February 10, 2020

“Deep down I knew where I wanted to be” | Couture locked up for two more years

Michael Couture (70) of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the game against the BC Lions at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, BC., on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

Pick any number of potential launching points to best represent Michael Couture’s transformation from prospect to starter, but here is as good a place as any…

It’s the spring of 2016 and Couture – fresh from being selected 10th overall by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League Draft – is pulling on a gold helmet and stepping onto the turf for the first time as a pro.

“I remember the first time I walked into IG Field… I was just looking straight up at all the stands because I had never been field side in a stadium of that calibre,” Couture recalled Monday, not long after his two-year contract extension with the club had been announced. “Back then there were so many factors I was just trying to acclimate myself to… the speed of the guys I was playing with, the size of them, the workload of the playbook.

“It’s physically demanding and now there were so many things I had to keep up on compared to the last year where I started 18 regular season games. I’ve just become more familiar with those things and I feel like I’ve got my legs now.”

It’s that growth which makes the return of Couture so appealing, both for the club and the player. CFL teams don’t draft and develop Canadians and then let them walk when they really begin to ripen.

And while Couture has not missed a game since his draft year, the 2019 season marked his first campaign as the full-time starter as he stepped into the centre position following the retirement of Matthias Goossen last winter.

Couture started all season there for the Bombers, only to be injured in the fourth quarter of the regular season finale, a win over the Calgary Stampeders. Cody Speller filled in admirably after that, but after fielding offers from around the CFL, Couture and the Bombers were able to lock up for two more years.

“I’m super excited about it,” Couture said. “This last little bit, not knowing exactly what was going to happen, was a little bit stressful. You want to feel that security from a team and once it got done I was super excited. Deep down I knew where I wanted to be.

“I’ve always felt very comfortable in Winnipeg. It was exciting from the get-go. The coaching staff has done a great job of creating a family environment in the locker room. I feel extremely tight with our O-line room, specifically. So, it’s things like that that made me never really even consider going anywhere else.”

Couture’s return – coupled with the club re-signing tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick and guard Pat Neufeld, also pending free agents when the 2019 season ended – means the Bombers have locked up the group that was so important to the club’s success over the last few years. As well, the O-line is integral to the ‘bully-ball’ game they want to play up front in establishing the line of scrimmage in front of three-time rushing champion Andrew Harris.

And the 26-year-old Couture is critical to that, having found his game and his voice as the starting centre – a position that demands he call out defences and be heard up front.

“My first few years… I played in a number of games, dressed in every one, but starting-wise I had two starts at each guard spot,” he said. “Going into meetings in the veteran room we had I definitely early on felt a little quieter than maybe they would have liked me to be. But now that I’m in that centre role my voice definitely needed to get louder and I think it did this last year.

“That comes every day in practice and in meetings as well. We’ll pull up a certain play on the big screen and I’ll start the discussion with what kind of defence we’re looking at and what each of us as O-linemen are going to do and how we’re going to work together to accomplish what the play is asking of us. That translates to every play within the huddle before the play, right before the play happens and then we discuss it after. There’s a lot of communication involved in my position, specifically.”

And while he doesn’t command some of the press like a perennial all-star like Bryant, an emotional leader like Hardrick, or the veteran presence of a Neufeld does, Couture is a respected teammate in the room. That was never more evident than in the club’s run to glory last November when the injury forced him to take a step back and play cheerleader through to the Grey Cup.

“Obviously, right when the injury happened I was pretty crushed because I knew quite quickly how long I was going to be out,” he said. “And at that point of the season – it happened in the fourth quarter of the last regular season game – I was going through some stuff mentally with that. But I had to quickly realize that the run we were going on was really something special and it was something everybody felt so I couldn’t waste time feeling sorry for myself.

“Being in the position where I can’t play in the playoff games I had to really embrace all my teammates and help them in any way I could. Once I got into that mindset I was all good.”