REGINA — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers hadn’t settled into the Saskatchewan capital for long when head coach Mike O’Shea got his first taste of the Prairie version of the Labour Day Classic.
Stepping outside the team’s hotel, O’Shea was greeted — literally and figuratively — by the fanaticism this province has with its team.
"I saw a really sweet Saskatchewan Roughrider beer fridge in the back of a pickup truck right by our hotel," said O’Shea on the eve of the 51st Labour Day Classic, "and (the driver) managed to roll down the window and yell at me."
Asked if he was offered a warm welcome to Regina, O’Shea grinned and added:
"Sort of... not really in those terms. It was a Regina welcome. It’s all good. They buy tickets and support their team. It’s all good fun."
Fun? Yeah, sure. But it’s also part of what makes the backdrop to the annual Prairie showdown between the Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders different than what has become the norm over the last decade.
This Classic just doesn’t feel different because both the Bombers and Riders have winning records and are very much in the fight for playoff spots in the West Division with the second half of the season looming.
It feels different because of the vibe O’Shea and his crew bring into this game. In years past — try the last nine, all Rider wins — the Bombers have often rolled into Regina a mess on and off the field. And as a result the Classic has recently served up all the drama of a watching a monster truck rolling over a speed bump.
But this 2014 Bomber outfit, which already has as many road wins — three — as last year’s sad sacks managed all season, seems to be developing an identity. It might best be described as the football equivalent of the wrestling heel — those bad-asses that seem to relish strutting into enemy territory amid a chorus of boos and take great glee in tormenting the local heroes.
Now, it takes a certain mental toughness to take on that role and all the verbal abuse that comes with it. And, make no mistake, Rider fans will be on the Bombers from the moment they step on the field Sunday afternoon to the final gun.
"What’s it like on the visitor sideline?" said former Bomber Brendon LaBatte after the Riders walk-through practice on Saturday. "Well, first of all you get it non-stop. Our fans are pretty crafty and pretty clever. They do their homework and research. You get an earful.
"One time it was the fourth quarter and I was getting close to having a calf cramp. I went over to stretch it out and somebody yelled out, ‘Hey, LaBatte! It’s a little late to start stretching now. You missed the warm-up!’
"Whatever they see you doing, they’re on ya. I was drinking Gatorade once and somebody yelled, ‘You look like the Queen when you drink!’ It’s non-stop.
"Believe me, we got it good in Winnipeg, too."
Actually, it was just prior to the Riders-Bombers game at Investors Group Field back on Aug. 7 when this rivalry got a healthy injection of testosterone. The Riders were late coming out for their pre-game ceremony, and while the home side was being introduced, camped out on the Bomber logo near midfield.
It was a stunt the Riders insist was innocent, but which led to both teams and their coaches jawing at each other. All this, before the opening kickoff of a game which was loaded with mistakes, but big on intensity.
That little scene was brought up again on Saturday in advance of the Classic when both O’Shea and Riders head coach Corey Chamblin were asked about their heated conversation and what was said.
"I can’t remember. It was so loud," said Chamblin with a grin. "There was just a lot of shouting. I can’t remember the exact conversation... I don’t remember the exact words. I just remember it was loud.
"The players like that. We have similar personalities. It doesn’t matter who’s in front of us. He’s who he is, and I am who I am. We don’t try to cut corners. He wants to wear the shorts (on the sidelines), and I’ll say whatever I want to say. That’s one of the things that turned (the Bombers) around.
"They’re following their leader, and he’s going to do things his way and they’re following that."
O’Shea, for the record, told his players not to pull the same stunt on Sunday and camp out at midfield when the Riders are introduced.
But oh, how he must have been tempted.
O’Shea, you see, has much the same sort of on-field DNA as the man who signs his paycheques. And Wade Miller, the Bombers big boss, absolutely, positively loved being an expletive deleted in stadiums all over the CFL.
Maybe that rubs off on the Bombers today. Maybe not. But it certainly has led to a juicier buildup to this year’s Classic.
"I don’t mind the boos," said Bomber cornerback Matt Bucknor. "I like when fans are chirping you. It kind of builds a little bit of extra fire when you get out there, and you kind of want to keep them quiet.
"It’s a sweet feeling. I’ve been there before, and I’m looking forward to doing it (Sunday)."