Mike O’Shea was as optimistic as they come.
He saw Blue Bomber president and CEO Wade Miller and his staff busting their humps to make the hub-city model work in Winnipeg, getting the local health authorities to sign off.
As late as Monday morning, for the head coach, at least, all signs pointed toward a compressed CFL season.
“It was extremely easy to be hopeful, feeding off the positivity and the energy that Wade had,” O’Shea said, Wednesday. “Even though I knew this was a possibility… the announcement came and it was like I was completely blindsided. Which sounds very odd to say. But we really thought we had it nailed.
“So yeah, the moments surrounding the announcement when I found out for sure that it was cancelled, it was extremely sad. One of the saddest days I’ve had in a long, long time.”
A far cry from the last major CFL headline he was part of: his Bombers ending a 28-year Grey Cup drought.
Unlike most players, including two of his own veterans — quarterback Zach Collaros and linebacker Adam Bighill — O’Shea wasn’t ready to lay the blame at the feet of CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie or his staff.
At least, not their effort.
“I believe they worked extremely hard to get this done, too, at their level,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to say that would be negative. And the players association, their group worked hard, too, to make sure we could get this done. And it didn’t work out. But I would never fault anybody’s effort, that’s for sure.”
The league’s plan for a six-game regular season and expanded playoffs fell apart when the federal government failed to provide an interest-free loan of $30 million.
The pandemic threatens next season, too, and you can’t help but wonder how much more of a hit the CFL can take.
In his third decade involved with the league, O’Shea, a product of North Bay, Ont., isn’t worried the sometimes-shaky ground the financially-challenged loop stands on is about to give way completely.
“I’ve been around the league long enough,” he said. “And as I said to the players, I’ve seen a lot of obstacles be put in front of us and I’ve always seen us manage to bust through them. Although this is an obstacle we’ve never seen, I believe the outcome will be the same. We’ll figure out solutions and get around these things or through them and be playing in 2021…
“If you’re optimistic like me and you believe that absence makes hearts grow fonder, then we’re going to be in for a great season.”
He says his message to his players was to take care of each other in this extended off-season, just as they did last season.
One of the things that hurts O’Shea the most is the Bombers losing the chance to defend their title.
With many veterans on both sides of the ball set to return, Winnipeg would have entered the season as a decent bet to repeat.
“You only get so many opportunities,” the coach said. “And I believe 2020 would have presented a great opportunity to be Grey Cup champions.”
O’Shea made his comments just outside the stadium instead of in a video conference, the communications choice du jour for organizations during the pandemic.
Perhaps he just wanted to make the drive to the U of M campus for old time’s sake.
Coaches and players, he says, will need some time to get over this.
“There’s a part of it that says you’ve got to take care of yourself a little bit, in terms of this letdown,” he said. “I mean, it’s been a long time, where you’re not going in to work every day. They (players) have gone through a lot of pain, and they’ve suffered the most, I’m sure.
“The players have to now move and figure out what they’re going to have to do for their families and for their livelihood.”
Football, at all levels, seems to be the last sport to free itself from the pandemic’s grip.
That has to hurt the game at the grassroots level.
“Some of these answers won’t be clear to us for a few years out,” O’Shea said. “And that’s everything from the people’s health to the health of our game, really.”
Curiously, O’Shea wasn’t wearing his Grey Cup ring for Wednesday’s media scrum.
“They’re beautiful,” he said. “They’ve done a good job. I thought the players, the ring committee, obviously presented a great argument to Wade, and he listened. Because they are pretty outstanding.
“But I don’t really wear them. I let other people wear them.”
The 2019 champs have a long off-season to do that.
Sad week for sports fans
Sports, of course, isn’t a matter of life and death.
Nonetheless, the Winnipeg sports landscape was forever altered this week with the cancellation of the CFL season on Monday, the death of Jets great Dale Hawerchuk a day later.
“When I found out it did strike a chord,” Blue Bomber head coach Mike O’Shea said of Hawerchuk’s passing. “Obviously he’s just a foundational Winnipeg Jet, and obviously a great hockey player, around the league very well respected.”
O’Shea, a Canadian Football Hall of Famer and one of top Canadians to play the game, met Hawerchuk, a Hockey Hall of Famer, on a couple of occasions at charity golf tournaments in Barrie, Ont., where Hawerchuk lived and coached junior hockey.
“I enjoyed my time around him,” the Bomber boss said. “It’s a sad day for sports in Winnipeg and in general. A tough couple of days for Winnipeg sports fans.”
A memorial featuring Hawerchuk’s No. 10 banner is hanging downtown, at True North Square.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman announced the city will be dimming the lights of the WINNIPEG sign at The Forks for nine days to commemorate the nine seasons Hawerchuk spent with the Jets.
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