TORONTO -- They're not exactly one big happy family -- and almost certainly never will be.
But if there are still hard feelings remaining between the two teams, you were hard-pressed to find any evidence of it Thursday among the players of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts.
Three weeks after the last meeting between these two teams ended with Bombers QB Buck Pierce suffering a concussion from an illegal hit, the two teams will hook up again here at Rogers Centre tonight in a matchup CFL watchers had circled ever since Argos linebacker Brandon Isaac planted his helmet into Pierce's chin at Canad Inns Stadium Sept. 29.
The hit cost Pierce the last two games as he continued to battle lingering concussion symptoms. And in the interim, players from the two teams have lobbed harsh words back and forth, with Argos safety Jordan Younger at one point blaming the concussion on Pierce's "soft melon" while Bombers cornerback Jovon Johnson suggested the Argos were deliberately targeting Pierce.
Isaac got fined for the hit, Johnson got fined for the comment and a couple of other Bombers got fined for some pushing and shoving -- all of it seemingly setting the stage for potential fireworks tonight.
But then Thursday, Pierce -- who in the days following the hit proclaimed it a "dirty play" -- seemed to soften his stance. Asked if he was backing away from his earlier criticism of Isaac, Pierce insisted he wasn't, even while he seemed to continue to do just that. "I'm not saying that it wasn't a dirty hit. It was an illegal hit and it wasn't within the confines of the game," Pierce told reporters at a downtown hotel. "I'm not saying he's a dirty player or anything like that. But that specific play was an illegal play.
"But like I say, it's one of those things that happen... "
For his part, Younger was also sounding a more conciliatory note when asked about his "soft melon" comments and his earlier contention that all of the injuries Pierce has taken over the years have in large part been a result of his style of play. "I don't mean he puts himself in harm's way in a stupid kind of way. He wants to stand in there and make those throws, whereas a lot of other quarterbacks try to avoid that," Younger said.
"Now, you can look at that two ways. You can look at that as him being courageous. He's definitely got a lot of heart and he's the heart and soul of that team. But the other way to look at it is that the team is better with him in the lineup and not taking those hits...
"We're not a dirty team. And we're not after Buck Pierce."
On the contrary, Argos kicker Noel Prefontaine said he's personally deeply concerned about Pierce's well-being as the quarterback's injuries, particularly concussions, continue to mount. "I worry about him. I think a lot of people have expressed that -- fans, teammates, guys he's played against...The bottom line is if he comes out and throws five touchdowns (today) and Winnipeg doesn't make the playoffs still, five years from now no one is going to remember Buck Pierce threw five touchdowns against Toronto on this date."
A reporter then suggested Pierce would remember. "Will he?" Prefontaine replied. "You're saying he will, but that's the long-lasting effect.
"And that's the problem with head injuries, right?"