Great Gray Cup crowns exciting and eventful CFL comeback

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It might have been a bumpy race at times – a season that ended with a thrilling 33-25 overtime win for the back-to-back Winnipeg Blue Bombers champions over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – but in the middle pandemic, the Canadian Football League was back with a bang.

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After a 2020 season that was never canceled after a failed deal to play a shortened season with all of Winnipeg’s teams, the CFL overcame an early-season COVID-19 outbreak in Edmonton and the 12 December was able to put over 26,000 fans in the stands at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons field for the Gray Cup. It was the biggest crowd of all time at the stadium. Remarkable, really.

How did they do it? Ultimately, the timing of the season was excellent – even with the game played three weeks later than originally scheduled due to a late start to the regular season, missing a wave of COVID cases in December, fueled by a new variant.

So let’s look back. Way back. During the extended offseason, there was talk of a twice failed CFL-XFL alliance co-owned by Dwayne Johnson (The Rock). After much speculation, the partnership talks collapsed in early July.

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“It didn’t seem like the right time at the time,” said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. “They wanted to get into the business in 2023. We have a league that has a long and rich history and a great future ahead of us. We have decided to go our separate ways as friends.

With crowd restrictions in place, the East Division teams played the first two weeks of a season on the road. The schedule has been changed – teams played 12 games (over 14 weeks), instead of the usual 18. It started on August 5, with Hamilton’s visit to Winnipeg.

“Our big concern was whether we weren’t able to do it this year,” said Mark Goudie, president and CEO of Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, owner of the Redblacks. “People understand the challenges. Football is tough. Big numbers, lots of trips, short season – it’s a hard thing to hit the road and figure out a bubble and things like that so I think people get the first year. But I was afraid of what would happen if we didn’t resume football this year. After our schedule was released, in less than 24 hours, a thousand people contacted us – people who didn’t have a subscription, looking for tickets. It tells me that there is a pent-up demand for what we have here.

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An August 26 game between Edmonton and Toronto has been postponed – it was played in mid-November – after 13 Elks tested positive for COVID-19 over a five-day period. As the season progressed and, with it, federal government rules that would have prevented players from traveling for meaningful games in December, more and more players got vaccinated. The teams have set a goal of 85 percent. Some teams have gone way above. If travel restrictions remain in place, you won’t see many, if any, unvaccinated players signed for the 2022 season.

There was a change of ownership in BC, with Amar Doman buying the team in mid-August. Doman, an entrepreneur from British Columbia bought the team from the estate of David Braley, who died at the end of 2020.

In a speech on the state of the league during Gray Cup Week, Ambrosie thanked players, organizations and fans.

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“We were in such a hodgepodge, but through it all our fans have stuck with us,” he said. “2021 is a triumph. If you were a cynic and tried to look at this season through the lens of a normal operating environment, you would have all kinds of observations to make on what it was or was not. (To prepare for a season) a lot of our players were stuck with not much more than the jungle gym their kids are playing on in their backyard. They weren’t in their gyms, they couldn’t train with their teammates. Yet our athletes showed up and prepared for a season. Our coaches have prepared our players to play in bizarre and completely abnormal circumstances. If you were a cynic you could say we haven’t had the same kind of season that we normally have. But if you look through the lens of what we’ve all been through and how much our own lives have changed over the past two years, it has been an incredible triumph. “

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The Blue Bombers have once again had a great year. During the regular season, they finished with a league-best record of 11-3. But in the West Division final against Saskatchewan, they were negligent offensively and it nearly cost them the game. They escaped with a 21-17 victory, despite six turnovers. On the east side, the Ticates, who finished second, knocked out the Alouettes in third place before defeating Toronto in first place in a divisional championship game that ended in league embarrassment, with the Argos players and vice-president of player personnel John Murphy were scuffling with fans moments after the end and videos of it circulated widely on social media. Murphy was fired the following week.

How will next year be different? The league has talked about making changes; everything seems to be on the table. There have been discussions about playing with the rules, maybe with the ratio that allows for a good base of Canadian talent. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like the rules and content should be the least of the league’s worries. The CFL still hasn’t figured out how to market and attract bigger crowds in BC and Toronto. So yes, there is plenty to fix. But there is also a lot to like.

Remember the CFL slogan: Diversity is strength? Bring it back. The diversity. In the field. And with the fans the league is trying to attract.

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