Bombers bare arms, brace for frigid battle
How cold was it as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers got on the field to prepare for the CFL West Division semifinal in Calgary, Sunday?
The old Tonight Show joke would have conjured up visions of a robin defrosting his worm, or something to that effect.
The images from Wednesday weren’t quite as whimsical.
Among them: Defensive end Willie Jefferson, one of the few who practised with bare arms, tried to warm himself in the body of a sweatshirt, quarterback Zach Collaros met the media cradling a cup of hot chocolate and head coach Mike O’Shea didn’t wear shorts.
“It was freezing,” Jefferson said. “Anything I can do to get acclimated as much as possible. The weather isn’t really the main thing on our minds. We’re gonna have heaters and we’re gonna have stuff that helps us get ready for the game.
“The biggest things is just being mentally prepared and being aware of what Calgary’s trying to bring to the game.”
It was -8C with a windchill of -17C when practice started at noon, and that’s as warm as it got. The forecast for game day in Calgary is even cooler, a high of -12, with snow.
That might favour the team that dominated the CFL along the ground this season (Winnipeg), over one of the best passers in league history (Calgary’s Bo-Levi Mitchell).
“Cold weather is one thing,” Bombers running back Andrew Harris said. “You can obviously tell people don’t want to get hit as much in the cold weather. If there’s snow and the traction’s a little bit different, obviously as a ball carrier you know where you want to go, and the defence is trying to guess and react to you. That usually plays as an advantage in those cold weather, slick games.”
While Harris typically takes more hits than he delivers, defensive players have been known to break into grins when the mercury dips below the freezing mark.
Isn’t that right, Adam Bighill?
“Always being the hammer, I don’t know how they feel as the nail,” the middle linebacker said. “I guess I’ll leave it at that.”
Winter’s sudden appearance will no doubt send shivers through some of the newer American players.
It was certainly a shock to the system of Georgia-born defensive back Marcus Sayles last year, his first in Canada, when the Bombers played the West semifinal in frozen Regina, beating the Riders.
“I’ve adapted to it and it doesn’t faze me as much as last year,” Sayles said. “Last year was pretty bad.”
For Canadians like special-teamer Mike Miller, another who was baring arms in practice, it was just another Wednesday.
“I fumbled one time in high school with sleeves on,” Miller explained. “I haven’t worn them since.”
The New Brunswick product says playing in this weather is about mind over matter.
“That’s kind of what we’ll be running into for the rest of the season,” Miller said. “So try to practise like that and then hopefully we’ll be ready for the game. It’s a mentality.”
If your last name is O’Shea, you wear that mentality like your favourite T-shirt.
I recall the head coach’s son, Michael, after playing in a frigid (-16C) high-school championship game on the same field two years ago, looked me straight in the eye and said, “What’s cold?”
That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“I don’t think they even noticed,” O’Shea said of his own team. “It’s playoff weather. We’d much rather be out there than not.”
Easy to say for an ex-linebacker.
Harder to do for a quarterback who actually touches the ball, and has to feel it to throw it accurately.
“I felt OK out there,” Collaros said. “We’ll see as the week goes on, but the league usually does a pretty good job with the footballs and our equipment staff does a good job of making them easily gripable, so hopefully it can stay that way.
“We’ve got the hand warmers and you’re moving around a lot. So as long as I don’t just stand there with my hand out like this the whole time I should be all right.”
Hot chocolate on the sidelines, anyone?
BEHIND THE SCENES
The Bombers may have been technically off since their last game on Oct. 25, but that doesn’t mean they all hit the couch and put their feet up for 10 straight days.
“We’ve just been able to get in the film room,” Sayles said. “We’re watching the Calgary-BC game, and seeing the things they did right and some of the things they did wrong, and just cater it to us and how we run our defence. And been staying in the weight room.”
They might even have snuck out to the field once or twice.
“It was really just some walk-through stuff. Nothing serious,” Sayles said. “Our coaches just make sure we stay ready physically, and then mentally in the film room. No rust.”
NO STRANGERS TO CLOSE GAMES
It’ll be Winnipeg’s third meeting in a row with the Stampeders, after a home-and-home series to close out the regular campaign.
The home team won all three of their meetings this season, the average margin of victory just 2.3 points.
“It’s been good battles, all three games,” Miller said. “They’ve been tight, so we’re expecting the same thing.”
Based on Day 1 of practice, the Bombers might make just one lineup change from their regular-season finale.
Centre Michael Couture left that game early, and Cody Speller was still in his spot on Wednesday.
As usual, O’Shea revealed nothing about his roster plans.