Blue Bomber Report Record: 6–7–0

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Losing all-star LaBatte a communication blunder

Likely still be a Bomber if left to line up at left guard

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This is not proving to be an easy week to write columns about my former football team.

Monday was awkward discussing the sentiments of a head coach I have an excellent rapport with who was dismissed just as it seemed he was on the cusp of turning the season around.

Compared to today, that was as simple as penning 800 words on why I love my Weimaraner.

On Tuesday, I called Brendon LaBatte to congratulate him on becoming a dad and the birth of his first child, and we got to talking about his time here, which is when I discovered he has a different accounting of the events that occurred that ended with him signing with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and four days away from playing against the team that drafted him.

Just like my 11 years with the Blue Bombers, for the four years LaBatte played here he had nothing but good things to say about the franchise and the community. He was drafted by the club with the sixth overall pick in the first round in 2008, was a divisional all-star three times and a CFL all-star for the first time in 2011. He was the football team's nominee for the most outstanding offensive lineman every season he was here except his rookie year, and he was treated like the exceptional asset and non-import prodigy he had rapidly become.

"The people and the organization were so great to me in Winnipeg, we didn't want to leave a good thing, because going somewhere else you are potentially rolling the dice," said LaBatte. "When you have a good thing going in the community, it's not easy to walk away from."

Which begs the question of why he did? We are all aware of how he is from Weyburn, Sask., how his girlfriend is from there, and the benefits of living in your home province and having your family around when you are expecting your first child.

But according to LaBatte, none of these facts were why he inevitably left Winnipeg.

"We had been looking at places for the whole year (2011 in Winnipeg) and we were constantly trying to keep an eye on the real estate situation because my girl and I loved it out there."

 

In LaBatte's explanation, the first time he came to realize he might not want to remain a Bomber anymore came after he had his first sit-down with then head coach Paul LaPolice in January 2012.

"I wasn't signing any deal until I had a face-to-face meeting with the Bombers. It was a good conversation, but I heard five minutes into it that they had designs on using me in the future as their starting centre."

LaBatte played three games at centre in 2011, when the Bombers had decided to sit Obby Khan for a few games. Depending on who you talk to, LaBatte either wasn't comfortable taking charge of the offensive line and making the calls at centre, or Chris Greaves wasn't ready yet for the starting guard position, like he is now. Either way, as someone I practised against every day back then, I could tell he didn't enjoy the new position, but he was too good of a teammate and player to complain or say anything about it, outside of what he initially told his coach, Pat DelMonaco, and his linemates.

"I just told them I was the spare donut tire at the centre spot," said LaBatte. "I can limp you over to the gas station, but I'm not a long-term solution for you at that spot. But they thought I had the potential to be."

I asked LaBatte why he didn't just tell the Bombers he didn't want to play centre, and make it a condition of his new deal, and the one thing I can tell you about his response is that it is true to his nature and character, as an unassuming and humble man.

"I went into that meeting and asked them where I fit into their plans for the future," said LaBatte. "I wasn't going to tell them where I saw myself fitting in on their team. When they don't have plans to use you at what you feel is your strongest position, that was kind of the writing on the wall for me."

Left guard is what LaBatte has played for the last eight years (going back to college), and with the kind of deal he was set to sign with the Bombers, he wasn't comfortable switching spots.

"Going into camp as a higher-price type guy, I didn't want to play a new position and maybe not live up to everyone's expectations that go with that dollar amount," he said.

So at that point, LaBatte decided to wait another month for free agency and see if anybody else out there thought of him as a potential left guard. Saskatchewan did, and he is more than happy with the way things have turned out, but also acknowledges "he didn't sign there for any more money than he was offered anywhere else."

There was obviously a communication failure at both ends when it came to losing the football team's most highly coveted free agent in recent memory. LaBatte didn't convey where he wanted to play was a deal-breaker to the Bombers, as he felt it wasn't his place to do so and, according to him, the team didn't ask him at what position he was most comfortable and wanted to play.

There are a lot of factors and variables weighed when a player decides to enter free agency and eventually leave for another team. In this situation, according to LaBatte, where the team was planning on using him was the impetus for him to leave.

"Out of all the variables, that was 100 per cent the biggest factor," said LaBatte.

"It's just a crime that nobody knew that until now."

 

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, usually appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2012 C1

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