March 19, 2024

“I can just remember being so excited to be there. It was awesome”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea, general manager Kyle Walters, assistant GM Ted Goveia and defensive backs coach Jordan Younger during the CFL combine at the Varsity Stadium in Toronto, ON, Sunday, March 24, 2019. (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL)

Mike O’Shea and Kyle Walters remember the cheeseburgers and bunking at the Viscount Gort Hotel. There were the bus rides to and from the Golf Dome on Wilkes Avenue, perhaps a side excursion to the infamous Palomino Club, and the experience of having eyes from every Canadian Football League team on their every move.

More than that though, the two men now at the top of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football operations department recall the overall experiences of two of the CFL’s first evaluation camps – the precursor to this week’s CFL National Combine – O’Shea’s coming in his draft year of 1993, Walters three springs later in 1996. Both were held here in Winnipeg, as is this year’s event.

“I can just remember being so excited to be there. It was awesome,” said O’Shea in a chat with during a break from CFL meetings at the Fort Garry Hotel. “What was special was the camaraderie of our group. It was fun to go out as an entire group. It was fun to compete. It was fun to get to know the guys and be around them. It was fun to talk about the games we played against each other.

“You couldn’t fly out of Winnipeg at night after the combine, so we stayed that extra night. I remember the whole group – all but two guys – all went out afterward en masse. I won’t say their names, but I remember a couple of guys saying, ‘OK, we’re all going out and doing this.’ They were the leaders. It was guys from the east coast, the west coach, the Prairies, the NCAA and there were certain guys going around saying, ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re all in.’ And it was a fabulous time.”

O’Shea, a Canadian Football League Hall of Famer for his work during his playing days, was selected fourth overall in ’93 by Edmonton and then traded to Hamilton, where he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie.

Walters – a teammate of O’Shea’s for a season at the University of Guelph – was selected in the second round, 10th overall, by the Tiger-Cats in ‘96 and three years later was part of the last Grey Cup championship team from Hamilton.

“I was just so excited. That was the first time I had been on a plane,” said Walters of his evaluation camp in Winnipeg. “I didn’t know any different and it was better than the facilities we had at Guelph. You couldn’t run anywhere indoors at that time.

“It was quick. We were in and out. We got bussed to the Golf Dome, we were in and out. I remember Mike Kelly (then the Blue Bombers offensive coordinator) was the guy who met everybody at the Golf Dome, and he was handing out hamburgers as you came through the door going to test. That was your meal and that was your welcome to the combine.

“Most of all it was just a big deal going from Guelph to the National Combine and then discovering, ‘OK, I can compete with these guys.’ I ran as fast as anybody and competed.”

Both Walters and O’Shea believe their experiences going through the combine and the draft and then playing and coaching in the CFL has given them a unique perspective on the whole event, from the pressures of the testing and on-field drills to the nerves that come from the one-on-one interviews teams conduct with select prospects.

“That was a big moment in all of our lives and then you go through the draft and that’s another big moment,” O’Shea said. “Then you’re playing in your rookie season and you’re seeing all these guys that were at the Eval Camp – that’s what they called it then – that you had gone through all of this with AND had a great night with afterward where you’re blowing off steam. You’re living really clean to get ready for the event and then you’re having a couple beers afterward as a bit of stress release.

“There were these relationships that were formed. You’d see these guys later in the season and you’d be asking how it was going or ‘What’s your team like?’ It was such a fabulous experience. Every single time we do this I hope that young guys here have the same experience I had because I thought it was fabulous. The overall experience is something I can’t ever forget and it’s all positive. It wasn’t about the partying – I may joke about going to the Pal – but it was the experience. We could have been anywhere together.

“There’s a bunch of guys I know and a bunch I don’t keep in touch with today,” O’Shea added. “But I can picture them, and I know if I ran into them tomorrow it would be like, ‘Heyyy… remember when…’ and it would be just like yesterday.”

The event is also light years from those first few eval camps at the Golf Dome and that’s a tip of the hat to how the CFL has evolved the Combine over the last couple of decades. The facilities are better. The hotel amenities, transportation, testing and timing is all superior, too.

“It’s so professional now from the moment you walk in and seeing the ‘CFL Combine’ banner, to getting your credentials and the ladies in there being so professional and organized,” said Walters. “The hotel here is great. Plus, when we get to the soccer complex (Winnipeg Soccer Federation North, where the majority of testing and on-field work is being held) from a Winnipeg perspective we should be proud of the facilities we have here, and this is a beautiful hotel. This will be the best (combine) I recall in terms of facilities and the environment for the players out there running around. Most of all, this whole experience should make the players feel important.”