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CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie speaks at a news conference in Halifax on Jan. 23, 2020. 'Getting ready to play, I feel a great sense of satisfaction,' he said.

The Canadian Press

Commissioner Randy Ambrosie and the CFL are finally back in the football business.

The CFL kicks off the ‘21 season Thursday night, its first action since the 2019 Grey Cup game. The league cancelled its plans for an abbreviated 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shortened 2021 campaign will consist of 14 regular-season games rather than the usual 18 and will open with Hamilton visiting Winnipeg.

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The two clubs met in the last CFL game played, that being the 2019 Grey Cup game as the Blue Bombers defeated the Tiger-Cats 33-12 on Nov. 24, 2019 in Calgary for their first CFL title since 1990.

The Bombers will unfurl their championship banner before Thursday night’s contest at IG Field.

And the Bombers will be allowed to have a sellout gathering so long as fans are fully vaccinated, as per Manitoba Public Health protocols. Manitoba is the lone province to make it mandatory for fans attending games to have received both of the COVID-19 shots.

“It’s been a long and, at times, tough road,” Ambrosie said. “I’d say it has been the toughest stretch of my career, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I actually feel like I’ve grown a lot as well.

“Getting ready to play, I feel a great sense of satisfaction. I think about how great it is for the players to be getting ready to play a season and the coaches who have been sitting on a shelf with a love and passion for our game how great it is for them. I just have this great feeling of happiness literally for everyone because it’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

On Friday night, the Saskatchewan Roughriders host the B.C. Lions before a Mosaic Stadium sellout. The opening week of action concludes Saturday with the Calgary Stampeders entertaining the Toronto Argonauts before the Edmonton Elks host the Ottawa Redblacks.

Hamilton receiver Brandon Banks was the CFL’s outstanding player in 2019 after registering 112 catches for 1,550 yards and 13 TDs. Banks said it might take players a little bit to regain their form given the layoff and teams not playing exhibition games this year.

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“It’s been a long time off without playing a game,” said Banks. “It’s going to be hard.

“I think it’s going to take some time (for offences) to get clicking.”

ESPN will again carry all CFL games this season – including playoffs and the Grey Cup – south of the border on its various networks. ESPN’s relationship with the league originated in 1980.

Not playing in 2020 came at a significant cost to the CFL. A source has said the league lost between $60-million and $80-million last year by not staging games.

The source has been granted anonymity because the CFL has never revealed its 2020 financial figures. But the league’s three community-based clubs (Saskatchewan, Edmonton and Winnipeg) – which have traditionally turned profits annually – lost more than $21-million combined last year.

While Winnipeg’s Mike O’Shea and Hamilton’s Orlondo Steinauer both return to the sidelines with their respective clubs, four CFL coaches will be in new roles this year.

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Rick Campbell will make his B.C. coaching debut after having served six seasons with Ottawa (2014-19). Paul LaPolice begins his Redblacks tenure, but has previous head-coaching experience with Winnipeg (2010-12).

Edmonton’s Jamie Elizondo and Toronto’s Ryan Dinwiddie both make their CFL head-coaching debuts this week.

The Montreal Alouettes won’t play their first game until Aug. 14 in Edmonton. Last month, co-owner Sidney Spiegel died having never seen his franchise on the field.

Spiegel and partner/son-in-law Gary Stern purchased the Alouettes from the CFL in January 2020.

This marks the CFL’s first attempt to play games during the global pandemic. The league opted to have its four East Division teams open the season on the road because Ontario and Quebec were under strict lockdowns at the time the schedule was released.

Restrictions have eased in those provinces, to the point where the four franchises will be able to have up to 15,000 spectators in their stadiums once they return home. The Toronto Argonauts will be the first to do so when they host Winnipeg at BMO Field on Aug. 21.

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The league has also established a policy should COVID-19 issues force game cancellations this year. If a contest is cancelled because of COVID-19 issues and can’t be rescheduled, the club suffering from the COVID-19 issues will forfeit a 1-0 loss. Should both squads have issues, they’ll forfeit the game and be assigned losses.

In either scenario, if a team can prove at least 85 per cent of its players under contract have been vaccinated, at least once, the players will receive their salary for the cancelled game. If that figure falls below 85 per cent, players won’t be paid.

The league said when teams made their final cuts last Friday, 79 per cent of players were fully or partially vaccinated. Three clubs had more than 85 per cent of their players vaccinated with the rates of the other six ranging between 67 to 81 per cent.

The CFL also stated its latest COVID-19 testing, from July 15 to 30, showed no positive results from the approximately 6,000 conducted with players, coaches and support staff.

The CFL policy established other guidelines for cancellation. They include:

  • The staging of the game being precluded by a decision from a government health authority.
  • A team not having 36 players to dress for the game.
  • A team not having individuals available to coach the offence and defence.
  • A team not having a certified athletic therapist and sports medicine physician available for a contest.

Also, Ambrosie can cancel a game at his discretion following consultation with the CFL’s chief medical officers and the players’ association.

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“I think until I have the pleasure of awarding the Grey Cup to the 2021 champion (Dec. 12 in Hamilton), we can’t let our guard down not for one moment,” Ambrosie said. “I do feel a sense of optimism, not just related to COVID, but I feel a sense of optimism for the future of the CFL.

“More specifically I feel like this country has battled COVID in a very positive way. Certainly many people have suffered tragedy, many have suffered the loss of loved ones but I think we’ve done ourselves proud as a nation. Not that we can let our guard down but I do feel there’s reason to feel that we are on the path the long-term recovery.”

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