First & 10 : Grey Cup Unite

Randy Ambrosie spent nine years in the Canadian Football League’s trenches, graduating from the University of Manitoba before a long career with Calgary, Toronto and Edmonton.

That experience might soon suit him well, because the blitz he is going to be facing during the CFL’s Grey Cup Unite event in a few weeks will likely be as fierce as anything he saw along the line of scrimmage during his playing career.

Let’s begin by saying the Grey Cup Unite concept is an admirable one for a league that has been dark since the plug was pulled back in late August on what would have been a hub-city season here in Winnipeg.

The schedule of events – all taking place virtually during what would have been Grey Cup week at the end of November – include the following:

  • A business summit featuring ‘leading organizations and individuals’ who will outline how they are navigating shifts in consumers’ expectations and demands.
  • Three separate sessions with the league’s nine head coaches, including one with Mike O’Shea of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
  • A CFL/CFLPA ‘Diversity is Strength’ roundtable where coaches, alumni and current players discuss their experiences with prejudice and discrimination.
  • The unveiling of the CFL’s All-Decade team.
  • There will also be musical component and a look ahead to the ‘exciting events in store for Grey Cup 2021.’

Still, the most noteworthy event – and one which will kick off the entire week – will feature Ambrosie in a Fan State of the League address in a session moderated by TSN’s Sara Orlesky on November 16.

The commissioner has already been in the crosshairs for months after the cancellation of the season due to the pandemic. And before he even gets the chance to offer an update, he’s already been chastised this week in some media circles for the league’s long silence and his suggestion the CFL will chat again with the federal government about possible financial assistance.

So, he’s entering can’t-win territory by doing this roundtable with fans – not with the media, as many have grumbled.

What grabbed me was what he said in a story by Dan Ralph of The Canadian Press this week:

“We are looking at a no-fan scenario, we’re looking at a couple of levels of limited fans. The most optimistic version of our plan is the vaccine is out and taking a positive footing and we’re looking at a hub city again because you have to account for all of these things as possibilities.

“But the challenge we’re all facing, not just football, is that we don’t know where the pandemic is going to take us in the short to medium term. We’re going to look at every possible way to get back on the field… one way or the other we’re going to try the best of our ability to figure out a way to do it.”

That’s the cold, hard reality here for the CFL, other leagues – heck, the entire planet – as we move forward: no one knows what the future holds with a possible Coronavirus vaccine and, indirectly, how the CFL can get back on the field to work in 2021.

Most of the heavy lifting between the CFL and its owners, players, TSN and corporate partners is being conducted behind closed doors. That’s not unexpected, as it’s just sound business.

What’s interesting about this is  when the curtain lifts with Ambrosie’s State of the League – even if it’s just a brief appearance – it’s absolutely impossible for him to provide concrete answers to any questions.

My take, for what it’s worth: his comments about looking at all possibilities isn’t any kind of revelation. We can expect more of the same at the Grey Cup Unite event.

Still,  what fans want from Ambrosie is more of a sense the CFL has an actual gameplan for the future. More than anything, though, they simply want a semblance of hope — even if it’s just faint hope to cling to until the planet gets more answers.

More on the CFL and the Blue Bombers in our weekly collection of notes, quotes and links we call 1st & 10:

1. Further to the above, two good reads on Grey Cup Unite:

From Dave Naylor of TSN
And from Postmedia’s Dan Barnes

2. The CFL lost long-standing force this week with the passing of B.C. Lions owner David Braley. Braley, at one time, also owned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts – for a stretch he owned the Argos and the Lions at the same time – and was instrumental in keeping those franchises alive during some difficult times for the CFL.

Granted, he also had his critics, but he always stepped up with this league needed him. Andrew Harris was a member of the B.C. Lions at the outset of his career, spending six years on the West Coast before signing as a free agent with the Bombers in 2016.

“I didn’t really get to know him too well other than some brief conversations,” said Harris of Braley in a chat with this week. “But he was obviously a massive football fan. I know at one time he owned both Toronto and B.C. and you’d hear once in a while from the guys in Toronto who were sour because they thought he looked after the Lions more than the Argonauts.

“But he was a generous guy. When we’d play in Hamilton (Braley’s hometown) he’d invite us over to his house and if it was a summer game we’d be in his backyard at his pool and having dinner in his basement as we sort of scattered throughout his whole house.

