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Football Duhatschek: Cold feet not an issue for Jon Cornish ahead of West final

Calgary Stampeders Jon Cornish, at practice in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.

Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh

On a mid-week practice day, with the temperature a brisk minus-6 and the fog having finally lifted, Jon Cornish is awaiting his turn in front of the media scrum, wearing just a short-sleeved practice jersey. This is where a television reporter tentatively begins – is Cornish, the Calgary Stampeders' offensive catalyst, also impervious to the outside temperature?

Um … no.

"The reality is, it's cold," replied Cornish, "but my idea is, you should embrace it. I can't control the weather, so why not embrace it?"

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Normally the most approachable of athletes, there in an unexpected edginess in Cornish's manner, heading into Sunday's CFL West Division final against the visiting Edmonton Eskimos, with the winner advancing to the Grey Cup. For starters, Cornish makes it clear he is tired of talking about the bump on the head in the next-to-last regular season game back on Nov. 1 against Winnipeg, saying that's all it was, a bump on the head, nothing more, and that he'd been symptom free for three weeks.

He is equally weary of discussing Calgary's penchant for following excellent regular-seasons with playoff missteps.

Last year, for example, the Stampeders were a league-best 14-4 but lost the West Division final to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, largely because of turnovers. The attraction and the curse of the CFL game is how playing conditions evolve over the course of the season – from the early days of warm, summer weather to the often bitter cold of late fall. Cold weather makes it harder to play on many levels – the hits hurt more, hanging onto the ball becomes more challenging. This year's Stamps, a league-leading 15-3, have been harping on a single theme all week – protect the football – as the overriding key to success against the Esks.

When someone ventures that this is a chance for Cornish – and his teammates – to prove their ability to win the big one, a noticeable bristling occurs.

"There's this idea that I don't show up," Cornish said, "but I have three Canadian players of the week [awards] in the playoffs and I've only been a starter for three years.

"You need every part of your offence firing on all cylinders and if one part doesn't want to show up, that's too bad."

It has been an up-and-down season for Cornish that began with a concussion on opening day that kept him out six weeks. Altogether, Cornish has been out of the lineup three different times and as a result, played in only nine of the team's 18 games. But what a half-season that was – 1,082 rushing yards, good for his third consecutive league rushing title; and a nomination as the CFL's outstanding Canadian player.

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Cornish only carried the ball 139 times this year, compared to 258 (for 1,813 yards) the year before, but his yards-per-carry average was an exceptional 7.8 – even better than the 7.0 he managed last year when he was selected the league's most outstanding player.

For anyone who couldn't read between the lines, Cornish also made it abundantly clear that in his view, the difference between this year's team and others that have fallen short in the past is the presence of quarterback Bo-Levi Mitchell.

Of Mitchell, Cornish said: "I've been on Bo-Levi's coat tails for a while, because he's such a superb performer under pressure and a superb athlete. I think those two things combined will help us to continue to be successful."

Outside of Calgary, Cornish is the public face of the Stampeders franchise in the same way Jarome Iginla was once the public face of the Calgary Flames' NHL franchise – players who played the game in a powerful straight-ahead fashion, but carried themselves with charm and dignity off the field of play.

"Me personally honestly, I think Jon is starting to realize what he means to the team," said veteran defensive back Keon Raymond, Cornish's long-time teammate. "He knows that he has to play his best football for us to have an opportunity. He's a hard worker and a team guy, who's going to give you everything he has and leave it all out on the field. You can be excited to go to war with a guy like that.

"I'm excited he's on our team – so I don't have to tackle him."

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The Stampeders swept the season series against the Esks, with the second of their three victories coming in the annual Labour Day Classic. That coincided with Cornish's return to the lineup and he merely churned out 163 yards on 17 carries in the victory – impressive on any level, really impressive given that the Esks had played such strong run defence in the run-up to what had been billed as a first-place showdown in the West.

The Stamps won that game going away, but Edmonton's rallying cry going into this playoff rematch will be that quarterback Mike Reilly, who matters to their offence in the same way Cornish does to Calgary's, was unavailable because of injury.

"It's only fitting that we get to play our rival, Edmonton," Raymond said. "They've been a good team all year. They've played us well too. So why not the best two teams, fighting to go to the Grey Cup? I wouldn't have it any other way."

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