CFL football action between the BC Lions and the Ottawa Redblacks at TD Place Stadium, in Ottawa, Ont, Canada. Saturday SEPTEMBER 21 2019 (Photo by Icon Pictures / Marc Bourget-Roch Lambert)
Springtime in Canada usually means sunshine, outdoor activities, and that CFL games are just around the corner. This year, as we all navigate a pandemic, things are much different. So, for the latest edition of Baker’s Archives, I decided to look back at my years working with the BC Lions and share my story about why I love this team and this league.
Not many people can say they have the privilege of working for one of their favourite childhood sports teams. It certainly isn’t something I imagined would happen nor is it something I now take for granted. Especially now, when the entire world, and us at the football club continue to do deal with the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Every day our team can still create content and connect with our fans, I’m reminded just how lucky I am to be able to work with such a great group of people at Lions headquarters.
Another thing that spawned the idea of writing this piece was the simple fact that under normal circumstances, we on the digital content team would be moved into the dorms at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops right now, preparing to start week two of training camp. Heck, the first pre-season game was slated for this Saturday, May 30th in Edmonton. It kind of puts this whole thing in perspective, does it not? Yet with commissioner Randy Ambrosie’s announcement this week that hope remains to have a shortened season starting in September, we can all cling to the possibility of autumn football. Hope can sometimes go a long way…
Camp Life… On Hold For Now
There is just something about the great city of Kamloops.. The scenery. The people. The accommodations we are lucky to have at Thompson Rivers University. That bright, red sky that starts peering through your bedroom blinds at about 3:30 am if you don’t cover them up with something dark.
From a personal perspective, there is nothing quite like waking up early to do a 5 K run around the track where the team normally practices twice a day for three straight weeks. I figure if the players are putting their bodies through both the physical and mental camp grind for almost a full month, I could surely wake up early and run four or five days a week, right?
I also wanted to challenge myself and get to the track earlier than Lions president Rick LeLacheur and his wife Joan, who have been known to power walk around the same track during most of their stay at TRU.
Camp itself is normally a great chance to establish new relationships with players and coaches. You spend three weeks sitting at the next table during breakfast, taking photos and videos of them during practice, interviewing them before they see the trainers, standing behind them in line at the lunch buffet, or walking past them on the way back to the residences after dinners. You get to know everyone pretty quickly, and that’s honestly the best part about this league – the players. They form a remarkable variety of backgrounds and with such different personalities.
And it truly is the player’s personality that often tells you whether they’ll grind through camp, make the team, or get cut right away. Some players from high profile NCAA programs don’t last one week. Others, like unknown Emmanuel Arceneaux in 2009, hail from tiny Alcorn State and go on to establish themselves as one of the best receivers in Lions history. It’s great that he parlayed his early Lions success into a brief NFL stint in 2011 and 2012, but it’s also a damn shame he never sipped from the Grey Cup here.
Then there is the social aspect of camp. News flash: We on the content side aren’t in football mode 24/7. This year, I’ll miss the post-dinner boardgames with video coaches Andrew Millin, Jordan Beard, content co-worker Brian Helberg and the talented BCLions.com videographer Josh Klaassen.
I’ll miss getting off campus once or twice a week and catching up with a couple of close friends who now make Kamloops home. The camp life: one of the many reasons I love this team.
Kamloops has truly been an excellent training camp location for the past decade and I am hopeful we’ll get the chance to go back in 2021 and beyond. Although hope remains we will play a shortened season, the club will not be going to Kamloops for camp in 2020
The Seven-Year Old In A Stroller
Family. Another reason I love this team. My mother’s parents immigrated to Vancouver from Italy in the early 50s. What better way to adjust to Canadian culture by partaking in the country’s oldest sports league? They became season ticket holders at Empire Stadium and were high enough on the priority list to secure some pretty slick seats when BC Place opened in 1983: Section 11, Row V. Side note: when I became a season ticket holder in 2004, I attempted to secure my seats in that section as a tribute, but had to settle for section 12.
Anyway, flashing back a few years to 1991. We all remember that as the Doug Flutie year. 50,000-plus were packing into the old bubble downtown to see the most entertaining show in pro football.
My first game as a kid was July 25th of that season. A 37-36 win over the Edmonton Eskimos. And likely the only seven-year old kid who had to be wheeled up in a baby stroller. Yes, you read that right. Earlier in the day, I rolled my ankle playing football in my Nonna’s backyard.
She had been widowed three years previously but held onto the season tickets through most of the 90s. She insisted I not go to the game, but I wasn’t taking no for an answer. So a stroller it was. Despite my limited mobility (to use a football injury term), I was hooked right away.
And I returned the very next week for the 52-41 barnburner over Rocket Ismail and the Toronto Argonauts- a game that is still talked about to this day.
I didn’t miss many home games over the next couple of decades. Whenever my mom packed me and my sister into the car to go grocery shopping at Safeway, I knew it was a chance to come home with a pair of $9.99 end zone tickets if I behaved well at the store.
And then as soon as Danny McManus, Darren Flutie and company completed the amazing upset in snowy Calgary in the 1994 Western Final, I begged my Dad to buy us tickets to the Grey Cup the following week.
So, there we were, Dad, Nonna and me, at BC Place as Lui Passaglia’s winning kick sailed through the uprights to complete the crazy playoff run that electrified Lions fans in November of 1994. As we all know, the franchise fell on tough times not too long after that. But more often than not, I was there at BC Place cheering them on.
It was family that started that journey….
…can be hard to do. But sports is what helps many of us deal with adolescence. The Lions remained a big part of my life as I got through high school and began pursuing a career in sports broadcasting.
Me and three close buddies were there amongst 54,000-plus fans for the remarkable 2004 Western Final win over Saskatchewan. We even convinced one of the girlfriends to paint our faces. Hey, who doesn’t still act like a kid at age 20? It was a nice way to cap off that first year with my own season tickets. I still dream of the day we pack that stadium like that once again.
We were back next season for the 11-0 start and what felt like would be a repeat of 1994. Of course, there would be no home Grey Cup this time. Sorry Ed Hervey if you’re reading this, but I still think Geroy was interfered with on the last play of the Western Final. But props to the Eskimos. They were hot when it mattered most; something the Lions could lay claim to in 1994, 2000 and 2011 when they sipped from Cup despite not being the best team through all 18 regular season games. Man, that’s the beauty of single-game elimination, is it not? Anything can happen come playoff time. That’s yet another reason why I love this team and league.
I wound up getting my Broadcast Journalism diploma from BCIT in 2007 and landing some local part-time radio work with TEAM (now TSN) 1040 later that summer. In fact, the first paid assignment I had was covering Lions practices. It was memorable for both good and bad reasons. The squad won a franchise record 14 regular season games before stubbing their toe in the Western Final against Saskatchewan.
Again, one game elimination can be great or depressing. But covering practices that season gave me the ‘behind the curtain’ look I always wondered about when it came to both the Lions and CFL. I must have left an impression because Rob Murphy, Kelly Bates and the charismatic group of offensive linemen gave me a nickname, ‘Mini-Dean.’ I guess I sparked a resemblance to Dean Valli, the Lions 2006 draft pick who is best remembered for Dan Dorazio’s glowing review of his body measurements. To this day, Dean and I can’t see each other without one of us breaking out into laughter.
Covering the team certainly had its ups and downs. I’ll never forget being summoned to the practice facility on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July, 2008 when Bobby Ackles suddenly passed away. I thought I knew all about the ‘water boy’ and his impact on the organization, but didn’t truly grasp it until that day when both Wally Buono and George Chayka teared up at the news conference.
Then there is the 2011 Grey Cup at BC Place where I was working as a media member for 1040 in the old “baseball” press box. I couldn’t cheer the victory, but it will go down as both a career and personal highlight- even if I had to submit my dry cleaning bill to 1040 management after getting soaked with beer in the victorious Lions’ locker room. Since that day, I have also thought about how amazing it would be to experience a Grey Cup win as a member of the organization…..
Into The Den
After a memorable seven-year run at 1040 which included covering that 2011 Grey Cup, a few games in the Canucks run to the Stanley Cup Final earlier that year and five Super Bowl trips, I found myself out of work in November of 2015.
While it was a goal of mine to remain working in sports, I also understood it might not be realistic at first. I was contemplating registering for some sales courses and pursuing a career in the craft beer industry when the opportunity to work on the Lions digital content team came up.
My first day in the office was late February of 2016, the same day Buono signed an extension after recently announcing he was returning as head coach. With the CFL’s all-time wins leader back on the sidelines combined with an exciting nucleus that included Arceneaux, Bryan Burnham, Jonathon Jennings and the ‘Team 100’ duo of Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill, it was an exciting time to begin a new gig. It was also an adjustment as I hadn’t had much experience doing social media for a sports team. Thankfully, I was able to combine my writing strengths and broadcast experience to help bring a whole new presence to bclions.com.
