Pat Neufeld has regularly soaked up every nanosecond of those scorching summer nights playing in front of crammed houses at IG Field. And the the customary Banjo Bowl sellouts in September always provide an adrenaline rush.
Evenings like that in south Winnipeg for Blue Bombers games will always be memorable, even as they start to blend together. Still a hot take on a cold day as the Blue Bombers push for a fifth consecutive sellout for Saturday’s West Final against the B.C. Lions: the last two divisional title games in 2021 and 2022 have reinforced why homefield matters more right now in Winnipeg than anywhere else in the Canadian Football League.
It’s more than just the cacophony of sound that envelopes IG Field. It’s that and the wintry sights coupled with what’s at stake, namely a berth in the Grey Cup, that makes the whole scene almost magical.
“It’s like there is this unified mob of 33,000 all with our team,” began the Blue Bombers all-star guard. “It’s our 13th man out there with us, but it’s 33,000 strong who have our back no matter what. It’s like this swell of sound that overwhelms everyone.
“You can feel the emotion, you can feel the tenacity of our crowd coming down from the rafters to the field. It’s just a tremendous sense of pride going out there to play for those fans and represent them. It’s a huge honour to play in a packed house like that.”
Some tickets are still available for Saturday’s West Final and the forecast – a high of -2C during the day and an overnight low of just -3 – couldn’t be much better for mid-November. Critical here is this stat from CFL HQ: home teams have won the last seven playoff games, including last week’s East and West Semi-Finals. The last time a home win streak was that long in the CFL was 2014-15, when that number reached eight games.
And the statistical evidence to our hot take about homefield meaning more here right now than anywhere in the CFL? Try this: The Blue Bombers are 31-3 in their last 34 games at IG Field, including victories in the last two West Finals.
“I think the fans will be a part of it,” said head coach Mike O’Shea on Wednesday. “You work this hard to get homefield advantage to allow your fan base, especially our fan base, to be a part of this game. And they will be. It will be exciting, and the players will really appreciate it. It will be fun to watch.
“… There is something special going on here. We’ve felt that for quite a number of years. But I think everybody is paying attention in this one. There might be other distractions in the summer. This one, they’re paying attention. There’s been a pretty good atmosphere in years past. It seems like they have a lot of fun.”
Again, that goes double on West Final. It’s a Banjo Bowl vibe mixed with the tension and euphoria that comes with the playoffs. And Drew Wolitarsky, like all of his teammates, is there for every bit of it.
“Any time you roll up to the stadium and you see the tents and people in the parking lots… when you see people giving that energy out there it gives you a little shiver,” Wolitarsky explained. “It’s like, ‘Oh s–t… today is going to be a big day.’
“It’s that 13th guy on the field. It’s intimidating. It’s loud. It escalates everything. You make a big play, and it escalates, you feel that vibration. It’s very powerful. I’m a big believer in energy and momentum in a game and just adds so much to that momentum and that strength.
“It can be hard to explain. It really rattles your insides. It’s a roar. Maybe it’s a primal thing in your brain, but it feels a bit like a gladiator. It rattles your chest and your bones, and you get so locked in there’s a wave of tingles and that’s just from people cheering you on and wanting you to win.”
“I wasn’t here last year (he was with Edmonton), but that atmosphere for the ’21 West Final was electric,” added receiver Kenny Lawler. “No matter what happened, we had the fans on our side. If I remember, we had five turnovers in the first half and one in the second half.”
“But our fans didn’t go quiet. They were rolling with us no matter what and helped keep that energy in the stadium. Homefield advantage is everything. In Winnipeg you need to have a certain type of grit to play, especially at this time of year.”
Winnipeg led the CFL in attendance in each of the last two years – a first in franchise history – and were 8-1 at home this year, with the lone loss the 30-6 spanking the Lions administered back in June. The seven wins after that have all been by double digits, with an average margin of victory a whopping 18.3 points.
The homefield advantage – call it home-ice advantage in the last two West Finals – also potentially provides a mental and physical edge. The Blue Bombers practice in these conditions every day and a team naturally becomes hardened by it.
“This is what we practice and play in every day,” said safety Brandon Alexander. “It has been kinder to us during the season because we have seen some earlier winters in the past. But right now, this is normal weather for us. That is part of our advantage.
“But really, our biggest advantage is the guys in our locker room and how hard we work.”