VANCOUVER -- The B.C. Lions have an advantage over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in one key area when the curtain drops on the Grey Cup in Vancouver today.
Big-game experience is decidedly orange for the 99th installment of the CFL championship, with the hometown Lions featuring 19 players who have a previous understanding of what playing in the Grey Cup means. Ten of those players count time in multiple Grey Cup games, while Wally Buono is getting ready for his ninth appearance as a CFL head coach.
That’s a sharp contrast to the Winnipeg side, where only five players have Grey Cup experience. Paul LaPolice has been to the big game twice, but this is his first Grey Cup as the sideline boss.
"It’s going to be a big factor in the game," said Lions defensive back Tad Kornegay, who already has three Grey Cup games under his belt. "We have a lot of veterans who have been here and know what to expect. You think you know what it’s going to be like, but you really don’t until you’ve gone through it."
Some Lions believe it can be one of those intangibles that carry a club over bumps in the road at certain moments of the game, while others feel a term like "experience" is just a word used to make an excuse for not performing when it matters the most.
"Experience doesn’t have anything to do with it," placekicker Paul McCallum, a two-time Grey Cup vet, said Saturday.
McCallum kicked a record-tying six field goals in B.C.’s 25-19 win over Montreal in the 2006 Grey Cup game in Winnipeg, so his points against the experience factor are interesting. The Lions have the upper hand at the position (he made 94 per cent of his field goals in 2011, compared to Winnipeg’s Justin Palardy, who made 77 per cent of his attempts), and that edge could bubble up to the surface if the game is a low-scoring, defensive affair.
The 41-year-old hasn’t missed a field goal in the post-season since 2006 (a span of eight games).
None of that matters, McCallum feels, believing everything starts at zero for the one game.
"The team is going to be really excited, very pumped, and I don’t think we’re thinking anything is in our favour," he said.
The Lions' advantage in Grey Cup experience comes with the added boost of having the hometown crowd in their corner. No one is really sure just how loud the refurbished BC Place will get, but everyone agrees the energy and electricity in the building could influence the football game -- especially if the score is close late in the contest.
Kornegay believes the Lions will be able to focus and feed off the crowd early, jumping on Winnipeg before the Bomber players have a chance to corral any of the emotion that’s running free out of the tunnel.
Other Lions, like quarterback Travis Lulay — a player who hasn’t been in this three-down spotlight before — say they’re just going to do everything they can to treat the event like any other game.
Sunday won’t start easy, Lulay said, but with veterans all around him, the nerves should settle fast.
"There will be butterflies in the morning; that’s just part of it," said Lulay, the CFL’s most outstanding player for the 2011 season. "For those of us who are first-timers, it’s good to have those teammates who can bring you back to reality. It is another football game; you don’t have to do more because it’s a bigger game, you have to be good at the things that got you here."
Buono is looking for his fifth Grey Cup title, a mark that would tie him with CFL coaching legends Don Matthews, Frank Clair, Hugh Campbell, and Lew Heyman for most career championship victories.
Having been through several Grey Cup pressure cookers, his thoughts about experience were succinct.
"You have to experience it before you can really talk about it," Buono said.
Game time is 5:30 p.m. (TSN, CJOB).
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