May 12, 2020

“I believe in our league’s ability to unite a country.”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Head Coach Mike O'Shea during practice at IG Field September 24, 2019

Mike O’Shea took a few minutes Tuesday morning to step outside and look up at the sky as the Snowbirds flew a loop around Winnipeg as part of ‘Operation Inspiration.’

“I was actually standing there waving up in the air,” began the Blue Bombers head coach with a chuckle during a Zoom call with not long after the flyover.

“I know they can’t see me, but I did it.”

It must have made quite the scene and given the current situation O’Shea, the Bombers and the rest of the Canadian Football League are in right now. Rookie camps were scheduled to open Wednesday, with main training camps set to begin this Sunday.

Instead, O’Shea and his staff – just like those across the nine outposts in the CFL – are doing meetings and coaching sessions via video. Business is proceeding as best possible, but this week is when buildings across the league usually come alive with the return of players.

“This is usually one of my favourite times, when the players show up,” said O’Shea. “It’s just watching the interactions between the players who haven’t seen each other from whenever everything wraps up and guys have a couple nights out after the season. And some guys take off right away.”

“Things are different now than when I played because these guys are all zooming now and Face-Timing and interacting on the various platforms of social media so they do get to face-to-face electronically and keep in touch probably better than we ever did.

“But it’s still just being physically in front of somebody and seeing how excited they are to be back in their room together… that’s definitely one of my favourite days.”

Much of the work the Bombers’ coaching staff does in the offseason revolves around preparing for free agency, the draft, reworking playbooks and revisiting everything from the previous year. O’Shea said the staff has done all that and, given the extra time, has jumped into a few other bigger projects.

“Right now the situation changes quite rapidly and it’s not a situation anyone has really had experience with,” he said. “Initially there were questions and now it’s just the routine we’re in and we’ll wait to have concrete answers from people who are outside our football circle.

“In the near future, within the next two or three weeks, it will just become a waiting game at that point. We’ll have done pretty much everything to be ready. It’s hard to plan, to do any scheduling right now. It’s just not possible. That’s the next step, to wait and get those answers to be able to plan the next phase.”

O’Shea and yours truly spoke on a number of subjects on Tuesday, some of which will be explored later in the week.

Still, it was hard not to be struck by the image of the Canadian Football Hall of Famer looking up at the sky Tuesday morning in the celebration of a national institution.

And then O’Shea – one of this country’s most fervent patriots – then waved the flag for another institution: the three-down football league which has played such a prominent role in his life and the lives of so many others.

Asked if he’s imagined a doomsday scenario – a Canada without the CFL – and he is shaking his head from side to side before the question is even finished.

“I just have so much faith in the resiliency of the CFL and the people leading it that we’re going to manage to get this done,” O’Shea said. “It does me no good to think the other way.

“Inevitably I’m at the grocery store or the MLCC and you run into people and that’s the question I get asked. I’m not going to waver on that – we’ll get games in.  We’ll play. Whatever it looks like, I don’t know, but I’ve always been one to have that kind of belief. It’s not difficult for me.

“I know these times are very challenging for our country, for every country. You look at the concessions people are making, the unemployment and the really difficult decisions facing people. These are decisions we’ve never had to make in our lifetime.”

O’Shea paused for a moment, and then added this message:

“I know that in the very big picture the CFL is a very small part of what’s going on in Canada, but I also do believe in the power of sport to help alleviate the mundane routine we have and the pressures everyone faces. I do believe whole-heartedly in that. I also believe in our league’s ability to unite a country. I’ve seen it way too many times.”