O’Leary: A Q&A with Commissioner Randy Ambrosie

In a year that has been about adjustments and compromise, about making the most of an unforeseen situation, Randy Ambrosie wants optimism to shine through this week.

He’s no different than the rest of us. The commissioner of the CFL realizes that on Sunday night, he would have presented the East or the West Division champions their trophy. He realizes that on Monday, today, he’d be settling into his hotel room in Regina for a week of appearances, of time spent with league partners, with fans and at the end of it, would have presented the winning team with the 108th Grey Cup.

Of course, we’re in a much different reality than the one we’d hoped for when we went into Grey Cup week a year ago. Grey Cup Unite, which kicks off today, is how the CFL is making the most of this week, providing fans a safe way to try to rekindle the atmosphere of a Grey Cup week and to reconnect with one another, despite the distance between all of us this year.

“I’m excited about the week and obviously, that excitement comes with a bit of a reminder that we’re not playing,” Ambrosie said.

“I want fans to feel that amazing connection to the CFL that is so important to millions of fans from across the country in every corner. I want them to have this moment to remind everybody what it is we love and why we love it so much. Even though we miss it, (we can) use this as a jumping off point to the future and one that will get our league back up playing, get our players back on the field and get our fans back in the stadiums.”

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The words “back up and playing” should excite everyone. The coming year remains unpredictable, but Ambrosie is buoyed by the recent news of vaccines that have tested 94.5 and 90 per cent effective. He’s studying the progress that other sports leagues are making in the face of the pandemic and is encouraged by what they’re doing in regards to working with local health authorities.

“I work with and I’m surrounded by people of great optimism,” he said.

“Of course, we still don’t know what path this pandemic will take. Although, even as I say that, I’m reminded that talking with all kinds of experts, there is reason to feel good about ’21. There is reason to believe that there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

“You have to take into account that we don’t know, but we are going to remain steadfast in our commitment to do everything we can to to be back on the field. And I think that’s the part that I’m enjoying. I’m enjoying working with people who are natural born optimists and who are all committed to doing our best to finding our way through the crisis.”

In a lengthy conversation, Ambrosie hit on many of the key issues that fans have been wondering about in regards to next season. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris O’Leary: Through this year you’ve mentioned the unknown with the pandemic and how quickly things can change with it. How does that play into planning for 2021? I imagine there are many different possibilities of bubbles and fans in stadiums and the normal that we’re used to and probably everything in between that. How do you see 2021 looking right now?

Randy Ambrosie: Well, I think we’re going to play football. At its core, that’s what I think. I think we’re going to play football. I think we’re going to find a way to play. I think we’re going to find a way to get fans back in our stadiums enjoying the game they love. I think we’re going to get our broadcast partner back televising games.

It’s too early to know exactly how it’s going to play out but we’re building a schedule and we’ll have a schedule shortly after we launch Grey Cup Unite this week. Why? Because we think we think we’re going to play and we want to play and we’re confident that we’ll find a way back onto the field.

CO: How important do you think it is for fans to see a schedule, giving them something tangible to think about for the future? In terms of generating hope and optimism I’d think that would go a long way.

RA: The goal is to allow all of us to feel that way. The goal is to have this week, Grey Cup Unite and get a schedule out because we know that sports fans and football fans and CFL fans want to see us play. So we’re going to do everything that we normally do. We’re going to act and behave like a league that is bound and determined to play because there are players counting on us, there are sponsors and partners counting on us and we have a responsibility to all of them.

That’s the way we’re going to approach it, is just eyes wide open but with our foot on the gas. We’re going to come back and resume this path we’ve been on to make our league bigger and stronger and recognize that we’ve got a great place in the world of football.

CO: I’ve watched a lot of Saturday Night Live this fall and they’ve done some interesting things with rapid-testing a reduced audience and having them in-studio. Does their success with that give you hope for possibilities for sports?

RA: It’s really all of the advancements and the developments in the health industry. It’s testing, it’s the news we’ve had in the last number of days on a vaccine. That gives us reason to feel good. I think it’s all part of the story that there are lots of things that are happening, lots of things that are developing that will lead us to get back to playing again.

CO: Do you feel confident that you’ll have the support of all nine teams on returning to action?

RA: Every team’s got its own circumstances but for me, it all starts by working with a group of governors who are all in their own right just such amazing people who want great things for our league. I’m confident that in the end we’re all going to come together as we have to do and need to do, but it’s all it’s largely on the strength of just the fact that we all share the same goals. We want our league to get back on the field in ’21 and that’s the tie that binds.

CO: When we’re talking about next season, where do you see the global players fitting in? This was one of the first problems that came up in March when the pandemic really took off. Do you see them fitting into the plans for the future?

