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2020 Year in Review: #2 A Season Delayed, the Hub City and… Heartbreak

There have been some dark days in the long history of the Canadian Football League. And some troubling times, too.

But none of that – not the folding of franchises in Montreal and Ottawa before their rebirth, not the failed expansion to the U.S. – could match what unfolded last August with the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the Coronavirus.

The final decision to pull the plug didn’t come without some aggressive planning to play games in a hub-city/bubble designed for here in Winnipeg.

Ultimately, however, after the federal government backed away from helping fund the concept with a $30 million loan in early August the season was cancelled – marking the first time no season would be played since World War II and the first time a Grey Cup wouldn’t be presented to a champion in over a century.

That story, which unfolded over months from the time the virus really took hold in the spring, comes in at #2 in our abridged ‘Bombers Season In Review’ series.

“The moment surrounding the announcement when I found out for sure it was cancelled was extremely sad, one of the saddest days I’ve had in a long, long time,” said Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea back in August, following the official cancellation of the season.

“… I said this a few times to some friends – even though I knew that not having a season was a possibility and I knew there were some (negative) indicators from the federal government, even with all that, the announcement came and it was like I was completely blindsided. It sounds very odd to say when you are going through the offseason where you are paying attention, but we really thought that we had it nailed.”

The long and emotionally draining road to the decision to cancel began in April, when the CFL first issued a statement that the outbreak of the Coronavirus meant the 2020 season would not start on time.

A pitch by commissioner Randy Ambrosie to the federal government in May asking for funding then drew criticism for not including the CFL Players’ Association in the bid.

Later that month the league called an audible on the 2020 season, indicating it might not begin until Labour Day. As well, plans for the Grey Cup – originally scheduled for Regina – were also changed in what was then dubbed a ‘win and host’ format that would have seen the team with the best regular-season record of the two clubs in the final host the game.

Plans began to change, again, in July as the hub city idea gained momentum. The Manitoba government made a $2.5 million commitment to the idea of a bubble season being held in Winnipeg, back during a stretch in the summer when the number of COVID-19 cases were minimal.

And as August approached and with the NHL and NBA playing their seasons in a bubble and Major League Baseball underway with no fans in the stands, the idea of a CFL campaign had gained considerable momentum – right up until the moment funding was pulled and the government backed away.

We knew we needed federal government support,” said Bombers President & CEO Wade Miller, who had been leading the hub city plans. “We were going back and forth over four months and were asked two different times to go back to them with different ways of doing it. It never worked out. By the end we were close to having an alignment with our players and everyone else… it’s just disappointing for our players and our fans.

“Now we’ll focus on 2021. We’ll get through this. We’ll move forward and come out stronger on the other side.”

After the season was deep-sixed players had the opportunity to opt out of their contracts in an attempt to land with other teams in other leagues. The Bombers list included Kenny Lawler, Mercy Maston, Janarion Grant and Thiadric Hansen. Only Hansen latched found other football work, signing with the Wroclaw Panthers in Poland and helping them win a championship.

Others opted to remain under contract as plans were made for them to receive government support through December while having their medical coverage extended to 2021 training camp.

But losing a season hurt, especially when the window to play the game is only open for so long.

“I feel like complaining,” said Jermarcus Hardrick a few days after the cancellation announcement, “but then that wouldn’t help the situation and half of this is having a positive mindset.

“That news on Monday… Monday hurt, man. I thought Coach O’Shea put it in perfect words (in his address to the team via Zoom) when he said it was kind of like a death in the family, but it wasn’t.

“But this is hard. This is something I’ve been doing since I was 13-14. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t at this time of year and playing football, being sweaty and being around my guys.

“Without that in my life… look, it’s great to know I can live without it and be successful without it and still be a great husband and father. But, man, I miss it.”

He certainly wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Critical now for everyone is to work to stay safe and follow the government protocols.

We’ll end this chapter with a quote from O’Shea from the summer that still seems to pertinent today:

“Nothing is guaranteed in life. It’s what you make of it, right? If you are optimistic like me and you believe absence makes the hearts grow fonder then we’re going to be in for a great season.”

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