“Look at the contributions he made in the community from hospitals to youth groups to universities. He was just a passionate guy who loved to help out and was heavily involved in the CFL. It’s definitely sad news because he impacted a lot of people’s lives. It hit me a little bit and had me reflecting on my time in B.C. and all the things I witnessed and went through there. He was a big part of that.

“You think about some of these teams that are owned by different companies or groups of people… this was basically one man that did this on his own. I know he had a team around him but for the most part this was a self-made billionaire – or close to it. He’s going to be missed, for sure.”

3. Your humble agent has visited with a number of Bombers in telephone interviews over the last few weeks for our ’10 Plays That Made A Champion’ series that will run through to the end of November.

The first two instalments can be read here:

A Hint of Magic
Collaros to Adams… Again

Revisiting those moments reminded me of how much study all pro footballers do all season as they can vividly remember almost every detail of a play. It’s also simply a chance to check in with players and in times like these, that has certainly been uplifting from a personal perspective. Just FYI, two more chunks of the series will be posted next week.

4. Further to the above, one of the players we chatted with for the series was Drew Wolitarsky – the talented receiver/musician.

Here’s an update on where his music career is at, courtesy of the man himself.

“I’m learning a whole new part of music,” Wolitarsky said. “It’s more the studio part now and working with the computer and the science behind it.

“I’m just trying to become a better musician. I have the charisma, the story telling and I can write songs. But I want to become a better musician and understand tempo, signature changes, keys, scales… all these things. I love music, man. If I can compare it to football, it’s like I’m in high school right now and I’m trying to get into college. I need to study up and get better.”

5. The Spring League began play this week at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

The league features six teams playing a 12-game tournament that should be completed by December 1.

We checked in with Blue Bombers Assistant GM/Director of U.S. Scouting Danny McManus this week and, just FYI, one of the club’s prospects – defensive back Jhavonte Dean – is playing on the Blues team that opened their tournament with a 19-0 win over the Alphas.

Dean finished last year on the practice roster of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and was signed by the Bombers, who had been following him since his days at the University of Miami, in March.

He opted out of his contract with the Bombers on September 3 to explore other opportunities before landing in the Spring League.

6. One more on the Spring League – there are two Canadians currently on rosters in Malcolm Lee and former Bomber Rashaun Simonise.

“Right now, outside the NFL, this is the best football we can get,” Simonise told Postmedia. “I feel everyone here has the potential to play at the next level in the NFL or CFL. That’s the reason they’re here. Of course I do feel lucky, but I also feel I deserve to be here. You know what I mean? I put in a lot of hours to get here.”

You can read more about TSL and Simonise here.

7. In case you missed it, Marcus Sayles was added to the Minnesota Vikings practice roster this week after a rash of injuries to their slate of cornerbacks.

A West Division All-Star last year with the Bombers, Sayles was signed by the Vikings in January before being waived on August 18.

8. Just FYI, the Polish league – the Liga Futbolu Amerykanskiego – is into its semi-finals this weekend, with Thiadric Hansen’s Wroclaw Panthers hosting the Bydgoszcz Archers on Saturday.

Hansen has scored two defensive touchdowns for the Panthers this season.

To read more about the matchup, click here.

9. A cause definitely worth pointing out – the Bombers announced Friday a new initiative in a partnership with Beam Suntory that will help support Winnipeg Harvest.

From the press release:

‘Starting on November 1, $1 from the sale of every bottle of Jim Beam White 750 mL, Canadian Club 1140 mL, Sauza Gold Tequila 750 mL, and Banff Ice Summit Vodka 750 mL sold at Liquor Mart locations across the province will be donated to Winnipeg Harvest, up to a maximum of $10,000.

The program is in addition to $10,000 the team has been able to donate to Winnipeg Harvest through the sale of t-shirts and masks. This donation was made possible by the continued support of the team’s passionate fans.’

10. And, finally, let’s end with a feel-good story because we could all use one right now…

Canadian Football and Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Famer James West had his 1988 Grey Cup ring stolen from his truck a few years ago. He hooked up with  Baron Championship Rings – the company that designed the Bombers 2019 Grey Cup rings – and they were able to come up with a replacement.

“When we were playing we didn’t really pay attention to the ring itself because you are always on the search for another one, and another one,” West said. “They become more valuable to you, in my opinion, when you are done playing.

“I had my ’88 ring for about 10 years before it was stolen. It was my fault, but I had forgotten about it until just recently when I decided to get a new one. I bought one and it got here on Monday.”

West’s ring features the Bombers ‘W’, with his name and number and the score of the ’88 win over the B.C. Lions – 22-21.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

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