By Murray McCormick,
Mike Abou-Mechrek is looking forward to running into some old buddies over the Labour Day weekend.
The veteran Saskatchewan Roughriders guard is preparing to play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Sunday’s Labour Day Classic at Mosaic Stadium. Abou-Mechrek spent five seasons with the Blue Bombers before signing with the Roughriders as a free agent on Feb. 16.
“I signed with the Roughriders and that afternoon I circled Labour Day and the Banjo Bowl on my calendar,” Abou-Mechrek said Wednesday. “I spent five years there and I’m looking forward to being on the side of all these crazy people.”
The Labour Day Classic has taken on additional meaning with strong performances by the Roughriders and the Blue Bomber. The Roughriders are 6-2-0 and are in first place in the West Division for the first time since 1976. The Blue Bombers (5-2-1) lead the East Division, which has set up the first meeting between division-leading Roughriders and Blue Bombers in recent memory.
“Being in first place at Labour Day doesn’t matter,” said Abou-Mechrek, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound native of Toronto. “It’s my ninth year in the CFL and I want to win the Grey Cup. We’re 6-2 now but every CFL fan knows that the season starts on Labour Day. We have a two-game preseason for the coaches to evaluate. The eight games are the players’ preseason. The season starts this weekend and this is Game 1 of the stretch drive.”
Abou-Mechrek started his CFL career with the Blue Bombers in 1999. He was selected in the 2002 expansion draft by the since defunct Ottawa Renegades. Abou-Mechrek re-signed with Winnipeg in 2005.
He has a lot of company on the Riders when it comes to former Blue Bombers. The Riders’ roster features Abou-Mechrek, Marc Parenteau, Jamie Boreham, Val St. Germain, Jermese Jones and Henri Childs. Assistant coaches Mike Gibson and Paul LaPolice both worked for the Bombers. Riders head coach Kent Austin finished his playing career as a Bomber in 1996.
“You can’t talk to coach Gibson without him yelling at you,” Abou-Mechrek said. “He’s fired up and everyone else is. They basically said that they didn’t want us and that we could play with their biggest rival. They didn’t care. They just wanted us out of there.
“If you don’t hold some sort of animosity to those guys … You’re not a man and you don’t have blood flowing through your veins. Playing your old team is like Christmas.”
Doug Brown, the Blue Bombers veteran defensive tackle, was more diplomatic when asked about playing a team that is loaded with former Blue Bombers. Winnipeg has seven former Roughriders on its roster.
“It’s the game in the CFL because with only eight teams, you pretty well know all of the guys anyway,” Brown said from Winnipeg. “Still, having all of those Bombers over there makes it a lot more fun because you want to have all of the bragging rights.”
Abou-Mechrek has many memories of playing in the Labour Day Classic. The antics of the fans, their language and the support of the Roughriders stand out.
“I also remember (Winnipeg placekicker) Troy Westwood sucking all of the time,” Abou-Mechrek said. “Even if he plays, he’s probably going to suck and that gives us an edge.
“Other than him sucking all of the time? Just sit on the visitors’ bench for five minutes on a Labour Day game and you’ll learn what being a Roughriders fan is all about.
“They can cut you and you hear every single cuss word in the dictionary. I had a six-year-old girl telling me where to go last year. I wondered where she learned language like that. That’s the beauty of these fans and I’m continually surprised by how great they are.”