It was a stretch of 620 days between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers being crowned the 2019 Grey Cup champions and a chance to return to the field to defend their title.
Among the greatest challenges in those nearly two years, the Canadian Football League was forced to cancel the 2020 season, owing to a COVID-19 pandemic that continues to claim lives across the world. Then, there was a delayed start to 2021 — a campaign that seemed like it, too, could be lost if fans were still restricted from attending games.
Eventually, things worked out. To accommodate the delay, the regular season was trimmed down to 14 games, with playoffs pushed back a few weeks, into December. With the development of COVID-19 vaccines, fans were once again permitted to attend games, with IG Field requiring everyone be fully vaccinated in order to allow for full capacity.
Ticket sales were steady and with costs closely monitored, the Winnipeg Football Club is predicting a profitable year. That's no small feat, especially after the Club lost $7 million in 2020.
Over the last four months, the Bombers have done everything that's been asked of them. With the coronavirus waging war against hospitals across the country, and a potential outbreak enough to devastate the CFL's bottom line, players and coaches were and continue to be under strict protocols to ensure a safe and secure environment to play.
On the field, the Bombers finished 11-3, the best record in the CFL, claiming top spot in the West Division. The last time the Bombers finished atop the West was in 1972, though many of those years were spent playing in the East. Still, division titles have been hard to come by.
Not only did the Bombers finish with the best record, but they were also indisputably the best team in the CFL in 2021. The offence and defence led in almost every meaningful statistical category, from scoring the most points and touchdowns, to forcing the most turnovers and allowing the fewest points against. A total of 15 players were named West Division all-stars, with three players vying for league awards, including quarterback Zach Collaros as the West nominee for most outstanding player.
To call it a dominating regular season would be putting it lightly.
All of that sets the stage for Sunday's West Division final, in which the Bombers will square off against their prairie rival, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, at IG Field. The stakes have never been higher, marking the first win-or-go-home game of the season for the Blue and Gold.
And while all the hard work and discipline has led to money in the bank and victories in the standings, none of that matters anymore. On Sunday, it's all about winning, and only a victory over the Roughriders will make this season one to truly cherish.
Only adding to the pressure is the fact it will be a near sellout in Winnipeg, with more than 30,000 fans creating a sea of blue. While every loss hurts a fan base, it stings even more when it comes against an opponent as familiar as the Roughriders. In two games this season, Winnipeg outscored Saskatchewan by a combined score of 55-17. The Roughriders never registered a single touchdown.
But pressure is a funny thing, a word that seems to vary in definition, depending on who you ask.
Take Adam Bighill. When questioned about the magnitude of Sunday's game and the pressure that comes with being a heavy favourite, the Bombers middle linebacker just smiled before answering.
"In our locker room, we don't think we won anything," Bighill said. "All we talk about is work and all I see people doing is working."
He added: "We talk about earning it, earning it and taking it. So, our expectation is the work we put in to earn it and our effort, collectively, is to go out there and take it. Whether we're favourites or not, it doesn't really enter into our locker room when it comes to how we go out and win games."
The Bombers have been as stubborn in their approach and preparation off the field as they have been excellent in executing on it. It can be easy to have the season Winnipeg has had and feel like you've already achieved something special.
That's not the feeling with this group. When the Bombers clinched the West with weeks remaining in the season, no one was interested in talking about it. They still aren't.
Many of the players from 2019 are back. The leadership core is also the same from two years ago. So is the sense of humility, from when the Bombers were road warriors, underdogs in all three playoff games, including against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup — a game the Bombers would claim handily, 33-12.
That primary focus on the task at hand is a big part of the culture that Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea had hoped to instill ever since taking over the team ahead of the 2014 season. It finally paid off in 2019, and he's just as confident in what's he's seen from his group this season.
One of O'Shea's biggest priorities is for his players to focus on what's happening inside the team, while ignoring all the outside noise that comes with playing in a football-crazed city like Winnipeg.
"They're very focused on their teammates and what they do inside the building and not focused at all on what goes on outside the building," O'Shea said.
"I don't know that our guys have ever believed that perception is reality. I think they come to work every day and try and create their own reality, right? They try and live in the moment and go from there. All that outside noise, I think that this group, or I know with this group, it's irrelevant. It doesn't even come into the conversation lately. They just come in and get after it on a daily basis for months on end which is, as the head coach, is very pleasing."
That level of focus, and execution, must continue on Sunday. The expectation for the Bombers is it will. The fans are hoping for another shot at the Grey Cup after a long wait.
Anything else would be far from pleasing, whether you're inside or outside the locker room.
firstname.lastname@example.org twitter: @jeffkhamilton
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.