FRIESEN: Race against Omicron as close as the Grey Cup game … Pierce likes his office view just fine

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It’s like one of those fantasy-adventure movies where the protagonist stays one step ahead of disaster, the road disappearing behind them as they run.

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While the CFL’s decision to delay its 2021 kickoff paid off, the three-down game barely reached the end zone ahead of another hit from COVID-19.

With the news of exploding case counts in Ontario and around the world this week, it feels like the Grey Cup game barely got in under the wire.

“Nick of time,” Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said during the Cup celebration at the stadium, Wednesday night. “The CFL obviously, club-by-club, did a pretty damn good job. Getting started wasn’t necessarily the biggest issue. It was finishing. And we have finished in the nick of time. And the players deserve a ton of credit for that, for sticking to the protocols as best they could.

“It wasn’t perfect. But, boy, they did a damn good job. Thankfully.”

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O’Shea was speaking just hours after Ontario announced crowds at Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Ottawa Senators games would be limited to 50% capacity as the Omicron variant spreads like a wildfire.

On Thursday afternoon, less than two hours before hosting Philadelphia, the Montreal Canadiens announced they’d play the game without fans because of spiking cases in Quebec – more than 2,800 new cases reported that day.

Shortly after that news broke, the Winnipeg Jets said there was no change for their Friday night home game against Washington.

Beyond that, who knows?

The benefit of time may have us looking back at the 2021 CFL season, its restrictions on players and its remarkably low number of positive Covid cases and wondering how the hell they pulled it off.

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Just last week, the Hamilton Convention Centre was the site of large Grey Cup parties of largely unmasked, albeit vaccinated, fans, a scene that makes you take pause, today.

There may forever be an asterisk next to the season, explaining why it was cut to 14 games. But that’ll only serve to remind those involved what they overcame.

This was no ordinary season. And the Bombers were no ordinary team in winning the franchise’s first back-to-back titles since 1961-62 with a 33-25 overtime thriller over the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton.

“We should celebrate this,” offensive coordinator Buck Pierce said. “It’s an amazing achievement. I’m so proud of the guys. I would be proud as a Winnipegger that I call myself now. I’ve been here over a decade, and it’s pretty special.”

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BEER AND A MOVIE

So there was Pierce in his office the other day, re-watching the game, when several players came in to join him, beers in hand, for the wild fourth quarter and overtime.

“You usually don’t do that after the last game of the season,” Pierce said. “So to come in and watch the game and just talk on a personal level was pretty special.”

One of the players, quarterback Zach Collaros, says they watched as fans for a change, not as self-critics like they usually do.

“But there’s times where you’re, like, ‘Damn, what are you doing?’” Collaros said. “It was pretty cool. The game tape is always different than the TV, and even on the field, so it was cool to see things happen. It was awesome.”

Pierce calls plays from a booth up high, and says he doesn’t normally get a chance to watch the defence, as he’s preparing for his next offensive series.

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But he did see the overtime interception by Kyrie Wilson that sealed the game.

“I did look up,” he said. “I felt pretty confident once we got the two-point conversion that our defence was going to do what they did. They’ve been doing that for us all year. It was a great ending.”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers players react as linebacker Kyrie Wilson (19, second left) holds the ball after making an interception in overtime to clinch the victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 108th Grey Cup football game at Tim Hortons Field. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Winnipeg Blue Bombers players react as linebacker Kyrie Wilson (19, second left) holds the ball after making an interception in overtime to clinch the victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the 108th Grey Cup football game at Tim Hortons Field. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports Photo by Dan Hamilton /X02835

PIERCE APPRECIATES STABILITY

The last offensive coordinator to win a championship with the Bombers, Paul LaPolice, parlayed that into a job as the head coach in Ottawa.

Pierce, in Winnipeg for a decade now, doesn’t sound like he’s in a hurry to move up the ladder after just one season in charge of the offence.

“Winning is important to me,” he said. “We’re going to soak this in and then look down the road later. You want a place to call home, you want a place to be stable. Because it’s a very unstable business at times. You’re always looking for that home. And when you do that with the right group of guys, it’s a very special thing. What we’ve built over the years, everybody’s seeing that right now.”

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Offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce (centre) on the field during Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice yesterday. The Bombers offensive line will be in a tough battle against Riders defensive line on Sunday.
Offensive co-ordinator Buck Pierce (centre) on the field during Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice yesterday. The Bombers offensive line will be in a tough battle against Riders defensive line on Sunday. Photo by Kevin King /Winnipeg Sun

ONE OF THE BOYS AGAIN

O’Shea often says he doesn’t enter the locker-room much, as that’s the players’ domain. He doesn’t usually hang with the players, either.

He’s made several exceptions since Sunday.

“The coach-player idea sort of melts away right at those moments,” he said. “And you just enjoy a beer with the guys and listen to the stories and just pay attention to how they’re interacting and the emotions of it all. They’ve been really taking the time to still get to know each other and still learn more about each other. It’s very fascinating and very worthwhile and it’s the way it should be done.”

THE LAST WORD

“I’m not in playing shape, shall we say, to take part in the full celebration. But I’ll go for the first kickoff, that’s for sure.” –O’Shea, on how involved he’s been in the team’s Grey Cup partying.

pfriesen@postmedia.com
Twitter: @friesensunmedia

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