Whether it’s mosquitoes, The Forks, Bachman Turner Overdrive or that iconic portrait of the Queen that used to overlook the ice at the old hockey arena, there is always something unique that comes to mind when someone mentions the city of Winnipeg. One thing that hasn’t changed over the last 90 years is the presence of their football team. And that leads us to our latest history project. The Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers have engaged in some classic battles over the years. There were two memorable Grey Cup meetings, a nasty West Division rivalry in the 80s, a crazy Lions come back in 2016 and a whole lot more.
This Friday was also slated to have the Bombers visit BC Place in what was scheduled as the Lions regular season home finale. Given how tight the division has been in recent years, we would bet this game also would have had some heavy implications on playoff positioning. We’ll just have to wait for 2021 for these crazy October matchups to continue. For now, we take a stroll down memory lane and re-visit some of our memorable history with the Bombers.
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The Grey Cups: Goal Line Heartbreak and Capping Off A Fairy Tale Turnaround
The 1988 squad had a similar path to the Grey Cup game as the Lions teams that would get back there and win it all in 1994 and 2000. With an offence led by quarterback Matt Dunigan, 1988 CFL Most Outstanding Player David Williams and speedy tailback Anthony Cherry, the squad finished third in a very tight West Division with a 10-8 record. That meant going outside to the November elements in the playoffs.
After a 42-18 rout of Saskatchewan at Taylor Field, the confident Lions rolled into Edmonton and took down the defending Grey Cup champions 37-19 to set up a meeting with the Blue Bombers at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park. Trailing 22-19 in the final minutes, the offence wasn’t going to be content with just forcing overtime.
Facing a second and goal from the Bombers’ seven-yard line, Dunigan’s pass was tipped and intercepted at the goal line by Michael Gray. The Bombers would then concede a safety to make it 22-21, but the Lions were not able to get back into field goal range before time expired. Winnipeg had their second Grey Cup win in five seasons and this meeting capped off a crazy decade of November fun between the two squads. More on the rest a little later…
And then comes the fairy tale story of 2011. No orange and black supporters will forget it anytime soon. Ironically, it was a loss at old Canad Inns Stadium in Winnipeg that dropped Travis Lulay and company to 0-5 and another setback to the Bombers at Empire Field put them at 1-6 with pretty much must-win games staring them in the face the rest of the way. They would only lose one more the entire season.
The 99th Grey Cup at newly renovated BC Place was never in much doubt once Andrew Harris got the ball rolling with a touchdown run late in the first half. Lulay then hit Kierrie Johnson and Arland Bruce III for majors in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, and the party boats were revved up. Final score, 34-23. The Lions had their sixth Grey Cup title in one of the most improbable fashions ever.
Western Rivalry With Bombers Highlights Most of the 80s
We’re sure Sergio Leone himself would have a hard-time directing or writing some of the epic Western battles between these two teams prior to that 1988 Grey Cup meeting. Prior to the original Montreal Alouettes shutting down in 1987, the Bombers were a West Division Club. And the first playoff meeting with the Lions in that memorable decade was a 15-11 BC victory in the 1981 Western Final. Few would remember it, simply because the Lions then fell to Edmonton in the division final the following week.
The meat of this rivalry came in three consecutive Western Finals at BC Place from 1983-85. The 39-21 victory in ’83 in front of 60,000 fans at the new dome was special for a lot of reasons. It was the first division final played in Vancouver since 1964, and with the Grey Cup being played at BC Place the following week it presented a great opportunity for the likes of Roy Dewalt, Merv Fernandez and a young defence led by Nick Hebeler and Rick Klassen up front.
Fernandez caught three touchdown passes- including a fourth quarter bomb to put the game out of reach- while the defence did its job in the second half to help preserve the 39-21 win. The new marshmallow-roofed dome was rockin.’
Winnipeg would get their revenge in next year’s Western Final, winning 31-14 and putting a halt on the Lions’ championship revenge tour. The Bombers beat Hamilton for the Grey Cup in Edmonton the following week.
And that brings us to 1985. One of the few seasons in Lions franchise history where you could definitely consider it “Grey Cup or bust.” The defence added James “Quick” Parker from Edmonton this previous season, and that unit had five interceptions in this suffocating 42-22 victory. Dewalt recovered from an early fumble that led to a Bombers major by passing for three touchdowns of his own. This one was also best remembered for some off-field fireworks between Lions GM Bob Ackles and Winnipeg head coach Cal Murphy when the ladder was supposedly denied a request for the use of an extra headset up in the booth. Hey, it’s not a true rivalry unless it extends to the General Managers’ box.
One week later, the Lions won that elusive second Grey Cup by taking down the Tiger-Cats 37-24 at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
We can’t talk about these teams’ playoff history without bringing up the most recent November classic. It was the 2016 Western Semi-Final at BC Place when Jonathon Jennings’ touchdown run with 1:32 left capped a brilliant fourth quarter comeback. The 32-31 thriller remains the club’s most recent playoff win. Time to get back on the November horse in 2021.
The Lions’ all-time regular season record against the Bombers is 80 wins, 90 losses and two ties. Those ties took place in 1964 and 1971, both in Winnipeg. The first game in Lions franchise history in 1954 was an 8-6 loss to the Blue Bombers at Empire Stadium. Including our inaugural season, the two teams have opened the regular season against each other 13 times. The Lions were victorious in 1968, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1994 and 2012 when Simon fittingly broke Milt Stegall’s all-time receiving record. The 1964 tie also took place in a season opener.
That 1994 season opener remains memorable for yours truly. We all know how special that season ended up being, and I was lucky to attend most of the games with various family members. The victory over Winnipeg to kick things off was cemented with a sack on Dunigan on the game’s final play and the Bombers inside the Lions’ 10-yard line. I don’t even have to look up the final score. 24-20.
There is a long, impressive list of players and coaches who have played on both sides of this rivalry. Some Winnipeg fans might still wonder ‘what if’ every time they see a Geroy Simon highlight. We mentioned Dunigan earlier. Buck Pierce was the Bombers’ starting QB in that 2011 Grey Cup. Andrew Harris moved to his hometown after the 2015 season and earned his second Grey Cup ring last November. Like we always knew he would, Adam Bighill is proving age is just a number.
Dave Ritchie and Cal Murphy are examples of head coaches who have held that title with both clubs. And of course, we are thinking about the late Richard Harris who served as Lions’ defensive line coach from 2001-04 and had the same title with Winnipeg when he collapsed and died on the practice field on July 26th, 2011. His death occurred two days before they took on the Lions in Week 5 of that 2011 season. Harris was a class act, a true football lifer. When doing more research on him, I was surprised to discover he was an original member of the Seattle Seahawks in 1976, the last stop on his seven-year NFL career as a defensive tackle.
After writing this, all I can think about is how much I can’t wait to get back to having crucial games in October.