The Winnipeg Blue Bombers annual Fan Forum at Canad Inns Polo Park went head-to-head Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets-Washington Capitals game on TV.
The winner? Bombers GM Joe Mack.
On a night the Jets were playing their most important game of the season, the fans who did show up for last night's fan forum -- the room was only about two-thirds full -- were mostly the truest of the Blue Believers.
The empty seats and friendly demographic of the room seemed to take the potential sting out of a night that marked the first time local fans had a chance to confront Mack since the debacle that was a 6-12 season in 2012.
The result was Mack escaped the night largely unscathed. There were no questions about his decision to fire former head coach Paul LaPolice midway through last season or his failure during the off-season to find an experienced CFL quarterback to backstop the oft-injured Buck Pierce.
The toughest question came near the very end of a 25-minute question and answer session when a 40-year season-ticket holder rose and pointed out to Mack what he said were striking similarities between this time this year and this time last year: an injury-prone starting quarterback, unproven backups, the off-season departure of important starters and the continuing refusal by Mack to get aggressive in the free agent market.
"Everything seems the same," the man told Mack, "and I had no hope last year and, I have to say, I have no hope this year. So my question to you is what can you tell me to eliminate my despair and renew my hope?"
Mack reprised parts of a refrain he'd used earlier in the night when he pointed out the highlights of Winnipeg's 2012 season: the league-leading performance of the Bombers offence the last seven games of 2012; the performance of rookie all-stars like RB Chad Simpson and WR Chris Matthews; two late-season wins over Montreal and a win in Toronto over the eventual Grey Cup champion Argonauts; and all of it in the face of an onslaught of injuries, especially at quarterback.
"I hope we can convince you moving forward that you should have hope," Mack told the man, "and that your hope is justified."
With Mack's lynch mob apparently at home watching hockey, this night belonged instead to Bombers head coach Tim Burke, who put in a comedy performance that had the crowd in stitches.
A sampling of Burke:
- Referencing an old line from former Bombers head coach Bud Grant that every successful football coach needs a patient wife, a loyal dog and a great quarterback -- "not necessarily in that order" -- Burke said he struck out. "My first wife left me, we had several dogs who died and after I became head coach, we had to rotate through three different quarterbacks."
- Burke had a message for the local ladies as he introduced new special teams coach Craig Dickenson. "Craig is single," Burke announced, "although there's probably a reason for that. But pass the word -- he's available."
- Burke pointed out new defensive backs coach Carl Franks comes to Winnipeg from Western Illinois University, which is located in tiny Macomb, Ill. "Home of three-legged dogs and grain silos," said Burke. "You've got to drive two hours to get to a four-lane road."
- New running backs coach Steve Hladio, said Burke, comes to the Bombers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "For you Canadians," explained Burke, "Polytechnic is Latin for really smart."
- After introducing Pierce to the crowd, Burke glanced over and dead-panned: "I think the first event we have at the stadium is a prayer event, right?" As the crowd and Pierce began to giggle, Burke delivered the punchline -- "Hopefully they have some healers there."
By the time Burke was done, the crowd was roaring and Mack was talking about a new job for himself. "If we have a rough year and I need to find a new job," Mack told the crowd, "I'm going to become Tim Burke's campaign manager to become a standup comic."
Meanwhile, Bombers CEO Garth Buchko told the crowd that all but 18 of the new stadium's 33,500 seats have now been installed, all the luxury boxes are finished and city inspectors are coming this week to inspect the concession stands.
Incoming board chairman Brock Bulbuck told the crowd that in addition to adding a 13th team director and opening up the nomination process to the public, the club also now intends to rotate out one to three directors every year beginning immediately.