News travels pretty fast these days, but word of a 2021 CFL schedule being released Friday morning apparently took its sweet time reaching Jermarcus Hardrick at his off-season home in Nebraska.
And seeing wasn’t necessarily believing.
"It’s not fake news? Is this real? Are we coming back?" the Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive lineman asked a panel of teammates during a noon-hour "virtual huddle" that was part of the league’s week-long Grey Cup Unite event.
Indeed it is, linemate Pat Neufeld assured him.
"Can you imagine if there’s a vaccine and the fans are allowed in? It’s going to be rocking," said quarterback Zach Collaros, who is still waiting for a well-deserved standing ovation at IG Field for his pivotal role in snapping a 28-year championship drought around this time a year ago.
"The first game back will be nuts. The place will literally explode," said Neufeld.
Now, I hate to play the role of party-pooper here and break up the end zone dance, fellas, but there’s still more than a few hurdles to overcome before the dream scenario you described becomes a reality.
But it’s good to have goals, and CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has set a lofty one for the league with the announcement, in which he basically told everyone to write these dates on their calendar in permanent ink.
I’d suggest a pencil with a good eraser is the better choice.
Look, I want nothing more than life to return to normal, including the resumption of all sports — from my son’s junior hockey games I attend as a proud parent right up to the big leagues I cover for a living.
But I also want the world we live in to be safe for everyone, and that was driven home in a big way this week after learning my grandmother is among those to test positive for COVID-19 at her personal care home in Winnipeg.
It wasn’t lost on me that around the same time Ambrosie was delivering an early Christmas gift to starving fans of three-down football who missed out on a 2020 season, a much less celebratory news conference was happening in the nation’s capital. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Canadians that the worst is yet to come, with new modelling showing the country could soon be home to 60,000 new cases per day if people don’t smarten up and follow public health orders.
Then came word the federal government will not allow the Toronto Raptors to host American teams this winter, forcing them to temporarily relocate to Tampa Bay, just as the Toronto Blue Jays had to shuffle off to Buffalo for the recently completed MLB season.
A few hours later, we learned of 438 new COVID cases in Manitoba and nine more deaths, including a Winnipeg man in his twenties. That makes 138 locals who have lost their lives since the start of November, when our current code-red status with strict lockdown protocols began.
All of which serves as a grim reminder of the enormous task that lies ahead, and why returning to the field 201 days from now — that’s when the Bombers are slated to host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a 2019 Grey Cup rematch to kick off the new campaign — is far from a lock.
Especially for a league that, as Ambrosie stated in his state-of-the-league address earlier this week, needs "butts in seats" to make it work. They couldn’t find a way last summer, and the plan for next summer seems entirely based on the hope a vaccine is readily available at that point.
Like I said earlier, it’s good to have goals. But I hope there’s a viable Plan B in place to avoid recent history repeating itself.
Still, let’s give the CFL some credit. They put on an impressive virtual event this week that managed to get them back in the news cycle for what should have been a big party in Regina leading up to Sunday’s championship game. There were plenty of intriguing league and team events, including an important racial diversity roundtable.
The goal now, in addition to mapping out an eventual return to play with or without a vaccine, should also be to find a way to carry the momentum they’ve built forward rather than just go into hibernation for the winter.
Friday’s Grey Cup Unite event showed off one of the more charming parts of the league, allowing some of the big personalities to shine and connect with fans in a grassroots way. There was Hardrick, Neufeld, Collaros, Andrew Harris and Stanley Bryant reminiscing about their memorable 2019 season, poking fun at each other as they watched some replays of their road to the organization’s first title since 1990.
Highlights included an animated group discussion about a celebratory meal at Applebee’s, Neufeld suggesting Bryant will start working out and training on May 14 with the first pre-season game set for May 28, and Collaros being needled by everyone when an old University of Cincinnati recruitment video made an appearance during the broadcast.
"That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to be a game-show host," Collaros said of the cringeworthy performance.
It was great stuff, and the only shame is I’m not sure how many people saw it during the middle of a workday. The fun, half-hour forum was immediately followed by the annual Touchdown Manitoba event that is normally the highlight of Grey Cup week for many local fans, with receiver Drew Wolitarsky showing he’s got a great set of pipes to go with his good hands as he performed an online concert.
"It’s good to reminisce, it’s good at this time of year to remember the run that we made, the memories we made," Wolitarsky told those viewing at home.
Indeed it is, and we all hope that plenty of exciting new memories can be made really soon. But first, we need to get this deadly pandemic under control. Once that happens, the comeback Ambrosie is promising will truly be underway.
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.