The Mike O’Shea who showed up for Wednesday’s outdoor media conference at IG Field sounded a lot like the guy who guided the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to their first Grey Cup title in 29 years.
Five months of living through a pandemic doesn’t seem to have shaken his resolve. Asked whether he feared what the CFL might look like when play resumes, as scheduled, in 2021, Winnipeg’s head coach didn’t wring his hands.
“I’m not concerned, really,” said O’Shea, whose 15-year playing career ended in 2008. “I mean, I think I’ve been around the league long enough. As I said to the players, I’ve seen a lot of obstacles put in front of us and I’ve always seen us manage to bust through.
“Although this is an obstacle we’ve never seen, I believe the outcome will be the same. We’ll figure out solutions, get around these things or through them and be playing in 2021 and it will be a great season for everybody.”
On Monday, league governors voted to cancel the 2020 season when they were unable to secure an interest-free $30-million loan from the federal government that would have allowed a shortened season and playoffs to be staged, using Winnipeg as a hub city. Until that funding was denied, O’Shea was convinced the season would go ahead as planned.
“It was extremely easy to be hopeful, feeding off the positivity and the energy that (club CEO) Wade (Miller) had and watching the amount of work Wade and his staff and (head athletic therapist) Al Couture put in on putting a plan together for government to make Winnipeg a safe place to have a bubble and have a season,” he said.
“So, it was really easy to be positive. 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 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 off-season where you are paying attention, but we really thought we had it nailed.
“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.”
The emotional impact of cancelling the season will take time to work though — for players and coaches.
“Well there’s a part of it that says you got to take care of yourself a little bit in terms of this letdown,” said O’Shea. “… It’s been a long time since we’re not going to work every day. But there’s always lots to do, you know. We’ll be challenged with a new set of tasks very shortly when the CFL and the (players’ association) come together and get some answers.
“Those will come back to us and we’ll have to sort it out to figure it out on a team level… so in very short order we’ll be busting our hump again to make it work.”
O’Shea said he found no fault with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, Miller and the Blue Bombers staff and the CFLPA. All worked diligently to find a solution, and he believed the hub city concept would be a success.
Now, there’s a gap of nine months before the normal start of training camp and out-of-work players will have a major adjustment to make.
“I do think that the players, because of an emotional letdown like this and the roller-coaster that everybody’s been on, I do think it’s important that they do have some time to not have to think about it anymore,” said O’Shea, who is in his seventh year with the club. “And for some of those guys that will be just delve right back into training.
“For some others, it’ll be, you know, walk away from it for a little bit — and both answers are right.”
O’Shea and his coaching staff have been paid so far through the pandemic but players have been left out of the equation. The situation is difficult for those without a paycheque.
“Through the course of CFL history most of the players worked in the off-season, too, so I don’t think that’s anything new,” he said. “… The optimism that we had in terms of return to play just dragged on… and I’m happy for that optimism (and) I truly believed on Monday morning that we were going to be playing at some point…
“I do think the players now have to move and figure out what they need to do for their families and for their livelihood.”
What happens on a league level will affect the fate of next season and the CFL’s future in the years ahead. Better co-operation between teams, players and the commissioner’s office could provide the foundation for a healthier league.
O’Shea dismissed the suggestion the CFL might be better served with a central ownership model.
“You’re always constantly looking to improve your bottom line in your business and improve your business model and in any relationship,” said O’Shea.
“I mean, there’s not a relationship I have that can’t be better. So, I think these are all positive signs pointing towards… a sense of commitment between all parties involved to work together and make our league in 2021 a great product for the fans (and) a viable business.
“In terms of central ownership, how deep are your pockets?”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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