Leave it to Dancing Gabe to ask the question everyone was expecting. And leave it to Winnipeg Blue Bombers general manager Joe Mack to give the answer no one was expecting.
"Why," Gabe Langlois pointedly asked Mack at Monday night’s annual Bombers fan forum, "did you get burned in the free-agent market?"
"Because," Mack replied with a grin, "the general manager is not very bright."
It was a moment of levity during a night that was full of them as the Bombers executive and about 400 of the team’s fans filled a hotel banquet room for what proved to be mostly a love-in between the club and its loyalists.
There were a few pointed questions — one 44-year season ticket holder demanded to know why the 55-yard line seats he had in old Canad Inns Stadium will be on the 35-yard line in the new stadium going up on the grounds of the University of Manitoba — but mostly the club and its followers were reading from the same playbook.
While Mack has been criticized by fans and players alike this off-season for losing key all-stars like Brendon LaBatte and failing to make a splash himself in the free agent market, the message on this night from fans and team executives alike was that last season was a huge success and the immediate future of this franchise is bright.
Chief operating officer Jim Bell even went so far as to suggest that with last year’s franchise record profit, it is now Winnipeg — not Saskatchewan — who are the benchmark organization in the Canadian Football League.
"Yes, we have overtaken the Riders," Bell said to the loudest ovation of the night. "I say that proudly."
Bombers head coach Paul LaPolice credited the fans with making Winnipeg the loudest and most hostile place for opposing teams to play in the league — and CEO Garth Buchko revealed that the fan noise will only be amplified by the acoustics of the new stadium.
Buchko said the the unique canopies that cover the grandstands — and which have been the source of much of the construction delays this winter — will act to capture crowd noise during games and amplify it back out on to the field, surely a daunting prospect for opposing teams.
The Bombers executive also revealed a few other interesting tidbits:
—Buchko smiled and said ‘Stay tuned’ when he was asked if there might be a new series of Bombers license plates released this year after the initial series sold out quickly and generated close to $250,000 in revenue for the Bombers in 2011;
—The club is in negotiations with FIFA to play host to some games when Canada hosts the 2015 Women's World Cup in June and July of 2015;
—LaPolice is yielding the play calling duties in 2012 to new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. "I’m feeling confident in Gary Crowton having the ability to call the plays," LaPolice told fans;
—The Bombers will have a total of six selections in the second, third and fourth rounds of next month’s CFL draft and Mack says the club will draft the best players available, but with an emphasis on defence;
—Bell estimated at least 90 per cent of the club’s existing season ticket holders have been happy with their new seating allocation in the new stadium. "Is it an exact science? No it’s not. Did we disappoint a few? Yes we did," said Bell.
—There will be 50 per cent more concessions stands in the new stadium and the emphasis of the new company in charge of Bombers concessions will be on preparing meals fresh and made to order.