A small group of Canadian Football League movers and shakers have huddled together again in an effort to hammer out a new collective-bargaining agreement to avert a strike or lockout.
And, in the case of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, to avert the loss of revenue that would come from playing host to the Toronto Argonauts in the league’s first preseason game on Monday.
Sources say the talks are ongoing with a small group from the CFL and the CFL Players’ Association at the negotiating table. And, given a deal doesn’t get down without the two sides talking, that has led to a smidgen of optimism a deal could get done on the weekend.
"The word on the street is that in order for this game to go ahead on Monday we need to see some sort of sign of progress, so it’s good that we’re finally coming together and discussing it with the CFL," said Bomber offensive lineman and CFLPA rep Glenn January after practice on Saturday.
Asked if he was encouraged by the latest developments, January again offered a sense of the players’ collective frustration.
"It’s kind of hard to be encouraged whenever we’ve been in this position before only to be let down," he said. "I’ll take it for what it’s worth at this point, but something needs to get accomplished here pretty quick.
"At the end of the day there’s no question the owners deserve to make money and more importantly there’s no question the fans deserve to watch us play football. And I feel we deserve a fair shake. So far the offer on the table from the CFL only takes care of two of those things. We’ll see how it goes."
The CFL has been without a collective-bargaining agreement with its players since May 29, but players have been in camp since June 1. The Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders are holding their first strike votes today in Alberta and, because of provincial labour laws there, will be in the position to walk on Wednesday. The seven other teams are already in a position to strike.
The three Ontario-based teams — the Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Redblacks and Hamilton Tiger-Cats — were also taking another strike vote today that would include all first-year players.
The two sides are said to have resumed negotiations Friday and were meeting again on Saturday. January said a conference call with the CFLPA reps was scheduled to happen Saturday night. The CFL’s latest offer included a $5,000 ratification bonus for veterans, $1,500 for rookies, as well as a $5 million cap and a $5,000 boost to the minimum salary. The CFLPA is seeking a $5.2 million cap.
There are other issues which have been debated, including the size of the practice roster, eliminating the option-year on CFL contracts and player safety. Since the formation of the CFLPA in 1965 there was been only one strike, in 1974, when three weeks of training camp were lost before the season started.
"We want to get this over with as soon as possible because I think this going to be a truly special year for us," said January. "I feel bad for the fans because we’re excited to get out there and show them what we’ve been working on so far through training camp. We’ve got all the signs of an improved team.
"There’s been a mixed bag of emotions (from his teammates). Not a lot of people like preseason games anyways, especially the old guys, but right now we’re like a fancy sports car you want to get out on the road and test drive. Everybody is just really hoping to get a decision made one way or another because the amount of preparation physically or mentally that goes into preparing for a game… you can’t put it into words.
"We need to figure something out, get something set in stone and go from there. (The preseason game) is important, but there’s a lot of stuff on the table right now and I’m telling the guys to get ready to play, focus on the game and focus on doing everything you can to make this club because, regardless of what deal we sign, if you’re back home you’re not going to benefit from it.
"I can tell you we are united and we’ve got a great group of veterans that are talking to people and making sure everybody understands the ramifications of a potential work stoppage. It’s something that is going to be well thought out if it ever does happen."
Several of the Bomber players have talked about having off-site workouts to stay sharp if there is a strike, but there is also the logistical nightmare of getting players moved out of the dorms at the University of Manitoba and into other accommodations.
"A lot of that stuff is going to fall on the shoulders of the vets," said January. "I can’t make plans for 60 people. I can point them in the right direction. I hate even talking about it because nothing has been set in stone and our focus is getting out here Monday and putting on a show for the fans. I’ve been around town long enough, I know enough people, we’ve got enough older guys that live here year round that we should be able to make something happen if it comes down to that."
Meanwhile, as the finishing touches were being made around the stadium on Saturday to get ready for game day on Monday, Bomber head coach Mike O’Shea & Co. are also proceeding as if it’s business as usual. That said, if Monday’s game is cancelled, O’Shea did say the club may have to look into an intra-squad game to see their players in action under almost real conditions.
"We’d consider it," O’Shea said. "I still have a hard time putting these guys in the position where they are going full out and tackling teammates. You have to see it. But it’s something we’d have to consider if there was a stoppage."
— With files from Gary Lawless