I’ve told this tale before, but it bears repeating given the shaky status of the Canadian Football League.
In a distant time and place, my friend Chester and I would hop on our bikes and make the trek to St. Boniface, twice a day, to watch the Winnipeg Blue Bombers frolic on a parched patch of earth known as Packers Field, so-named because of the Canada Packers rendering plant across the road.
We were allowed to get up close and personal with Kenny Ploen and Leo Lewis and Ernie Pitts and Bud Grant, who actually acknowledged our existence and once presented us scamps with a watermelon to share at the conclusion of the two-a-day, preseason training exercises.
How many kids could say they sat and spat watermelon seeds among sporting deity? Just Chester and myself, and it was magical.
The Bombers, after all, were top dog. The Winnipeg Jets had yet to arrive to adjust the pecking order, and our football heroes brought glory to Good Ol’ Hometown, winning the Grey Cup with great frequency in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
I’m uncertain what became of Chester, but, for me, those morning/afternoon sessions at Packers Field served as the stirrings of a life-long fling with Rouge Football.
I was fortunate. Actually, blessed would be a better word. I grew up with the CFL, then got to cover it for 19 years in three locales—Winnipeg, Calgary and the Republic of Tranna—and that’s something you should understand about the boys and girls on the beat: They’re fans.
Those who chronicle the daily doings of the three-down game care. About the league, about the players, about management, about the quirky rules that differentiate us from the four-down colossus south of the 49th. We embrace the notion of humble community ownership, in the same way the citizenry of Green Bay embraces its Packers.
Thus, we tend to take it personal when we hear squawkings of a sellout to American interests, or when the feds decline to pony up with cash to see the CFL through the COVID pandemic. Who are these snake-oil salesmen from the U.S. planning to butcher our game, and how dare Trudeau the Younger and his pals on Parliament Hill give Air Canada, the film industry and the arts community money hand over fist while leaving the lords of Rouge Football to sit, hat in hand, on a cold, dark street corner?
The iffiness of the CFL’s very existence, let alone a 2021 crusade, rattles us to the core, and we nod in agreement when we hear Russ Jackson speaking our language.
“I think if there was an amalgamation of the American and Canadian side, it would lead towards playing the American game,” the great quarterback told 3DownNation. “I have no interest in that. I have four season tickets here in Hamilton. I’m not sure I would keep those season seats if we turned into an American-type football game.”
You tell ’em, Russ. Maybe they’ll listen to you.
I doubt it, though, because they’ve heard it all before. They know all about the 100-plus-year history of the game on this side of the great divide, they’re familiar with folklore about horses clomping into hotel lobbies during Grey Cup week, and about fog bowls, mud bowls and ice bowls, so nothing a legendary QB says will sway them. Heck, we could trot out a lineup of legends including Jackson, Dirty Thirty, Peanut Butter Joe and Big Angie to preach the gospel according to G. Sydney Halter, but the stewards of the game will do what they’re going to do.
Question is: How many among the rabble would be bent out of shape if the lords of Rouge Football sold out to Americans, or if the CFL disappeared like a slab of beef on Chris Walby’s dinner plate? I mean, I like to think that it isn’t just folks of my vintage who want to preserve our game.
Well, I remind you of an Angus Reid poll conducted last May. Slightly more than 1,500 sports fans across the tundra were contacted and asked if they would be “disappointed” should the 2020 CFL season be scuttled. Only in Manitoba and Saskatchewan did the majority respond with a “damn straight I would!” Elsewhere, there was a collective shrug of the shoulders.
Manitoba: 63 per cent Saskatchewan: 61 per cent Alberta: 45 per cent B.C.: 34 per cent Quebec: 31 per cent Ontario: 28 per cent Atlantic Canada: 17 per cent
Significantly, east of the Manitoba-Ontario border, a greater percentage of people indicated they would miss an NFL season more than a CFL crusade.
We don’t know if those numbers have changed, but something tells me the Lords of Rouge Football and commissioner Randy Ambrosie haven’t attracted any new friends, or brought back old friends, with their fumbled appeals for federal financing and their dithering in the past year.
We’re told the tall foreheads will gather on Tuesday to plot strategy, and I don’t know if I should fear the worst or expect to see Commish Randy pull something that resembles Bugs Bunny out of his hat.
I just know they’re messing with memories, and if they shut down again or sell out to Yankee Doodle dollars I’ll be mad enough to spit. Only this time it won’t be watermelon seeds at Packers Field.
Another Sunday smorgas-bored…and I really wish that young woman on TSN Sportscentre would stop yelling at us…
The notion that Matt Nichols and his wonky throwing wing might be in the repair shop until there’s frost on the pumpkin isn’t what scares me.
