A great sports day in a great sports town

Opinion



You couldn’t have scripted it any better. A perfect storm of scheduling and circumstance, along with some timely contributions sprinkled in from both the sports gods and Mother Nature herself. As if they huddled together to come up with a plan to produce something really special.

Mission accomplished.

The Blue Bombers rallying to punch their ticket to the Grey Cup in a 21-17 victory over the archrival Roughriders in front of a near-capacity crowd at snowy, blustery IG Field. The Jets beating up the mighty Maple Leafs 6-3 at a livelier than usual and nearly-packed Canada Life Centre. Bob Irving’s final call of his decorated broadcasting career. Blake Wheeler’s 1,000th game. So many storylines and emotions and memories.

“Great sports day in Winnipeg, eh?” Paul Maurice told me a few hours before the action got underway.

No kidding. The kind of day, in fact, that we’ll be talking about for years. One we richly deserved after 20 long months of suffering through a life-altering global pandemic. One that reminds us what a great sports town this is. One that folks will relish telling loved ones about, their tales becoming more exaggerated each time.

“It was 40-below at kickoff and snowing sideways!” some will claim. “We had to walk uphill both ways to get there, over 20-foot drifts!” others will add, their noses growing with every word.

Let the record show it was “only” -9.2 C, with a north wind blowing at 30 km/h and gusting to 41 km/h that made it feel like -18, with light flurries in the air when the game began just after 3 p.m. And yet, that didn’t stop 31,160 brave souls from layering up and heading outdoors for the first playoff game on home soil in four years. Turns out the first-ever December post-season game will go down as the fifth-best attended post-season game in Bombers history. How cool is that?

Memo to fans: Once you thaw out, feel free to take a well-deserved bow. At the top of the list should be 103-year-old Ralph Wild, an Air Force veteran who moved from England to Canada in 1950 and immediately fell in love with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers when his father-in-law began taking him to old Osborne Stadium, seated just three rows behind the bench. The last remaining survivor of the Battle of Britain has been coming to games ever since, including Sunday afternoon’s clash. How beautiful is that?

I suspect there were plenty of you who managed to take in not just one game, but both. They way we used to around here, back when the two teams played just a stone’s throw apart in Polo Park and you could even grab a bite at Chi-Chi’s or Fuddruckers in between?

It’s a little more difficult now, given the distance between stadium and rink. The CFL and NHL played ball in that department by moving up the start of the West Final by 30 minutes, and the hockey back by an hour. As I can personally attest, it was possible to see every minute of both events, by the very slimmest of margins. I left the IG Field press box at approximately 5:50 p.m., and managed to be in my press box seat at Canada Life Centre just as the puck dropped around 7:20 p.m. And no, I didn’t need a police escort, nor did I get a speeding ticket. At least one that I know of.

Despite the heavy traffic and less-than-ideal road conditions, the drive was most welcome in that it afforded one last chance to listen to the legendary Irving, who is hanging up his headphones. The post-game tributes from players, especially Zach Collaros, were especially classy, and shows just what a kind, tight-knit community we can be at times, even when the world doesn’t always seem very nice.

Credit to both teams for doing their part on this big day and putting the “Win” in Winnipeg. The stakes were much different of course. But it’s always nice when the crowd goes home happy.

First up was the Bombers, the clear class of the CFL but no sure-thing to come out on top due to a variety of factors. Weather can be the great equalizer, and the conditions were far from pristine as the COVID-19 impacted season goes later than ever before this year. Mike O’Shea’s crew was also so dominant in the regular-season that it seemed like forever since they last played a game of consequence. Might that rest equate to rust?

It sure looked like it during an incredible first half in which the Blue & Gold proved to be the most gracious hosts imaginable, turning over the ball five times. The first two essentially took certain touchdowns off the board for them, and gifted the Roughriders the opening score. You could feel the pre-game buzz quickly turn into early-game anxiety. As one Saskatchewan scribe cheekily noted, it appeared the home team was trying to get their turnover ratio to match the temperature. And they came awfully close.

But the Bombers figured out how to hold on to the ball in the second half, the offence came to life with some timely big plays, and all turned out well in the end. A little adversity, even when it’s of the self-inflicted variety, makes it all the more sweeter, right? And now they’ll head to Hamilton, to take on the hometown Tiger-Cats in a juicy 2019 rematch.

The Jets certainly had a tough act to follow in the nightcap, but they did their part by putting on an exciting, offensive clinic and beating one of the best teams in the NHL. Granted, the Maple Leafs had just played the night before in Minnesota, started their backup goaltender and were without injured forward Mitch Marner. But Winnipeg took full advantage, scoring early and often.

The biggest takeaway from the game was a celebration of captain Blake Wheeler, who was joined by his wife and three young kids on the ice prior to puck drop for a touching ceremony honouring his milestone. It was a nice trip down memory lane, including a video tribute and greetings from some old friends such as defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who might have got the loudest ovation of the night.

Winnipeg and Toronto met 10 times last year in the re-aligned all-Canadian division, but no fans meant no atmosphere. That wasn’t an issue in this one, with plenty of Original Six jerseys in the crowd, duelling “Go Leafs Go” and “Go Jets Go” chants throughout the game, and plenty of bite including an MMA-style wrestling match between Pierre-Luc Dubois and Auston Matthews. In other words, it was a heck of a hockey game.

A great sports day in Winnipeg, indeed.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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