There isn't much that Al Couture, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers director of health and performance, hasn't seen in his nearly 20 years working in the Canadian Football League.
With the COVID-19 pandemic setting a new normal in all sectors of society, Couture is well aware the 2021 CFL season will bring many unprecedented obstacles. Such is life for a league that went dark in 2020, forcing players over the last 20 months to try to replicate the level of intensity that happens on the field, off it.
And to put it bluntly, Couture doesn't know exactly what to expect.
"The most frustrating part about this, for me personally, is that I'm 19 years into this and I have no experience with this particular situation," he told reporters Wednesday.
"This is now a missed season, followed by a delay, which I think is pretty unprecedented; it's tough to find another example, it's tough to even talk to other people that have gone through that. But it is concerning."
To be clear, while Couture might be frustrated, he's also as prepared as he can be. In charge of the team's overall health strategy, he's been in contact with players as far back as January, making sure they're staying committed to their fitness.
He's tailored workouts to best serve the long layoff, including getting players who do a lot of running in games to include a high level of cardio in their workouts. There's also a plan to ease players into training camp, which opens July 10, and gradually ramp up the intensity as they inch closer to the season-opener Aug. 5.
He can only control so much, and he's acutely aware there are some things he just can't. He's also seen the stats from other leagues, including the NHL and NFL, as well as his own team's data. All of it points to a concerning trend that the longer players are away from the game, the higher risk there is for injury.
"We have more injuries after a bye week than we do if we just keep going. We have way less injuries after a series of short weeks that you think are going to be brutal for the team than we do after long periods of rest," Couture said. "So, time off, I'm not a fan of, statistically. And this is one big piece of time off.
It doesn't help that even though the Bombers will have a significant number of players back from their 2019 Grey-Cup winning team, many of their most prominent players are getting up there in age. Running back Andrew Harris and offensive lineman Stanley Bryant are both in their mid-30s, while quarterback Zach Collaros and linebacker Adam Bighill aren't far behind.
How might a year and a half away from the game affect their bodies?
"It'll be both positive and negative," Couture said. "They're going to go out there and your ability to give a hit or to take a hit, you might not want to do that anymore. Or you may not physically be able to do that anymore. And I can't reproduce that in a training cycle. So, you might be fit. But there's another physical and mental element that is separate from a training program."
Couture understands it's been a long and challenging time off for everyone, himself included. He knows the players are doing their best and he's committed to giving them the greatest chance at surviving the time away from the game.
"There will be some players that probably require a little more rest than others, and some that require a little more work than others," he said. "And that’s gonna be a tough balance to figure that out. But we'll do the best we can."
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.