blair (Calgary), Kojo Aidoo (McMaster), Jesse Lumsden (McMaster) and Andy Fantuz (Western Ontario).

Highlighting the list of NFL greats who have participated in the event are Tom Brady, Brett Favre, John Elway, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Kellen Winslow and Larry Csonka. A total of 62 Shrine Game alumni have gone on to become Pro Football Hall of Famers.

Gascon-Nadon, a native of Montreal, will be the fourth Rouge et Or player to suit up in the Shrine Game – including three in the last five years – and the first since current Edmonton Eskimos defensive tackle Étienne Légaré in 2009.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound defensive end, who will wear the East colours in St. Petersburg, has been one of the most dominant players in CIS since his arrival on the Quebec City campus prior to the 2010 season. Selected to the first all-Canadian team each of his two campaigns with the Rouge et Or, he claimed consecutive J.P. Metras trophies as CIS down lineman of the year, becoming the first player in history to capture the prestigious honour more than once. Thanks in large part to his stellar defensive play, Laval led the nation for least points allowed in both 2010 and 2011, and reached back-to-back national finals, winning a record-tying sixth Vanier Cup a year ago.

This fall, the 23-year-old independent studies student amassed seven quarterback sacks in nine league games, which ranked fourth in the country, as well as nine tackles for losses, the fifth highest total in the RSEQ conference. He also forced a fumble, recovered another, and scored the first touchdown of his CIS career on a 19-yard interception return. In his CIS debut in 2010, he tied for the nation’s lead with 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and finished third in the country with nine sacks in seven contests.

Gascon-Nadon started his university career in 2008 with Rice of the NCAA, earning a spot on the Conference USA all-rookie team. He represented Canada at the 2007 world junior championship in Florida.

“Arnaud’s selection is a very proud moment for the Rouge et Or program. The Shrine Game is a prestigious event in university football circles,” said Laval head coach Glen Constantin. “After winning the J.P. Metras trophy twice, this is a very nice recognition for Arnaud, who will get a unique opportunity to showcase his talent.”

Heenan and Hicks will both compete for the West squad in Florida.

Heenan, who hails from Grand Coulee, Sask., just outside of Regina, is the sixth Huskie invited to the Shrine Game and the first since safety Dylan Barker – currently of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – in 2008. Saskatchewan ranks second behind Calgary (10) among CIS schools for most Shrine Game invitees.

The 21-year-old, one of the few players to take part in two CIS East-West Bowls (2010, 2011), is the top prospect for next spring’s CFL Canadian Draft according to the list published back in September by the league’s Scouting Bureau.

Despite switching positions from guard to tackle this season, his fourth with the Huskies, the 6-foot-4, 310-pound agriculture and bioresources student earned all-Canadian status for the second straight year, making the second CIS squad after being selected to the first unit in 2010. He was also named the Canada West rookie of the year in 2008.

In four campaigns at Saskatchewan, Heenan helped the Huskies to three Canada West regular season titles and four playoff appearances, and played a major role as the team led the conference in points scored and total offence on two occasions. This fall, the Huskies kept a 5-3 record in league play and once again featured one of the most productive offensive units in the country with an average of 29.8 points per game.

“Ben is the fourth outstanding offensive lineman from the University of Saskatchewan to be selected to compete in the East West Shrine Game. His size, strength and mobility have already attracted interest from several NFL teams,” said Huskies head coach Brian Towriss. “The Shrine Game will enable Ben to showcase his talents with many of the NCAA’s best. This is a tremendous opportunity that he is sure to take advantage of. He will represent CIS football very well.”

Hicks, a native of Elk Grove, Calif., becomes the fourth Shrine Game invitee from the Rams program. Receiver Jordan Sisco, now a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was the most recent player to represent Regina at the classic, in 2010.

The 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive end, who moved up north to join the Rams in 2010 after two seasons at Sacramento City College (2007, 2008), was dominant in his second CIS campaign as he was named the top down lineman in Canada West and a first-team all-Canadian. He was also a conference all-star in his CIS debut in 2010.

In eight league games this fall, Hicks led his conference with 6.5 quarterback sacks and placed sixth with eight tackles for losses. The 22-year-old arts student was Regina’s leader for solo tackles (29), total tackles (35.5) and forced fumbles (2). He anchored a unit that finished first in Canada West – and sixth in the country – in total defence (335.9 yards per game) and ranked second in both rush and pass defence. The Rams overcame an 0-3 start to the season to qualify for the playoffs for a sixth straight year.

Hicks was selected in the 10th round (48th overall) by the Omaha Nighthawks in the 2011 United Football League (UFL) draft.

“Akiem is quite simply a dominant player for us,” said Regina head coach Frank McCrystal. “He has an incredible combination of size, athleticism, and physicality. Akiem has immense potential and is garnering a great deal of interest from NFL and CFL teams.”

In St. Petersburg, Gascon-Nadon, Heenan and Hicks will get a chance to play for a pair of high-profile coaches.

The East team will be led by Bobby Ross, 74, who retired from coaching in 2007 following a three-year term at the helm with Army. Over his distinguished career, Ross was head coach of San Diego and Detroit in the NFL, leading the Chargers to a Super Bowl appearance in 1995, and also guided Georgia Tech to the NCAA title in 1990. It marks his second tour of duty with the Shrine Game as he also mentored the East squad in 2009.

Brad Childress will be in charge of the West troops. The 55-year-old was head coach of Minnesota in the NFL from 2006 to 2010, guiding the Vikings to back-to-back first-place finishes in the NFC North in 2008 and 2009. He had previously served has an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles for seven campaigns – the last three as offensive coordinator – and helped the team to four consecutive trips to the NFC championship game (2001-2004) and a Super Bowl appearance in 2004. Childress coached in the NCAA for 21 years before making the jump to the NFL.

For all the information on the 2012 East-West Shrine Game: