The B.C. Lions will attempt to pull off a rare feat in the Grey Cup.
They are looking to become just the third CFL team in the last 34 years to capture a championship on home turf when they face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday.
“It's just exciting to be a part of it,” defensive lineman Brent Johnson said Monday. “A big regret for me, just personally, was never being able to play in 2005 when we had it here. It was one of the biggest regrets in my career and, obviously, I get to put a band-aid on that now.”
B.C. was beaten in the opening round of the playoffs when Vancouver hosted the championship game in 2005. The 1994 Lions and 1977 Montreal Alouettes are the last teams to win the trophy at home.
The Lions qualified for this title game after starting the season 0-5 before going on an 11-1 run and thumping the Edmonton Eskimos 40-23 in the West Final.
The Blue Bombers are trying to write a worst-to-first story of their own. They earned a Grey Cup berth after going 4-14 in 2010.
Like Johnson, Lions centre Angus Reid is especially appreciative of the second chance to win the Grey Cup at home. He was born and raised in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, B.C., and will have many friends and family members on hand — if he can get enough tickets — for what might be the final game of his 11-year career.
“It's a dream come true,” said Reid. “I had an opportunity here in ‘05 to do this and we didn't get it done. I've watched the Lions since I was a little kid and, obviously, I've grown up in this city. So to put those two things together, to be able to play for your hometown team in the biggest game that there is to offer in your hometown city, is something that most (players) never get the opportunity to do, and it's a blessing to be able to do it.”
Reid said the opportunity is even more special considering his club's slow start to the season. The 35-year-old snapper always believed that the Lions could turn their season around.
“A lot of the people outside of these walls had throw in the towel on us,” said Reid, standing in the team's locker-room at their Surrey, B.C., practice facility. “But we bound together. We fought back.”
Reid said the newly-renovated B.C. Place and its partisan crowd will be a huge advantage for the hosts as they deal with the pressure of trying to win it all. The Lions also won at B.C. Place in 1994.
To win bring the Cup home again, the Lions will have to conquer a friendly foe in Bombers quarterback Buck Pierce, who has enjoyed a career renaissance since being released by the Lions prior to the 2010 campaign after sustaining a plethora of injuries. A relatively healthy Pierce guided Winnipeg to first place in the East during the regular season and then spearheaded a decisive 19-3 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday in the East Final.
“Buck's a mentally tough guy,” said Reid. “He's a fighter. The guy's a warrior. He's the kind of player that'll do anything in his power to win a football game — pretty, ugly, gritty, graceful, whatever it takes in a given play — and he's the kind of guy you can never count out. Really, he's not on my team, but you like playing for him.”
Johnson said the Lions will have to beware of Pierce's intelligence. Although he is considered a conventional pocket passer, he can also run the ball effectively.
“Buck can run really well,” said Johnson. “For us, it's not giving anything easy up as a defence. We can give him those easy breaks, because Buck's going to capitalize on them. He's a smart guy, he can run, and he's going to react well to everything we give him. We've got to give him our best shot.”
Pierce threw a for a career-high 3,348 yards this season while tossing 14 touchdown passes and rushing for 324 yards, the highest total since he entered the CFL with the Lions in 2005. Johnson credits Pierce's strong play to his maturation as a quarterback.
Defensive back Ryan Phillips, also happy to see Pierce making a career comeback, said the Winnipeg pivot has used his release from the Lions as motivation to improve his play. Pierce helped the Bombers post a 2-0 record against B.C., in the regular season.
B.C. general manager and coach Wally Buono said the Lions realized after their second loss to Winnipeg, a 30-17 setback at home in early August, that they had reached rock-bottom at that point and had to do something to save their season.
“It started the turnaround,” said Buono. “It's been a tremendous run so far and, as I told the players, we have one more step to go.”
Buono is seeking his fifth Grey Cup title as a coach, but this will mark the first time one of his teams will play at home in his 22 seasons in charge. He does have a home-field Grey Cup win as a player, though. In a memorable 1977 title game, he and the Alouettes put staples in the soles of their shoes to gain better traction on a slippery field and thrash Edmonton 41-6.
Coaching in his ninth Grey Cup, Buono said this will be a “tough week” as he prepares to face Winnipeg and also deal with added promotional duties that come during Grey Cup time.
“But when you're on the sidelines and they're introducing your team, and you're getting ready to play, it's all worth it,” he said.
Notes: Lions players, coaches and front-office staff attended a memorial service Sunday for Dylan Reichelt, the son of longtime trainer Bill Reichelt. The younger Reichelt, who assisted the Lions on game days, died in a recent car accident at the age of 18.