Kevin Glenn scares me.
Brandon Bridge scares me.
Drew Willy (definitely) scares me.
And Kyle Walters scares me, because he might be enough of a nitwit to recruit one of the above to play quarterback, just as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are set to embark on the nitty-gritty segment of a promising Canadian Football League crusade that now is in peril.
Actually, check that: Walters is daft enough.
The Winnipeg FC general manager jerked his knee and attempted to pry the 40-year-old Glenn off his comfy sofa in Detroit this weekend, but the former Bomber/Ticat/Eskimo/Rider/Stampeder/Lion/Lark/Argo/RedBlack had the good sense to decline the come-hither overture, and I believe the blue-and-gold rabble can be thankful for that.
I mean, Glenn manufactured an admirable career at mostly being second best, but a journey in the way-back machine isn’t what the Bombers need going forward.
Chris Streveler is, of course, the logical choice to sub for Nichols, laid low late in a 32-16 victory over the B.C. Leos on Thursday night at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry. Streveler has been a useful second-in-command for the past year and a half, although I must confess that even the high-octane sophomore scares me. To a point. He’s done some good things. He’s done some not so good things. But, sure, give him the ball and let’s all cross our fingers, our toes and any other crossable body parts while we ride out the storm.
How long will that be? We await word on Nichols’ wounded wing from Winnipeg FC medics, but anytime your starting QB walks off the field and he’s unable to lift his hand high enough to scratch behind his ear we’re probably talking long term before he’s flinging footballs again.
Which means Walters likely has developed blisters on his dialing thumb in the past few days, because we have to assume he has numbers other than Glenn’s on his contact list.
But I see this as a Streveler-or-bust situation, which means you can put Nichols’ owie in the ‘be careful what you wish for’ file.
I think most of us will agree that losing Nichols is a significant setback for Winnipeg FC.
I say “most of us” because I acknowledge there exists a constituency that has never been sold on the most-maligned 7-2 quarterback in the history of our quirky, three-down game.
The anti-Matt sector of the rabble is considerable and often loud. They figure Nichols for a false bill of goods, and they’re wholly convinced that a championship drought that began in another century cannot end with No. 15 behind centre.
While others certainly have absorbed their portion of tsk-tsking for almost 29 years of the Bombers never failing to fail, blame often comes down to the quarterback, and Nichols has the lash marks to prove it. He’s been damned if he did, damned if he didn’t in a ‘what have you done for us lately?’ world, and if there was a sudden outbreak of rump rot in River City, I’m sure he’d take the rap for that too.
It matters not to the naysayers that recent history confirms Nichols, not Streveler, to be Winnipeg FC’s best bet for a W. They want their young stud behind centre, damnit, and they’ve been panting in anticipation of this moment, almost to the point of hyperventilating.
The question is: Will Streveler take their breath away with his play?
I’ve liked Streveler ever since he subbed for Nichols during the first three skirmishes of the 2018 crusade, and I believe he can keep the boat afloat. But it’s worth noting that Winnipeg FC is 1-3 with him behind centre in the past season and a half. Nichols is 17-8 in the same time frame. Just saying.
Here’s something we know for certain: No one in the Alberta Foothills or on the Flattest of Lands is spilling crocodile tears because the Bombers have hit a bump in the road. The Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders have learned to live without their starting QBs for most of the season, so they’ll see the Nichols departure as a leveling of the playing field. Ditto the folks in the Hammer, where the TabbyCats lost Jeremiah Masoli for the duration. Can’t say I disagree with them.
You’ll have to excuse Trevor Harris and Mike Reilly if they’ve begun to glance nervously over their shoulders like two guys who just pulled a dine-and-dash. They’re the only original starting QBs yet to miss a beat in 2019, you see. No surprise with Harris, because the large lads on the E-Town Eskimos O-line don’t let angry defenders get close enough to their QB to know if he had garlic bread with lunch. But it’s incredible that Reilly is still standing. He’s been hit more often than Ringo Starr’s drum kit.
Big tip of the bonnet to Andrew Harris, a local guy who’s now covered more real estate than any CFL player carrying a Canadian passport. The Bombers tailback will, of course, add to his 13,377 yards running/pass catching total before he’s done lugging the football, and we might be talking all-time best homebrew if not for guys named Russ Jackson, Gerry James and Chris Walby. But wherever Harris falls on the final pecking order, he’s already had a hall of fame career.
