There's a little more pep in Wade Miller's step these days, a little more giddy-up to his go. And who can blame him? As the big boss of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, there's nothing better for the bottom line than a Grey Cup victory.
But you won't find the 46-year-old Don of the so-called "Canadian Mafia" ordering anyone to kiss his ring, even if Miller would be justified taking a personal victory lap around those who doubted his long-term plans would eventually pay off.
No, the president and CEO of the football club prefers a more humble approach as he soaks in the success and enjoys an off-season like no other.
"It's just been magical," Miller told me this week in a wide-ranging phone chat from Ontario, where he was attending business meetings. "This is a championship for the city and province. It's just been great to celebrate. The Grey Cup is a magical piece of sports history that reaches way past football fans."
It has been nearly three months since Winnipeg blasted the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-12 to capture the CFL championship for the first time since 1990, capping a playoff run that included road victories over the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders.
And the good times have kept rolling for the Blue & Gold. Season ticket renewals and new purchases are way up, and Miller said the Bombers are on track for a big spike in attendance. Merchandise sales have been through the roof, with staff filling nearly 6,000 individual orders before Christmas alone.
"We continue to see the momentum and energy behind that. It was an overwhelming response," said Miller. "Twenty-nine years is a long time and it's almost an entire generation we've missed for a championship."
As a result, there hasn't been a whole lot of time to stop and smell the roses. But for Miller, it's certainly a case of time flying when you're having fun.
"This kind of flipped the page on some stuff that wasn't going so well in our city, and I think that's what winning championships in sports does, for the city, for the province, and the pride that comes with that. It's been phenomenal to see," he said.
Extra sweet, no doubt, considering the mess this organization was when Miller came on board in the fall of 2013, with the Bombers finishing up a 3-15 campaign. Kyle Walters and Mike O' Shea soon joined him, with the hope the trio of Canadians could restore the franchise to its glory days. But there would be no quick fix, to the frustration of a generation of fans who were justifiably running out of patience.
Sure, there were noticeable improvements, both on and off the field. But after coming up short of the ultimate goal in their first five years at the helm, there were growing whispers that perhaps Miller and company weren't the right men for the job.
Miller said his own confidence never wavered as the pressure continued to mount.
"I knew when I took over leading the organization that this wasn't going to be a quick turn. To do it right and build something successful it was going to take time, and you've got have that patience and know you're taking the right steps. Even in the years where we were losing or didn't finish, we knew we were taking the right steps in the right direction," said Miller.
Miller believes he checked off all the appropriate boxes, including hiring the right general manager in Walters and the right head coach in O'Shea. They continued to stockpile talent, especially on the Canadian side, and swung a few big trades. The payoff finally came last November, at McMahon Stadium in Calgary, a true turning point for the organization after so many years of failure.
Take, for example, the fact the CFL's reigning top defensive player, Willie Jefferson, recently opted to take less money on the open market to re-sign in Winnipeg. That's a far cry from the not-so-distant past when the Bombers were often on the outside looking in when it came to free agency.
"Well, we couldn't even pay to get a free agent in the beginning. That's changed. That goes to Mike and Kyle for building that culture and us giving players a place they want to come. And it also speaks to our fans. When you get 10,000 people showing up for a (Grey Cup) parade, that has an impact on players to see the connection that they have with this city and the community. I know it impacted me, and probably 10 times more for the players," said Miller.
That's why Miller isn't content to just put his feet up and enjoy a job well done. Once you get a taste of glory, it's hard to accept anything less.
To that end, he's currently at the forefront of a proposed new playoff format being promoted by commissioner Randy Ambrosie. The West and East division winners would still get first-round byes, but the next four best finishers, regardless of division, would join them in the playoffs. The third and fourth-best teams would play at home against the fifth and sixth-best clubs, ensuring that a team with a better record isn't force to play on the road.
"I think you should always be reviewing your business as a league, trying to make it more entertaining and also make it better for our fans and that experience. I want to see home playoff games in cities where those teams are really competitive all year," said Miller.
Then comes the big twist — the top team in the league would get to choose which opening-round winner it wanted to face in the conference final. The second-best team would play the other club.
"Billboard locker-room material," Miller said of the pick-your-opponent idea he came up with.
"It'll make for some interesting game days if we end up doing that as a league. I think it would be really exciting for our fans and for the teams involved. And if you're not that team picked, you're going to want to play them in the Grey Cup. There's a swing, sometimes the West is stronger, sometimes the East is stronger, It goes in cycles. It's going to be interesting to see where it ends up."
The CFL Players Association has yet to approve the amendments.
Miller has also been keeping an eye south of the border on the upstart XFL, which recently debuted to strong television ratings. Some worry the Vince McMahon-led enterprise could step on CFL toes when it comes to player competition. Miller, at least for now, isn't one of them.
"Let's see what it looks like in a couple years. That's a tough market to go start another league in, in the U.S., with all the other sports that go on, and college football. We'll see where it goes," he said.
Normal protocol is for the winning team to return the Grey Cup to the league's head office by now, but Miller has "asked nicely" to keep the cup for the opening game of the 2020 regular season at IG Field.
"We will unveil not only our 11th (championship) banner, but the 10 banners before that as well. It's 90 years of the football club as well, so we've got a lot of celebrating to do in 2020," said Miller.
And maybe, just maybe, they can do it all over again real soon.
"The pressure that we'll put on ourselves is the same as the year before. And now you're the defending Grey Cup champions and you've got some more to prove. Every year that's the goal, to win championships, and that's with a plural on it. And that's what we're going to focus on," said Miller.
"We had our head down working at that. We knew it was a process. And we were able to finish that in 2019. Now let's go do it again."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.