May 5, 2023

O’Leary: 2023’s must-watch games come into focus

Thomas Skrlj/

There’s a tiny caveat that comes with the CFL schedule being released as early as it is.

Of course, it’s great overall when you see the coming season land in front of you before the calendar year is over. It lets you at the very least start making plans around games and maybe nudges a few on-the-fence season ticket holders to take the plunge and commit for the coming season.

The caveat here is the uncertainty that comes with the schedule unveiling. You see in December that the BC Lions will open the season in Calgary against the Stamps on June 8, but you don’t really know then what the roster might look like for either team. Between free agency, the CFL Draft and general off-season roster turnover, it’s hard to envision what any team might look like come early June.

We’re finally in a place where that picture is becoming very, very clear. We had the Global Draft and National Draft on Tuesday night and are less than a week out from rookies reporting to their respective training camps.

Now that we have some 20-20 football vision, this really is the perfect time for single-game tickets to go on sale.

When you look through the schedule today, the storylines are in focus and there’s more for you to be invested in. Here are a handful of games that I’m looking forward to this year, that I’d love to see in-person.

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Bo Levi Mitchell will make his Tiger-Cats debut against a tough Winnipeg Blue Bombers team (The Canadian Press)

Kickoff week in Winnipeg: Tiger-Cats at Blue Bombers, June 9, 8:30 p.m. ET

There should be plenty of interest in the Blue Bombers, as we watch the team that’s dominated the league over the last four years lick its wounds from Grey Cup 109 and start a new journey back to the top of the CFL mountain. Spoiler alert: that process likely won’t be acknowledged, as the team will happily jump into its day-at-a-time/week-at-a-time approach that’s allowed them to stack all those wins over the last few years. We usually start seasons with Grey Cup rematches; perhaps this year we start the season with a Grey Cup preview? The Ticats have reloaded as they prep to host the 110th Grey Cup. We get to see Bo Levi Mitchell on field in Black and Gold for the first time, against a team that everyone will be bringing their best against once again this year.


Touchdown Atlantic: Riders at Argos in Halifax, N.S., July 29, 4 p.m. ET

Having been lucky enough to have worked games in Moncton, N.B. for Touchdown Atlantic in 2019, then to go to Wolfville, N.S. last year, I’m here to tell you the obvious: the maritimes make for tremendous hosts for the CFL. Moncton embraced the event four years ago and the Acadia campus in Wolfville took on small-town U.S. college vibes for an absolute scorcher of a day last summer, where we saw Wynton McManis steal a win away from Cody Fajardo and the Riders with a fourth-quarter pick six.

This year, at the Saint Mary’s Campus in Halifax, we’ll have another intimate football setting. Both the Argos and Riders practised at this site last year, so those players returning in 2023 will have some familiarity with the venue. This will mark the first time that Halifax has hosted a regular season CFL game. If last year’s game was any indication, we’re in for a treat in 2023.


OK Tire Labour Day Weekend: Bombers at Riders, Sept. 3, 7 p.m. ET

If you can only go to one regular season CFL game a year, it has to be on Labour Day Weekend, right? I’ve seen about an equal amount of Labour Day Classics in Calgary and in Hamilton over the years, but have only been able to see the Riders host their arch-rival Bombers from the comforts of my well-worn couch. Listening to Kevin Glenn talk about the atmosphere in Regina not just for Labour Day Weekend, but the entire week leading into the game in Regina is enough to make me want to find my way onto a plane and into the stands for their Saturday classic.

Thanksgiving Weekend presented by Purolator: REDBLACKS at Alouettes, Oct. 9, 1 p.m. ET

The REDBLACKS and Alouettes is still a rivalry in the making — and who knows where it could go this year — but this choice is an atmosphere-driven one for me.

I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating. If, like me you’re from the prairies, you know that the weather isn’t always on your side around Thanksgiving. Snow is never out of the question and even if you can still see the grass, it can already be uncomfortably cold out. That’s not often the case in Montreal around Thanksgiving. If you need an excuse to make a weekend out of a game, find your way to Montreal. Enjoy the city, make your way out to Molson Stadium for an autumn day and a nice 1 p.m. ET kickoff. The Jeremiah Masoli-led REDBLACKS facing off against Cody Fajardo and the Alouettes should make for a fun afternoon.

Spin to win in Week 21

There are three games in the final week in the regular season. Depending on your allegiances, there could be something up for grabs in each of them.

In the West, we have the Bombers at McMahon Stadium, facing the Stamps on Friday, Oct. 27. Out East, we have a Saturday double-header that starts with the Ticats visiting the Als and then the Argos facing the REDBLACKS at TD Place. Last year was an anomaly of sorts, when the entire playoff picture came together in Week 20. Most years, that final week of the season is where playoff seeding is sorted and where some teams are already in playoff mode, battling for a final spot in the post-season.

With exactly zero games — and not even a practice under teams’ belts yet — I’ll go out on a limb and say I’d like to be in Ottawa, to see the Argos and REDBLACKS bring the 21-week marathon that is the CFL regular season to a close and take us into the playoffs.

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