Does Glen Suitor take us for a bunch of rubes who just woke up from a month-long nap? Seriously. The TSN natterbug became Nichols’ unofficial apologist during Thursday’s telecast, excusing Matt Meh’s inclination to dump off the football to Harris rather than feed his downfield guys in Winnipeg FC’s two most recent matches prior to the Leos visit. Nichols “doesn’t check down,” Suitor told us. I assume he said it with a straight face, but it might have registered a new high on the ignorant scale, which is really saying something when you consider the amount of tripe that has escaped his gob during the past two dozen years. Every QB from Pop Warner to pro checks down, and Suitor knows it. Really, really dumb. Him not us.
It’s about the Walby Burger, the 5½-pound Gastronomical Goliath selling at Football Follies Field: I’m not sure which would be harder to stomach, the six meat patties, six chicken strips, six hot dogs, six hunks of bacon, cheese, French fries, pickles, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and special secret sauce stuffed between two buns the size of circus tent, or the $45 price tag. Mind you, it supposedly feeds a family of four, so when you look at it that way it’s only $11.25 per heart attack.
Old friend Troy Westwood did a bit of myth-busting about Chris Walby, the inspiration behind the Gastronomical Goliath. “All this noise about the Walby Burger. Truth is, Walby doesn’t eat a whole bunch,” the former Bombers kicker and current TSN 1290 gab guy tweets. Ya, sure. What’s ol’ Lefty going to tell us next? That Trump doesn’t fib much. Sorry, Lefty, but you don’t grow to Walby’s proportions without strapping the feed bag on your head and refusing to come up for air until the last pork chop is gone. Bluto doesn’t just dine at all-you-can-eat buffets. He puts them out of business.
Some harsh stuff in Kirk Penton’s latest edition of natter from CFL coaches, managers and execs in The Athletic, with one taking aim at former QB and now TSN talking head Smilin’ Hank Burris. “I coached Henry Burris. Saw him choke in a bunch of big games. But they give him a microphone, and he has all the answers now. Calling out Paul LaPolice the week his mom died was classless. Henry should come by our place and let me put some old film on. Remind him how many times he fucked up and cost us games. Him. Henry. Not the offensive co-ordinator.” Ouch.
In a far, faraway land, Patrik Laine spoke and the earth moved in Good Ol’ Hometown. “You never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything,” Puck Finn told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, who tracked down the Winnipeg Jets winger in Lahti, Finland. Does “anything” include re-upping with les Jets? “Well, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Winnipeg, you know?” Puck Finn answered. “It’s been good so far, but you never know.” If I hadn’t seen Laine’s lips move, I’d have sworn it was Evander Kane talking.
Exactly what are we to make of Puck Finn’s remarks? Does he want out of Pegtown? Was it his way of getting his agent, Mike Liut, and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in the same room to nail down a new contract? Or was the restricted free agent merely yanking Johnston’s chain? I really don’t think there’s anything to see here. If Puck Finn is still home in Finland when the lads assemble for training exercises next month, then we’ll talk.
I don’t get it. Why is Kyle Connor competing in the Players Cup a front-page sports story? That’s what hockey players do during the summer. They golf. Poorly. Connor’s gimmicky presence in the field at Southwood wasn’t newsworthy, and he proved it by taking 94 swings his first day and another 90 before leaving the southside course to the real golfers.
I’m uncertain what kind of cred Corey Pronman of The Athletic has, but he ranks the Jets farm system at No. 27 among the 31 National Hockey League teams, better than only Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Calgary. The good news, I suppose, is that’s one spot better than in 2018.
Hey, look who’s a pitchman for Direct Auto Insurance. Why, it’s TSN’s favorite lousy former quarterback Johnny Manziel and equally disgraced former fancy skater Tonya Harding. I assume they both work in the Train Wreck division.
Speaking of train wrecks, maybe Johnny Rotten and Terrible Tonya can help ESPN baseball analyst and former Major League Baseball drug cheat Alex Rodriguez, a recent victim of auto theft in San Francisco. The bad guys broke into A-Rod’s parked rental and made off with a reported $500,000 in plunder, which apparently included items of a personal, sentimental nature. So far cops haven’t recovered any of the drug cheat’s belongings, but they say it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Diva receiver Antonio Brown had a hissy fit and stayed away from Oakland Raiders training camp because the NFL wouldn’t allow him to wear his old helmet, which does not meet current safety standards. Similarly, the NHL has informed Boston Bruins ancient defenceman Zdeno Chara that he no longer can wear his old Eatons catalogs for shin pads.
And, finally, the Winnipeg Sun will be bringing Scott Billeck on board next month to write the good stuff about the Jets and Bombers. I’m told there were more than 30 applicants for the position, four of them women, and it’s nice to see some young people still believe scribbling sports for a newspaper remains a worthy pursuit.