Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stakes are high for team leaders as Blue enter new era

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From CEO to GM to head coach to starting quarterback, it's difficult to imagine more at stake for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when they take to the field Thursday night.

Now or never seems to be a constant theme throughout this organization.

There is a bubble of pressure surrounding the Bombers with Garth Buchko, Joe Mack, Tim Burke and Buck Pierce doing a hot-feet dance within it.

The bubble can burst and be set aside with a few early wins but a loss or losses to start the season will only tighten the tourniquet wrapped snugly around their collective throats.

The Bombers leadership group is treating this game far more like a playoff game than a season opener. They know what is at stake far more than anyone on the outside.

Buchko is faced with getting the stadium operating smoothly to play its crucial role in the club's future. Mack must turn back the tide of losing during his reign and field a winner. Burke is entering his first full season as a head coach and must prove his worth. Finally, the much beleaguered Pierce is once again challenged with staying upright on the field and shucking his self-imposed "a hurt player is a bad player" tag.

The franchise is stepping into a new era and there is all kinds of promise attached to the opening of our new stadium but that hay is far from in the barn.

The purpose of this stadium was to give the football team financial independence and the ability to compete on a level playing field with even the richest of CFL franchises.

After too many years of near hand-to-mouth existence, this new ballpark was being built to make the Bombers a power both on the field and at the bank.

New revenues would be turned into more resources for football operations, money in the bank and finally to repay the province for the $100 million or so in stadium loans.

The football team would benefit from having the top stadium in the country as well as the best in training, recruiting and development materials.

So here we are, ready to open the place with a real live football game and while the potential is still real and attainable there are also questions.

The stadium is fantastic and despite the traffic woes experienced during the first pre-season game, I'm told the concessions take was more than double what it ever was at the old stadium.

Think of it, just 22,000 tickets were sold and thousands of folks missed the entire first half of the game trying to get into the stadium and still the cash registers could barely keep up.

It only underscores what a missed opportunity will be on our hands if the Bombers can't figure out a way to efficiently get people in and out of the stadium.

The club appears to have learned its lesson from the pre-season game where it decidedly went on the cheap in terms of hiring police to handle traffic and contracting enough buses to get people to the stadium.

The extra police and bus costs could add as much as $1 million to the club's yearly expenses but it will be money well spent if 33,000 are regularly in the building emptying their pockets.

Buchko, to his credit, has gone mostly without sleep for the last month trying to get the building open on time and then solve the myriad of issues that cropped up once construction workers vacated the stadium for customers.

Buchko has had his stumbles since taking over the club but if he can get the stadium operating as it is meant, he will have scored his greatest and most important victory. If he can't, well, there's no need to go there just yet.

Most new stadiums give a team a year or two of a honeymoon but the Bombers have burned all that goodwill in the interminable mess leading up to Thursday. From missing their opening date by a full year to the traffic kerfuffle of two weeks ago, there is no appetite for a losing team on the field.

The Bombers have been mostly terrible during Mack's tenure as GM and own a 20-34 mark while missing the playoffs in two of his three years in charge. Mack and former head coach Paul LaPolice did have a winning season and a Grey Cup appearance in 2011 but it was mostly a mirage as the team quickly sunk back to the bottom of the league in 2012.

No GM can continue losing and point to his plan and suggest it's a work in progress. Sooner or later, and in the CFL it's most often sooner, a GM is required to win. That time is now for Mack and, no doubt, he understands this.

Burke recently suggested folks wait four games before judging his team. Not an unreasonable request and certainly any determination of this team's worthiness shouldn't be made until after Labour Day. But Burke watched his friend and colleague LaPolice ushered out of his office last season prior to September so he understands the urgency to win and win now.

Bomber fans support their team through thick and thin and getting a sellout of 29,000 became the expectation at the old stadium. But the new stadium was built to house 33,000 fans and those extra 4,000 fans need to be convinced to come. Losing isn't much of an enticement.

Pierce is once again the most important player in Blue and Gold. Mack elected to release almost every bit of experience he had at backup quarterback over the winter, leaving Pierce to stand alone.

If Buck stays healthy and gets this offence moving and the Bombers win games, all the above troubles disappear. If he struggles or gets banged up, unless there's a miracle hiding in the arm of Justin Goltz or Max Hall, the troubles only get magnified.

New stadium but same problems. Let's hope this era is all about solutions rather than excuses.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2013 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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