January 29, 2024

“We’re trying to maintain the culture and the standard that’s set”

There was a clear and obvious joyful tone in Chris Kolankowski’s voice. And maybe a hint of relief, too.

Kolankowski and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers officially agreed on a new two-year contract on Monday, meaning the veteran centre will remain at the heart of the offensive line through the 2025 Grey Cup game at Princess Auto Stadium.

And that provides some clarity at a critical time in his career and in his life, what with he and his wife Rianna recently welcoming daughter Delilah into the world just over three weeks ago, on January 7th.

“Everything’s great. It’s been a good month – and especially now that this contract is done,” Kolankowski said with a chuckle in a chat with from his offseason home in Toronto. “Knowing where I’m going now is great, especially since this is where I wanted to end up all along. We have some security now on where we’re going to be for the next 24 months.”

Kolankowski agreed to his new deal just a few days before the CFL’s free agent negotiating window opens on the weekend. His agent Fred Weinrauch had done some leg work gauging potential interest around the league, all the while knowing where his client wanted to land.

“At the end of the day, he knew I wanted to be back in Winnipeg,” Kolankowski said. “The coaches knew that. My teammates knew that. Then it was just about finding a deal that was fair for both sides. That was my goal here – getting back to Winnipeg.”

“We thought about some ‘What if?’ scenarios, but we didn’t really have to go there. I wasn’t really searching to see what was out there. I know when I’m in Winnipeg I enjoy playing football. I enjoy going to work. I like the way Marty (Costello, offensive line coach) runs the O-line room and that’s a big part of it for me because it’s in line with the way I like to work.

“It’s compatibility all the way around, from the locker room to the meeting room, all of that was part of me wanting to be back in Winnipeg.”

There are a lot of layers to Kolankowski’s story that make it so compelling. Drafted by the Toronto Argonauts in the sixth round in 2016, the York University product suited up for 22 games over the ’17 and ’18 seasons before being released and added by the Blue Bombers.

And that’s when the real work began for a player who didn’t give up on himself and had so many encouraging him to keep grinding. He dressed for the Grey Cup win in 2021 and stepped in with his first run of consecutive starts for an injured Michael Couture in 2022 before becoming the club’s starting centre last season.

“This is the team that really gave me a chance,” he said. “I had some time in Toronto and it was great. But it’s a little different in Winnipeg. I always felt the coaches believed in me. Even in ’21 and coming off a year off (with no football in 2020) that’s when they put me on the practice roster. Osh (head coach Mike O’Shea) said they don’t usually like to put veterans on the practice roster, but he felt it was going to take some time with me. That meeting with Osh and Kyle (Walters, GM) and with Marty coaching me hard from the very beginning was part of them believing in me and that I could get to where I needed to be to contribute. That means a lot. Just knowing I have people in my corner in that organization means a lot.”

“I also don’t want to downplay the support I’ve had through all this from ex-teammates, teammates, coaches, my family and my wife Rianna. Sure, the workouts were on my own and there were times I wondered whether it was worth it to keep going, but those people around me pushed me. They kept telling me, ‘It’s not time to quit yet.’ That reassurance helped me get through the harder days.”

Kolankowski’s return comes following the signings of left tackle Stanley Bryant and right guard Pat Neufeld, both of whom were also pending free agents. Still inching toward free agency are left guard Geoff Gray and right tackle Jermarcus Hardrick, with Liam Dobson, Tui Eli and Drew Richmond all under contract. That familiarity, plus the environment Costello has created with a veteran group of linemen, were all key in Kolankowski’s return.

“We know what it takes,” Kolankowski explained. “We’re not trying to build a culture that understands it, we’re trying to maintain the culture and the standard that’s set and inch a little higher every week, every year.

“As a veteran player I enjoy playing with vets and then we bring in new faces every year and show them the way. That’s something that was started before I got to Winnipeg and I’m just trying to help maintain that. It’s a lot of work, but with it’s very clear what the standard is — with FIFO we all know.”