There was a noticeable spark in the voice of Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea, even after talking to reporters for more than 30 minutes Friday in what was his first media availability in seemingly forever.
No, it hasn’t been that long, it just feels that way. What with the 2020 CFL season cancelled and the 2021 campaign still six weeks from starting after being delayed for two months, both owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Needless to say, O’Shea is looking forward to the CFL’s return, already envisioning what those first few days will look like once training camp opens July 10.
“It’s been a trying time, especially for the players, and I can’t wait to get them back in a distanced locker room,” O’Shea said. “But I can’t wait until they lay eyes on each other and just rekindle those relationships. It’s going to be a lot of fun to observe all that. I’m sure it will be a very emotional time.”
O’Shea noted he hasn’t spent much of his own time contacting individual players, though he encouraged his guys to be sure to reach out to teammates as best they could. Instead, he’s been busy drawing and re-drawing plans as new information trickles in from the league. Ever-evolving health protocols and roster moves have kept his mind busy.
The focus now is to put the finishing touches on a schedule for what should be a tune-up camp unlike anything we’ve seen in the CFL’s long history. And while it might mean more work for O’Shea and his staff, it’s a price that seems more than fair given the return.
“I finally handed them a training camp schedule, which we’ll have to still change a little bit based on the new CBA rules. But it did feel like we got ready a few different times and then I hate to say it, but like most things, as soon as they say go, it’s like being a one-arm juggler,” O’Shea said. “There’s all these things that come up and through no one’s fault there are just some questions that have to be answered still on just the little details. How do we do this? How do we do that? It’ll get answered and every team’s in the same boat. So, we’ll just trudge along and get to work as best we can.”
While the current pandemic will be a challenge for all nine teams in the CFL, where O’Shea feels the Bombers have an edge is the consistency on their roster. Of the 24 players that started on offence and defence in the 2019 Grey Cup, only four players won’t be at camp — three on defence (defensive backs Winston Rose and Marcus Sayles; and defensive tackle Drake Nevis) and just centre Cody Speller on offence.
And even those holes have been mostly filled, with centre Michael Couture back to full health, Steven Richardson capable of filling in for Nevis on the D-line and DB Josh Johnson extended another year after signing in 2020. The Bombers don’t just have a lot of the same players back, but they also have many of their leaders to help ensure the locker room is unified, ready to go and capable of tackling head-on whatever challenges might come up.
“It’s a necessity. It really is,” O’Shea said. “I do think that hitting the ground running on a shortened season and getting off to a great start is important. I mean, it’s not the only thing. There’s how we approach things, looking only at what the next day holds in store, but I do always value a veteran presence. And in this particular year, it should prove its worth.”
He added: “It’ll be a great lesson in resiliency and flexibility. Every team will experience that, where things come up during the season and you have to be able to adapt very quickly. And I fully expect our guys to be able to do that.”
Then there’s the task of properly evaluating talent. With no preseason games this year, the players, particularly Americans, that lack CFL experience figure to be at a disadvantage. It can take a while to adjust to the Canadian game and time isn’t exactly on their side.
O’Shea seemed unconcerned about the evaluation process he’s put in place and is aware of the perceived disadvantages for some players. They have taken a number of things into consideration that he feels should help even the playing field.
“If guys are here and they’re in shape and they’re ready to go, they’ll get a fair shot, and we’ll look at them and we’ll put in the amount of time required to make the good decisions,” O’Shea said. “I know that the coaching staff and management will make sure we’re diligent in giving everybody a fair look.”
Still, with such a long layoff between games, there’s always a chance for a few surprises. For those players who were unable to stay committed to their off-season training plans, taking part in what will be a rigourous month of workouts might be a rude awakening.
“I imagine right through training camp there’s gonna be people that are gonna be questioning what they’re doing because having that much of a layoff might prove to be challenging,” he said. “It has been a long time, so it’s also up to us to manage that in our training camp and the way we’re gonna structure practices and the way we have to monitor our players.”
Keeping busy seems easier than ever for the Bombers coach. That will happen when you haven’t had a chance to play in more than 15 months, and it’s even more prominent by the fact he’s waited this long to defend Winnipeg’s championship run.
There’s still a bit more work to do before it turns to full-time football, and that includes finishing up some projects at home. Time is of the essence to tie up any and all loose ends.
“You spend a lot of time in this seat, watching film, sitting behind a desk with a little remote in your hand, watching film,” O’Shea said. “I’ve tried to use my hands a little more and fix a few things and build a few things in the off-season. I tore apart a basement. I’m running out of time. I’ve still got to hang some doors.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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