Toronto Mayor Rob Ford left for more than two hours in the middle of a council meeting Thursday to coach a high school football game that ended with a fight and the mayor's team being ferried home on a police-ordered TTC bus.
Under fire for much of the fall for the time he devotes to coaching, Mr. Ford defended his decision to skip part of the meeting to lead his Don Bosco Eagles to victory in a post-season game.
"It was a semifinal football game. It was the playoffs. We're undefeated. We're No. 2 in the city. We're in the championship game. If I'm [not] there, what are we going to do, just forfeit the game?" he told reporters after returning to the chambers.
The mayor insisted he made a commitment to coaching. "I'm not changing," he said.
Mr. Ford also said the altercation could have turned "really ugly" if he had not been at the field.
"I think you should talk to the school board and police. I controlled my team."
Toronto police received a call before 4 p.m. from someone at Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School in Etobicoke, where the Eagles were battling the Carr Crusaders.
Constable Tony Vella said the coach of the Carr team got into an altercation with one of the referees, forcing the game to be called early.
Police called TTC transit control to request a bus to take the Don Bosco players back to their school because of "weather conditions," Constable Vella added.
Brad Ross, a spokesman for the Toronto Transity Commission, said the agency dispatched the standard 40-foot bus to the field because the TTC always complies with such requests from police.
He said the TTC did not know it was the mayor's team that needed a ride.
"Toronto Police called us requesting a bus to safely transport students. We were not informed of who or what team or why," he said in an e-mail.
The mayor also said it was police that requested the TTC bus.
The mayor, who left at the lunch break, returned to the council chambers around 4:45 p.m., in time to deliver an impassioned speech against the legal agreement that finalized an $8.4-billion light-rail network deal with Metrolinx.
"The people of this city have spoken loud and clear in Etobicoke and North York and Scarborough. They want subways," he said. "[If ] you support this, you are supporting more congestion, streetcars the people do not want – mass gridlock. This is terrible. This is the worst thing we could be approving today."
Council voted against the mayor and adopted the master agreement with Metrolinx by a vote of 30-11.
That decision came as a relief to TTC Chair Karen Stintz, who warned Toronto risked losing billions in provincial transit funding if council postponed or killed the master agreement.
"I received a note from the minister's staff [Thursday] saying that if we deferred this item then the province would consider the city not serious about the $8.4-billion investment in transit," she said.
Some left-leaning councillors accused Mr. Ford's allies of dragging out another debate on a relatively routine public-housing motion for hours so the mayor could make it back in time for the Metrolinx vote.
They also suggested the Ford team was buying time to line up the votes to kill the light-rail deal.
"They were working all afternoon to try to scuttle this," Councillor Joe Mihevc said. "That was the play that they were making."
The mayor's press secretary said his team made no effort to run out the clock at council.
"Not at all," George Christopoulos said. "I think [the housing motion] was an important issue for councillors to deal with."
The time and attention Mr. Ford lavishes on his football team has raised the ire of even his most loyal council supporters.
At the end of September, as many as 20 councillors gathered at the mayor's mother's house to suggest, among other changes, that Mr. Ford stop skipping council and committee meetings for football.
"I guess it's up to him. I personally wouldn't do it," Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said Thursday.
"He always seems receptive and I'm sure he hears. It's just, I guess he has a mind of his own."
Mr. Ford made that clear when asked whether an assistant coach could not have filled him for him at the semi-finals.
"They can't be a head coach. It's impossible … you don't take any assumptions. If I got hit by a car obviously someone would have to do it. But as a head coach it's the responsible thing to do and if I wasn't there things would have got out of hand."
- With a report from Elizabeth Church