It has been 24 months since the Canadian Football League last staged its signature event, a span that has traced one of the most unusual periods in league history. After playing the Grey Cup in November 2019, the CFL canceled its 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It then delayed and shortened its 2021 season, gave consideration to a working agreement with the XFL that would have changed the nature of its operations and then struggled to balance a bottom line that historically has been based on ticket sales at its stadiums.
An optimist would suggest the CFL will come full circle on Sunday evening when it kicks off its 108th Grey Cup. The game will feature a rematch of the 2019 event between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, which was won 33-23 by the Blue Bombers. Hamilton will host this year's matchup at Tim Hortons Field.
Early-season schedule delays make this the latest Grey Cup played since 1937, but commissioner Randy Ambrosie said Friday that he believes the league is "turning a corner" and "really getting on with the business of growing and building the league."
Indeed, the CFL has introduced a revenue-sharing plan designed to keep all nine franchises operating for the 2022 season. On Friday, it announced that Genius Sports had taken an equity position in the league as part of a data and technology partnership.
"If you were a cynic," Ambrosie said, "you might say that we didn't have the same kind of season we normally have. But I think if you look at it through the lens of what we've all experienced, how much our own lives have changed the last two years, how things have been so different for us personally ... if you look at it through that lens, then you can say nothing more than this [season] was an amazing triumph."
The CFL truncated its regular season by 22.2%, playing 14 games instead of the usual 18. Scoring fell by 12.6% from the 2019 season, and announced attendance dropped by 35.3%, according to CFLdb Statistics.
"This is a league ready for change," Ambrosie said. But for one day, at least, the league's Grey Cup championship will look awfully familiar. With kickoff set on Sunday for 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2, let's get familiar with both teams. (Winnipeg +3, 44 -150 MoneyLine.)
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Regular-season record: 11-3 (first in West Division)
Coach: Mike O'Shea (67-55 in seven seasons)
How they got here: Defeated Saskatchewan 21-17 in Western Final
Grey Cup history: 11-14 in 25 appearances
Three things to know about Winnipeg:
The Blue Bombers are led by quarterback Zach Collaros, who starred at the University of Cincinnati from 2008 to 2011 and has now played for four of the CFL's nine teams. Winnipeg acquired him at the 2019 CFL trade deadline, and he paired with Chris Streveler to take the team to the Grey Cup. He also won the 2012 Grey Cup as part of the Toronto Argonauts and spent four seasons with Hamilton. Collaros was arguably the CFL's best quarterback in 2021, ranking first in the CFL in passing efficiency (111.0) and completing 70.2% of his passes for 3,185 yards, a league-high 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. He won the CFL's Most Outstanding Player award Friday night.
Many of the CFL's top players are American imports, but the Blue Bombers have been powered in part by a Canada-born tailback. Veteran RB Andrew Harris ranked fifth in the CFL in rushing yards (623) despite missing half the season because of a knee injury. He was the MVP of the 2019 Grey Cup, accumulating 170 yards from scrimmage and accounting for two touchdowns. Harris appeared fully healthy in the Western Final, rushing for 136 yards and a TD, and will be a key player to watch Sunday.
Some longtime CFL observers have pegged this game as a coronation for what they believe to be one of the best CFL teams in decades. Starting with the end of the 2019 regular season, the Blue Bombers have won 16 of their past 23 games. TSN's Dave Naylor wrote: "If the Bombers win on Sunday, there will be a debate about where this team belongs in the pantheon of great CFL teams. It can certainly be argued that the consistency and dominance of this team sits up there with almost any. The argument will come over the degree of competition they've faced this season."
Regular-season record: 8-6 (second in East Division)
Coach: Orlondo Steinauer (23-9 in two seasons)
How they got here: Defeated Toronto 27-19 in Eastern Final
Grey Cup history: 8-13 in 21 appearances
Three things to know about Hamilton:
The first question Steinauer was asked during Wednesday's media availability was the identity of his starting quarterback. From an American/NFL perspective, it's hard to know what's more unusual: uncertainty at quarterback entering a championship game or that Steinauer actually answered the question. Dane Evans, who once played at Tulsa and spent the majority of this season as a backup, will start for Hamilton. Evans replaced Jeremiah Masoli in the Eastern Final to lead the Tiger-Cats back from a 12-0 deficit, completing all 16 of his passes in the process. Masoli started nine games during the regular season, while Evans started six.
It hasn't sat well with the Tiger-Cats that they are considered the underdog (+3 at Caesar's Sportsbook) in Sunday's game. Speaking to reporters this week, Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence said, "We're both in this game for a reason. It's a competitive game, and anybody that goes in thinking that they're playing against an underdog, that's a quick way to get tricked out of your spot. I think we're all professional athletes. I don't think anybody goes into the game thinking they're an underdog. We're here to compete at a high level, and that's what we're prepared to do."
For American fans, one of the most recognizable players on the field will be Tiger-Cats receiver Brandon Banks. The veteran began his career as a punt returner/receiver for the NFL's Washington Football Team from 2010 to 2012 before he headed to the CFL. He has been a four-time All-Star in Canada, earning the nickname "Speedy B" on the way to winning the CFL's Most Outstanding Player award in 2019. He has struggled a bit with injuries in 2021, and at 34, he has slowed down a bit. But he still managed to catch 44 passes for 474 yards in 10 games this season.