RA: We’ve got a business plan that we’ll be presenting to the (board of) governors on November 30. It includes our aspirations in the global area and for me they haven’t changed but I do acknowledge and I think we all should, that we might have to at times intensify our efforts to advance on our global initiatives and in some cases just stay where we are today. We’re talking about it. I still have a good feeling for it being an important part of our long-term strategy, but obviously, the pandemic has changed a lot of things and we have to be eyes wide open.

What hasn’t changed for me is I’ve had a chance to get to know the football community around the world. My passion for them is incredibly high. My desire and willingness to work with them to build a global football community is as high as it’s ever been. Personally, I want to remain committed — for the CFL and for football in Canada — to play a leading role in the development of football around the world and then using that place as a leader in global football to help us grow our game and make the CFL bigger and stronger.

CO: We heard a lot this spring and summer while the league was attempting to put the season together that the collective bargaining agreement would have to be re-negotiated. Will you have to put a new CBA together with the players’ association to carry out next season?

RA: There were very constructive discussions with the players and of course, we ended up having to cancel the season. But there is no doubt in my mind that there is a path for us with our Players’ Association partners to a better future together. I have to, and I am today and I have to and will always remain convinced that there’s a way to do more with our players and to find a way to build a better and stronger league, one where everyone can benefit.

I saw good things from that relationship with our Players’ Association through this spring and summer. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think we had a good spirit and a good attitude and I think that when presented with the opportunity to play in ’21, I think we’ll come together again and that’ll be good for everyone and especially good for our players.

CO: Talk of the Schooners group bringing the 10th team into the league trailed off when the pandemic hit. Where are we with the Schooners?

RA: The ownership group of Schooner Sports and Entertainment, Gary Drummond and Anthony LeBlanc and their partners are as engaged as ever. They want to get back to the table. They feel so strongly that this isn’t just about football, it’s not just about the 10th team. It’s about getting a stadium built and a stadium that ultimately can create hundreds if not thousands of jobs in the region. A stadium that could become a legacy for events and opportunities for Atlantic Canada to showcase its amazing beauty and the amazing people.

I’ve been so impressed by the attitude and the mindset of that ownership group. This is more than a CFL football team. It’s a whole idea about how they can play a role in helping the people of Atlantic Canada to create a facility that will play a big role in their community for decades to come. I’ll tell you, they haven’t backed down one iota and I still believe it is a tremendous opportunity for the CFL.

Randy Ambrosie sees the 2021 Grey Cup as a tremendous opportunity to showcase the city of Hamilton and for fans across the country to reunite (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CO: I’ve heard you speak about this over the last few months, but given where we are now, talking about getting back on the field, what do you think Grey Cup week in Hamilton could look like next year? That could be a big moment for the CFL but also just for sports fans in Canada, who would have a chance to get together and celebrate the game and each other after going through all of this.

RA: I think it’s a remarkable opportunity. First of all, the story in Hamilton, what what Bob Young has done working with that community and Scott Mitchell and Matt Afinec and what they’ve all done to build that franchise and the way it’s integrated in the community.

I know Hamiltonians and people from this entire region are looking forward to showing off just how much has happened. Tim Hortons Field is just an example of what has happened in Hamilton and in the surrounding area. The community has got a vibrancy that is quite remarkable, so I think it’s a great place to go.

I do believe that when we get through this pandemic, Canadians and CFL fans are going to want to come to Hamilton. It will be like a great party to celebrate the fact that together, we found a way to work our way through this and come out the other side. I think it’s going to be an amazing Grey Cup and I think Hamilton is a great city to host it and the Ticats are a great team to host it.

I can’t wait for CFL fans to get a chance to see Hamilton the way I see it. It’s this remarkable community that is going through a great renaissance and I think that people are going to come and see how incredible a community Hamilton really is.

CO: Lastly, you spent a chunk of your playing career in Edmonton. You got to spend time around Joey Moss when you were a player and I’m sure you saw him in your trips to Edmonton as the commissioner. What are your favourite memories of Joey?

RA: When I heard the news that Joey had passed, I could just remember so vividly what it was like to have Joey in the locker room. For me, it kind of starts with Dwayne Mandrusiak and the way Dwayne treated Joey. Joey was like another son to Dwayne and the players responded to Joey in such a remarkable way.

Joey liked to horse around and he was just a part of the locker room and he was part of the family. Joey, he would give it to you. You’d give Joey a hard time and Joey would give it right back. I just remember that smile that Joey brought to everyone’s face because he fit in so well. He made the locker room a better place. He made playing in Edmonton a special part of the story. He’ll always be remembered for the impact he had on all of us.

I’ll always remember the way I saw the best of the best of the players. The best of their humanity came out when Joey was around. That’s a great reminder about the potential we all have in us to be the best version of ourselves. Joey just seemed to be somebody that brought out the best version of everyone that was around them.

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