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May 31, 2021

Steinberg’s MMQB: Optimism growing with June on the horizon

Matt Smith/CFL.ca

As we sit here on the final day of May, I’m feeling more optimistic than I have at any point since, well, March 2020. As a nation, we’re approaching 24 million vaccine doses administered and coast-to-coast provinces are announcing guidelines for a return to normal this summer. That wouldn’t be complete without the Canadian Football League.

With the regular caveat of nothing being guaranteed, seeing CFL football in the near future feels more real than it has in more than 14 months. As such, we have tangible targets to look forward to in the coming weeks. We’re expecting one of them very soon.

“We’ve committed to our governors to present them with a (schedule) matrix around the middle of June,” commissioner Randy Ambrosie told me in late April. “(It will) clearly explain what’s going to have to happen in each market to make a season happen. Frankly, I am confident that we’ll deliver something very positive.”

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If all goes according to plan, we could have a 14-game schedule to sink our teeth into in the next few weeks. Knowing this will be an unprecedented campaign, I’m fascinated to see what that schedule looks like.

What do the typical Labour Day weekend matchups look like? We’ve become accustomed to annual home-and-home sets between Calgary and Edmonton, Toronto and Hamilton, and Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. But that’s in a typical 18-game schedule. Does that carry over when talking about 14 games?

What does the balance look like for each team inside and outside of their division? How creative will schedule makers have to get fitting 14 games into a condensed period of time? Will we have more games on non-traditional nights like Tuesday and Wednesday to facilitate? I know none of these answers, but can’t wait find out.

From there, we’d be talking about around mid-July for the start of training camp. While nothing is official at this point and the league has yet to comment, there have been outside suggestions a 2021 schedule wouldn’t include a pre-season. It would be understandable if so, and would put that much more importance on camp.

Regardless of pre-season games, this year’s training camp is set to present fascinating challenges to coaching staff’s across the league. The vast majority of players haven’t taken a snap in live action since November 2019. As such, camps will have to be high paced and competitive but balanced with getting players back up to speed after an extended layoff. In reality, this is the longest most guys have been away from football since they started playing.

And just like that we’ll be at a targeted August 5th start date, which is just over nine weeks away. I don’t know about you, but time seems to be passing so much faster these days compared to how it crawled along for so, so long. It won’t surprise me if these nine weeks pass in the blink of an eye.

Of course there are still conditions that need to be met for any of this to happen. The league needs to get six different provinces to approve health and safety protocols. All of that has been discussed for quite some time and that continues to be the case behind the scenes.

There’s also the issue of attendance at nine CFL stadiums. When the league announced its Return to Play plan in April, it was contingent on a “significant number of fans in the stands in a significant number of venues at the start of the season, and in the rest of our venues soon after that.” That also seems more realistic now than it has at any point prior.

“We most certainly do want people to get into Mosaic here this summer,” said Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe earlier this month. BC premier John Horgan called an August 5th start date “achievable” when chatting with Donnie & Dhali last week and said he’s “pretty confident” fans will be allowed in the stands at some point.

On Wednesday, Alberta premier Jason Kenney unveiled the province’s reopening plan and it included the most optimistic outlook yet. Phase three is a lifting of “all remaining public health restrictions” two weeks after the province hits a 70% vaccine threshold. Alberta went over 62% on Sunday, which means that phase could be triggered in late June or early July.

“As long as we hit these targets, it would be full capacity,” Kenney said when asked about the prospect of fans at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium. One could safely assume the same would apply to Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

Finally, an agreement needs to be reached between the league and the CFL Players’ Association, which seems on track. Crucially, the league and CFLPA have been engaged in discussions dating back to February. Ongoing dialogue like that is vital when tackling an undertaking like this Return to Play and indications suggest things are progressing positively.

Much still has to happen for us to be back enjoying CFL football again this summer. By no means am I suggesting every hurdle has been cleared, because that would be naïve. But knowing where things have been at different stages since March of last year, seeing so many things moving in the right direction is incredibly encouraging.

This past winter was so difficult for so many in this country. The beginning of spring saw the world improving while snow melted. With May, and spring, nearing an end, optimism is surging with the official start to summer just weeks away. That includes a growing confidence in the CFL’s ability to execute a planned 2021 season.

Optimism feels nice.

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