A few years ago, Mike O’Shea and his Winnipeg Blue Bombers had settled into Regina on the eve of the 2014 Labour Day Classic.
This was to be O’Shea’s first experience of the Prairie version of the Canadian Football League’s second-best weekend – trumped only by the Grey Cup – after he had been on both sides of the historic Toronto Argonauts vs. Hamilton Tiger-Cats annual throw-down in Steel Town.
And stepping outside the team’s hotel, O’Shea instantly got a profound visual image of what the game means to fans from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
“I saw a really sweet Saskatchewan Roughriders beer fridge in the back of a pick-up truck right by our hotel,” O’Shea said at the time, “and the driver managed to roll down the window and yell at me.”
When quizzed as to whether the fan had offered a warm welcome to the Saskatchewan capital, O’Shea grinned and added:
“Sort of… not really in those terms. It was a Regina welcome. It’s all good. They buy tickets and support their team. It’s all good fun.”
We open this week’s First & 10 column reliving this tale because a few days ago, yours truly was asked to explain Mark’s Labour Day Weekend by a fan who had hoped to experience it for the first time in 2020.
And “It’s all good fun” might just describe the whole event perfectly, although there are certainly levels of that depending on your level of fanaticism and alcohol consumption over the weekend.
Oh, and it certainly helps the Bombers fans who venture west if the visitors exit with a win, although that had been extremely rare over the last 15 years.
There’s no getting around this: the cancellation of the 2020 Canadian Football League season a few weeks ago really stung us three-down diehards. And this weekend will be like opening up a wound that had just started to heal because the Labour Day Classics – Winnipeg-Saskatchewan, Toronto-Hamilton and the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos – has always been a showcase of the CFL at its finest.
Even in years when franchises had needed offseason telethons to stay alive, when the U.S. expansion concept had failed and the league was on life support, fans flocked to stadiums on Labour Day weekend.
It made you wish the league could somehow bottle those vibes and sprinkle it over the other weeks of the schedule. And it made even the most-hardened cynic believe this league’s roots were firm and strong, even if the plant itself looked dry and wilted.
So, how do you explain the Bombers-Riders Labour Day Classic to somehow who has yet to experience it?
There are so many layers to it, from the CFL’s best rivalry, to the fan experience throughout the weekend, to the overwhelming sense that the league’s heart does beat loudest here on the Prairies.
And to not have those experiences this year is, quite frankly, devastating for fans and – quite clearly – for the players.
“I’ll miss the Labour Day Classic so much,” said Bombers defensive end Jefferson in a phone interview with bluebombers.com this week. “I’m getting memories on my phone from the last couple of years… I’m just glad I have those games to watch on my hard drive.
“But to not be there this year and see the fans and experience that atmosphere… that’s hard, man.”
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