After going nearly two decades between CFL titles, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had to wait another year to commemorate ending that drought.
The 2019 Grey Cup winners finally get to raise their championship banner Thursday night as the CFL returns from a one-year hiatus brought upon by the coronavirus pandemic.
Winnipeg’s matchup with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats marks the league’s first game since the teams squared off in Calgary in November 2019, when the Blue Bombers ran away with a 33-12 victory to win their first Grey Cup since 1990. With a near-capacity crowd expected at 33,000-seat IG Field, the marquee matchup will be the largest sporting event held in Canada since the onset of the pandemic.
“It’s big, not just for the CFL, but for Canadian sporting fans,” Blue Bombers coach Mike O’Shea said.
The long-awaited Grey Cup rematch will be without one of its principal participants, however, with Winnipeg star running back Andrew Harris ruled out with a calf injury. The 34-year-old claimed his third straight CFL rushing title with 1,380 yards in 2019, then put up 134 more with two touchdowns in the title game to earn MVP honours.
Winnipeg also won’t have wide receiver Darvin Adams, who posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2017 and 2018, available due to a shoulder injury.
The Tiger-Cats have been counting the days until opening night as well, as it presents an opportunity to avenge a bitter ending to an otherwise splendid 2019 campaign in which they emerged as the CFL’s dominant team during the regular season. Hamilton scored a league-high 551 points and surrendered a league-low 344 in compiling a 15-3 record to set a franchise best for wins in a season.
“It’s been tough,” wide receiver Brandon Banks said of the long wait. “Obviously our last taste of a real game didn’t go our way, so I’m very anxious to get back out there, especially against the last opponent we played.”
Banks was a huge part of Hamilton’s 2019 success, as the diminutive veteran led the CFL in receptions (112), receiving yards (1,550) and receiving touchdowns (13) while being named the league’s most outstanding player.
He’ll be catching passes once again from Jeremiah Masoli after the former Oregon standout edged out Dane Evans in camp to regain his status as the Ti-Cats’ No. 1 quarterback. Masoli started the first six games of 2019 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury, with Evans going 9-2 in his place prior to leading Hamilton to another win in the East Division final.
“It was extremely close,” coach Orlondo Steinauer said of the competition. “The only reason a decision was made is a decision had to be made. I’m very comfortable with both quarterbacks.”
Winnipeg started three different players under center during its 2019 title run but enters its title defence without a quarterback controversy, with Zach Collaros the unquestioned starter. Obtained from Toronto late in the 2019 season, the former Ti-Cat guided the Bombers to three playoff wins after pressed into duty by injuries to Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler.
Nichols, who started the first nine games of 2019, was released shortly after the Grey Cup and ultimately signed with Ottawa. Streveler is now plying his trade in the NFL as a backup to Kyler Murray with the Arizona Cardinals.