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Football ‘A lot of disappointment’: Pallister comments on Winnipeg’s NFL preseason controversy

Pylons mark the modified end zone for an NFL preseason game at Winnipeg's IG Field on Aug. 22, 2019.

John Woods/The Canadian Press

The premier of Manitoba says “there’s a lot of disappointment” in the province after a controversial NFL preseason game at IG Field on Thursday night.

During a campaign stop on Friday, Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister was asked about the Oakland Raiders-Green Bay Packers game, which was played on a shortened field because of concerns about the turf in the end zones.

“I would remind people to remember that the organizers tried to do something that hadn’t been done before so let’s give them respect and credit for trying,” Pallister said. “I would rather see a person try and fail then see somebody who had never tried. Yeah, it didn’t work out the way they wanted and I’m sympathetic to the fans who felt disappointed obviously but not being a provincial responsibility I’ll limit my comments to that.”

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Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew said he noticed plenty of fans of both teams downtown, but acknowledged there were issues with the game played at the home of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“I think there was a lot of buzz. It’s just that I guess because of a few fumbles here and there with the field and a lot of fans being disappointed [Packers star quarterback] Aaron Rodgers didn’t start, this game didn’t end up being the touchdown it could have been,” he said.

Just before the game started, the NFL announced the field would be shortened to 80 from 100 yards because of concerns about the area where the Bombers’ goal posts usually are located. The end zones were marked with bright, orange pylons at the 10-yard lines and there were no kickoffs.

Minutes before the opening play, the Packers announced they would not dress 33 players, including Rodgers. Tim Boyle ended up starting at quarterback for the Packers.

“I don’t know what happened with Aaron. That whole debacle with the field was going on,” Boyle said. “Decisions were made that we were going to hold our starters out. The plan was for me to play after, so this moved me up and I was able to start, which was fun.”

The Raiders also held out most of their starters, including quarterback Derek Carr and marquee receiver Antonio Brown, for the Week 3 preseason contest. Week 3 games traditionally see teams give their starters the most time in the preseason.

Announced attendance was 21,992 at 33,000-seat IG Field. Ticket prices, much higher than for most other NFL preseason games, were highlighted in media reports in the leadup to the game.

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The Raiders were the home team. Canadian-based On Ice Entertainment Ltd. staged the game and was the promoter.

On Ice president John Graham originally was in negotiations with Regina as a venue for the game before shifting his focus to Winnipeg.

Regina Mayor Michael Fougere said if the game was in Saskatchewan, there would have been differences.

“I won’t comment on the business model that was used,” he said. “It would have been different here than there. I would just say that when we put on events, we put on world-class events.”

Saskatchewan Roughriders running back Kienan LaFrance, a Winnipeg native and University of Manitoba product, said the field was an eye-opener.

“It was my understanding they were just going to repaint the lines, change the goal posts and everything was going to be normal,” he said. “Then I saw all the changes and it was like, ’Whoa, what’s going on here?’ I was kind of confused.”

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LaFrance wasn’t surprised by the lack of starters.

“You’ve just got to expect that because it’s the preseason,” he said. “If you’re a true football fan, you can see that coming.”

BC Lions quarterback Mike Reilly said there was a uniqueness to the game.

“It was kind of interesting to watch, when they get down to the 15-yard line and they’re getting into their goal-line packages and stuff like that,” he said. “But it was what you expect out of a preseason NFL game, not many starters, if any, playing and stuff like that.”

When asked if he was concerned if the game could have an impact on future events in Manitoba, Pallister said, “I hope it reminds people to support the Bombers, support the Jets, support the Goldeyes, support every sports franchise we have got in the city and province and make sure that our young athletes are encouraged, nurtured.”

Long-time University of Manitoba football coach Brian Dobie, whose team also calls IG Field home, said stadium staff work hard and don’t deserve criticism.

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“Some of the comments that I heard on some national TV this morning, I thought were a little tongue-in-cheek and a little unfair to the perception of our city and our province,” Dobie said.

“It’s first class here. This is a for-real sports city and a for-real football city and we all take great pride in that and we all recognize that. I don’t think anything negative should be on the city of Winnipeg, the province of Manitoba or football in this province in any way, shape or form.”

Winnipeg newspapers had negative headlines about the event above columns. The Winnipeg Free Press went with “No Fun League flops at IG Field” and the Winnipeg Sun had “Fans fleeced.”

Thursday’s game was the first NFL contest in Canada since the Buffalo Bills completed a series of games in Toronto in 2013.

With reports from Kelly Geraldine Malone, Steve Lambert and Judy Owen in Winnipeg, Jeff DeDekker and CJME in Regina and Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.

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