I won’t lie. Through my role with the CFL and through my career I’ve had the opportunity for a handful of very cool, exclusive one-on-one interviews.
Before he was Metta World Peace, Ron Artest once told me in a meeting room at the 4 Seasons in Beverly Hills that he would consider playing in the CFL after he retired from basketball (this, of course, never came to fruition). I’ve spoken with an NBA All-Star and a CFL MOP in barber shops. I’ve sat in hipster cafes with a quarterback that sounded like a philosopher and I’ve had lunch with a defensive end that at 23 made me jealous of how together he had his life.
But I’ve never had an exclusive like this one before.
As my flight was touching down in my hometown of Fort McMurray yesterday, I glanced out the window, through the clouds I caught a glimpse of a strange red light. The light cut in and out of focus as the clouds thinned on our descent. I looked around to the people on the flight with me, and no one seemed interested in what was outside except me. I thought of that old Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It was like that, minus the fear that a poorly-costumed gremlin was standing on the wing, intent on crashing the plane.
The guy next to me was sound asleep, so I leaned across him to get a better look at what was out there. We emerged from the clouds and the moment was just that, a split second of perfect clarity. There was no disputing what I saw, even if I couldn’t believe it: Fat man, sleigh, a string of flying reindeer. Then came the moment that changed my life.
In that split second, Santa’s icy blue eyes locked with mine, with a gaze so intense that he could make the Night King blink in a staredown.
Then he went into some kind of North Pole hyperdrive and vanished.
I walked into the terminal at the airport wondering if I’d seen what I thought I did. My family was waiting for me and they helped to take my mind off of what I thought might have happened. But for the rest of the day I felt like I was seeing and just missing things out of the corner of my eye. That night, after watching the Raptors game with my nephew and catching up with my parents and…maybe putting away about half a bottle of wine, I went to bed.
The pitch black of the room was quickly interrupted by a red flickering light and a rattling at the window. Before I could say anything, the unmistakable silhouette of Santa Claus was in front of me, the icy gaze much softer this time.
“Chris,” the jolliest man in the world said to me, “we have to talk. Turn your recorder on.”
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that a guy who lives at the North Pole is a CFL fan. Saint Nick goes way back, having seen all 106 Grey Cups played. He’s a magical, global teleporting fountain of CFL history and knowledge — as his reindeer have come and gone, he currently calls one Spaghetti Legs, in honour of Jackie Parker — who in the non-holiday season keeps his elves in shape by running a 12-man, three-down league in the backyard of his workshop.
At 1,748 years old he complains about back and knee pain and yearns for the days when he was an unstoppable offensive lineman. But he didn’t fly to my parents’ place to tell me about his football accolades. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript from what I can only assume will be the most exclusive one-on-one I’ll ever get.
Santa Claus: Is it on? You’re all set up? Do I need to get you a new iPhone for Christmas?
Chris O’Leary: Yeah, I’m good. I mean, I won’t say no to that but I don’t need one. You scared the crap out of me today. And tonight! What’s going on?
SC: Sorry about that. The intel on your location came in later than I would have hoped. I had to work quickly.
CO: Did you see through my soul with that zombie stare?
SC: I already have a pretty good gauge on people’s souls. And that stare was nothing. It can get a lot scarier if it needs to.
CO: So what’s on your mind? This is a busy time of the year for you.
SC: I lost one of my top elves and football fans this year to a job opportunity on Vancouver Island. She was never cut out for the cold. We should have seen it coming, really. But a key part of my pre-Christmas Eve prep is just talking football and I’m a big traditionalist. I need to take care of this before my big night.
CO: I’ve got nothing but time right now. What do you think will happen in free agency? Can you…have any impact on that?
SC: I’m a wish granter and deliverer. I can’t impact free will. I have two thoughts on free agency that sound contradictory. I think it’ll be big at the top, but not as big across the league as people think it might be.
CO: What do you mean by that?
SC: I think we’ll see a couple of substantial moves, but for the most part players will want to stay where they are. I think Bo Levi Mitchell will be on an NFL roster by springtime and I think…Mike Reilly will find a new home in BC.
CO: Those qualify as two big changes. What about this past season stands out to you the most?
SC: That we should all take Ottawa more seriously. They were up and down throughout the year but they won 11 games and played in their third Grey Cup in four years. They have a lot of big names to re-sign but I think the core of that team realizes what they’ve got and the position they’re in there. This should be a really good team for a long time. And as a team they celebrate better than anyone else in the league.
CO: Do you have a favourite player?
SC: I’m a sucker for the bigger-boned players. Beards go a long way with me. Players that can handle the cold, too. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Jon Gott is permanently on my nice list after the things he did this year. Masterful operation of a snow plow, downed a cold one like a pro and kept playing. Marcus Thigpen practises in those cold Regina winters with his arms exposed. That sealed the deal for me with him.
CO: Any least favourites?
SC: He’s not a player, but I’ll tell you one guy I don’t like and that’s Nanook, the mascot in Edmonton. I’ve lived a long, long life and that’s in spite of a lot of polar bears. I have a lot of elves over the years that can’t say the same. I don’t trust any animal that camouflages in too well to its surroundings.
CO: Everyone’s wondering about the CBA expiring this year and how long it’ll take to get a new deal done. If I ask Santa for a new deal will that work?
SC: It won’t. I can’t forge deals, I can’t bring people together, I can’t build homes for people. Miracle on 34th Street is a great movie, but I’ve spent 71 years dealing with a false perception of my limits that it put out into the mainstream. But here’s a fun fact from that movie. The guy who plays the judge in Kris Kringle’s trial, Gene Lockhart, is a Canadian. And he played for the Argos.
But regarding the CBA, I want things to be resolved quickly. I want to enjoy free agency and watch all of the teams go smoothly into training camp without stress. One thing I can do is deliver a few different drafts of a new deal that I’ve drawn up to the appropriate people’s chimneys. Is that an abuse of my power? Maybe a smidgen, but guess what? I write the naughty list and I don’t see my name on it.
CO: That last part seems like a much worse abuse of your power. Do you report to anyone? An elf commission of some sort? Your eyes are taking on that icy look again. Maybe I’ve asked too many questions.
SC: You’re treading a fine line, let’s agree on that and wrap this up. I’m ready to get to work on Monday night now.
CO: This is a side of you that I didn’t think existed. Still, it was cool to meet you, Santa. We’ll leave milk and Jam Jams out for you on Monday night, just like every year.
SC: Those Jam Jams are unbelievable and they’ve kept your family on the nice list for decades.