At first, it was quite an adjustment. I will always be grateful to Lions digital media manager Alex Ruiz for her patience and allowing me to spread my wings and pursue all kinds of different stories, especially in those early days when we were under pressure to grow the traffic on our website.
One thing that made the transition easier was that I had established a prior relationship with some of the veterans from my radio job. Arceneaux and I often spoke of that time I interviewed him in the cafeteria of Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford back at 2009 camp. They assigned him number 74 in pre-season as he was simply there to give some of the veterans a break during offensive reps. Funny how it goes sometimes. As of this writing, only Geroy Simon and Jim Young have more receiving yards for the franchise.
The best part of this job is the relationships you establish with players, coaches, fans, whomever you cross paths with at a Lions game or event. The football world is so small. And it’s a heck of a world to be a part of.
Behind The Curtain
The chance to communicate with Buono on a daily basis was always a real treat. He was always pushing for us to do more content for the team in a time where daily local media coverage was starting to decrease. You can thank him for granting bclions.com all the locker room access and for all of those great post-victory game ball presentations we have filmed. I always loved dealing with Buono in my time at the radio station and from day one in the office, it was nice to get a regular dose of “Wallyisms.”
We had an up-close look at a few great wins and a few devastating losses. There was the remarkable 2016 Western Semi-Final win over the Blue Bombers at BC Place. Who can forget the slow-motion image of Jennings fighting his way to the end zone and reaching to brake the plane, thus sending Winnipeg fans into another year of their Grey Cup drought? It’s too bad we can’t yell ‘1990!’ at those fans anymore. The crazy 2018 comeback against Hamilton where Burnham once again demonstrated his status as a human highlight-reel was also a great night.
In addition to home games, I have been lucky to travel with the team to every road game for the past four seasons. You really get a sense how passionate this country is about CFL football when you experience a game in every city. No two are the same. Saskatchewan certainly lived up to the hype. Then there is Winnipeg: equally as passionate with a little more of a mean streak than that of their Regina neighbours. One regular Bombers supporter gave me a hard time for “checking Tinder” when looking down at my phone to live tweet the action. Calgary and Edmonton both remind me just how much the great prairie folks love their teams.
Hamilton is always a blast. The most vocal trash talkers always find their way to the corner where visiting teams enter and exit the playing surface at Tim Hortons Field. Up the QEW, Argonauts fans get a bad rep over lack of support. But the ones who do show up to BMO Field are loud and passionate. Ottawa has perhaps the most vibrant game day culture in the CFL. It’s a party every time you go to the nation’s capital for a game. Molson Stadium at McGill in Montreal has the prettiest backdrop in the league and is also a great place to watch a game.
You would be amazed at the type of organization required to travel a 46-man roster, plus all of the staff. Props to long-time staffer and current director of football operations Neil McEvoy for making the travel and hotel process seem like a work of art.
Watching dedicated people do their jobs the way they do. Another reason I love this team.
Working for the Lions has also taken me to other places I never thought I would go. The team had a memorable four-day stay in Kingston, Ontario between road games in Toronto and Montreal in early 2017. We arrived there on Canada Day and enjoyed some evening fireworks down by the lake. In April of that year, myself and former videographer Cole Jackson covered a Lions free agent camp just outside of Dallas. I saw firsthand just how many talented young players there are across the United States looking for that next opportunity.
Some of the more well-known Lions of the last few years were originally discovered at one of those camps. The next day, we flew to Columbus, Ohio for some in depth content on Jennings and his offseason routine. We enjoyed some mini-golf with the Jennings family and took a tour of his old high school in suburban Westerville. During our free time, we went to checkout Ohio Stadium, home of the Buckeyes. We couldn’t get inside. Unfortunately, name dropping Ohio State alum and Lions legend Brent Johnson didn’t get us past the guy at the door either, but it was still an amazing site to see up close. I can’t wait to discover more spots across the football map.
The Love Continues….We’ll Be Back
We may be flying through some dark clouds right now. Once we’re back to normal, it will seem like a distance memory. I can’t wait to be on the sidelines again, watching Burnham haul in another circus catch from Mike Reilly. Or to take a pre-game stroll along parliament hill in Ottawa, St. Catherine’s St. in Montreal or Stephen Ave. in Cowtown.
And of course, there will be the dread and reward of going for early morning jogs in Kamloops, hopefully as early as next May. Why I love this team? The reasons are many. Maybe there was a reason I didn’t feel embarrassed sitting in that stroller all those years ago.