He's one of only two Canadians to ever win the CFL's outstanding player award, but Tony Gabriel believes Jon Cornish belongs in that select fraternity.
The Calgary Stampeders running back received the West Division nomination for the CFL's top individual award Thursday in voting by the Football Reporters of Canada and league's eight head coaches. Quarterback Ricky Ray, who led the defending Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts atop the East Division, was named a first-time finalist for the honour.
The six-foot, 217-pound Cornish ran for a CFL-high 1,813 yards, the most in a season by a Canadian. The 29-year-old native of New Westminster, B.C., also led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,157) and TDs (14) and helped Calgary (14-4) finish atop the West Division.
Gabriel, 64, of Burlington, Ont., was the last Canadian to be named the CFL's top player, doing so in 1978 as a tight end with Ottawa. Former Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson, 77, of Hamilton, was a three-time winner (1963, '66, '69).
"I'm excited and elated about Jon Cornish's achievements through the course of this past year," Gabriel said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I think he has matured quite a bit in terms of challenging himself to have a better year all-round in comparison to last year.
"He's an astute gentleman off the field and certainly is very impressive. I just wanted to extend to him my sincerest wishes and I believe he's the most outstanding player this year."
Ray, 34, enjoyed a record-setting second season with Toronto. The California native had a CFL-record 77.2 per cent completion average and just two interceptions in 303 pass attempts to become the first player to have an interception percentage under 1.0 (0.7).
However, Ray only appeared in 11 regular-season games this year. He missed six starts due to injury and was a healthy scratch in Toronto's regular-season finale.
"It's awesome, I'm glad I'm in the running," Ray said. "As far as stats go, it's been one of the best years I've ever had.
"Obviously I dealt with injuries and didn't get in as much as I would've wanted to . . . this just means our team had a good year finishing first with a lot of great players around me. It's the first time in my career I've been nominated so I'm definitely very pleased."
Ray also praised Cornish for his outstanding campaign.
"He's so consistent," Ray said. "Every week it seems like he's going for 100 yards and he really puts his team in position to win.
"The last few years he's been having great years and he's going to be a tough guy to go up against."
Cornish was also nominated as top Canadian — an award he won last year — and was one of four Stampeders finalists. The others include defensive end Charleston Hughes (defensive player), centre Brett Jones (rookie) and kicker Rene Paredes (special-teams player).
Brendon LaBatte of the Saskatchewan Roughriders was the West Division's top lineman.
The other East Division finalists are Montreal linebacker Chip Cox (defensive player), Winnipeg linebacker Henoc Muamba (Canadian), Toronto centre Jeff Keeping (lineman) and Hamilton Tiger-Cats C.J. Gable (rookie) and Marc Beswick (special-teams player).
There were no unanimous selections but a record eight Canadians received nominations. The CFL's awards banquet is Nov. 21 in Regina.
The six-foot-one, 244-pound Hughes terrorized CFL quarterbacks, registering a league-high 18 sacks. The 29-year-old native of Saginaw, Mich., anchored a Calgary defence that led the league in sacks (63) and was second in fewest points allowed (22.9 points per game).
Cox, 30, was a key performer in a Montreal defence that allowed a CFL-low 314.3 yards per game. The five-foot-nine, 185-pound linebacker led the league in tackles (club-record 115), and had a team-high 12 sacks and four interceptions.
The six-foot, 230-pound Muamba, taken first overall in the 2011 CFL draft, was a bright spot for Winnipeg (3-15). The former St. Francis Xavier star finished second overall in tackles (106) and added 18 special-teams tackles, a sack and interception.
Muamba, 24, was born in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) but grew up in Mississauga, Ont. He also was Winnipeg's selection as outstanding player and top defensive player and is slated to become a free agent this off-season.
Paredes was the CFL's scoring leader with 213 points and also converted 54-of-57 field goals (league-record 94.7 per cent). The Venezuela native, who grew up in Pierrefonds, Que., also made a league-record 39 straight field goals this year.
The six-foot-one, 198-pound Beswick posted a league-leading 24 special-teams tackles and was an East Division all-star this year. The 30-year-old Vancouver native has led Hamilton in special-teams tackles the last four seasons.
The six-foot-four, 323-pound LaBatte is a division finalist for the first time in his six-year CFL career. The 27-year-old native of Weyburn, Sask., anchored an offensive line that paved the way for Kory Sheets, the CFL's second-leading rusher with 1,598 yards, while allowing 57 sacks, third-fewest in league.
"It's definitely something I'm happy and grateful for," LaBatte said. "When someone appreciates enough what you do on the field to vote for you and put you up for those kind of award, that's something I'm very grateful for and I respect that a lot."
It's also the first career nomination for Keeping, 31, a six-foot-five, 291-pound native of Uxbridge, Ont. Toronto's offensive line contributed to Ray's record-breaking campaign and helped the Argos lead the CFL in passing (300.3 yards per game).
"It's very exciting and I'm very honoured," said Keeping. "Any award for an O-lineman is obviously a reflection on the guys I play with . . . I'm so lucky to have a group of guys that work hard, are diligent about studying and Ricky and the receivers and being successful as an offence is obviously the reason."
The six-foot-two, 319-pound Jones, a '13 second-round pick, was the only Calgary offensive lineman to dress for every game. The 22-year-old native of Weyburn was a member of a Stampeders offence that led the CFL in net offensive yards (383.4 per game), TDs (51), scoring (30.5 points per game) and rushing (141.5 yards per game).
Former USC star Gable led the East Division in rushing (782 yards) and averaged a solid six yards per carry while running for seven TDs. Gable also had 55 catches for 600 yards and five touchdowns and was fourth in yards from scrimmage (1,382) and eighth in all-purpose yards (1,630).