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Weighted CFL schedule could mean more butts in the seats for B.C. Lions

The B.C. Lions are feeling optimistic that by the time their second home game comes around in September, the province's COVID-19 reopening plan will have reached Step 4 — allowing for full capacity at B.C. Place.

Rick LeLacheur’s glass is always half full.

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And he’s hoping, come Sept. 7, B.C. Place will be completely full.

The B.C. Lions open their 2021 season on Aug. 6, 644 days since they last played a game. And by the time their 2021 home opener rolls around on Aug. 19, it will have been 657 days since their last game in the dome.

In that time, the team has endured tragedy, economic hardship, professional pitfalls, and mental exhaustion over the team’s future in a COVID-19 world. Even the roller-coaster of the past few months, with talks of an XFL partnership/merger and oft-delayed season start dates, pushed some players to retire or take jobs in the private sector.

But with the board of governors’ vote Monday, a 14-game season has been given the green light. The Lions’ home opener will have limited fans — the Lions have petitioned provincial health authorities for a 5,000 person capacity — but when the team returns to B.C. Place on Sept. 11 to host the Ottawa RedBlacks, they’re confident the province will have entered Step 4 of the provincial reopening plan, allowing a return to sports as normal.

B.C. Lions president Rick LeLacheur. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG files

“It’s sense of relief, of excitement. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s just great to know that we’re headed to play some CFL football,” said LeLacheur, the Lions president. “We had a lot of starts and stops in the last 16 months. It’s more than COVID we’ve been through in this last 16 months, with our general manager (Ed Hervey) leaving, (owner David Braley) passing away … so we’ve had our hands full. But we always thought we would get back on the field of play at some point this year.

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“I’m a glass half full, rather than half empty type of guy. You always have to look at the positives, the potential. … We’ve always known … that we need fans in the stands. The signs are good. We have taken a sort of a leap of faith; we really don’t know how many fans will be able to get in yet.”

The CFL will return with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats visiting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the league’s curtain-raiser on Aug. 5, and — like in stadiums across the country — there will be COVID-19 restrictions in place. The Lions will have a priority list for season-ticket holders to buy seats for the Aug. 18 game against the Edmonton Elks, and the seating arrangement will follow provincial guidelines.

Strict protocols will also be in place for training camp in Kamloops when it starts on July 10. Only players, coaches and team staff will be allowed on the field, in locker-rooms or the dining room.
B.C. Lions head coach Rick Campbell. Photo by Mike Bell /Postmedia News

Despite there being no pre-season games this year to prepare, Lions head coach Rick Campbell says he won’t rush his players back at camp, and will ease them back into game shape. The risk of injury is something that he and the medical staff are conscious of, with the players not having had any contact in more than a year and a half.

“We’re going to be mindful of it … (and) dial back on the enthusiasm as opposed to ramping it up,” Campbell said. “We’ll be smart in the beginning of making sure we’re not going from zero to 100 miles an hour right away. We need to feel our way into it, while at the same time getting all the work done that we needed.”

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On the flip side, some players — especially the veteran ones — will have had a long layoff to get their bodies fully healthy for perhaps the first time in their careers. Lions quarterback Mike Reilly, who had his 2019 season ended by a broken wrist in October of that year, has fully recovered from the injury, along with all the other aches and pains the 36-year-old picked up along the way.

“The whole season kind of wore on me a lot more than the most; not just the wrist injury, but all the other things that just accumulated over the course of the year,” Reilly said during a media availability on Tuesday.

“I definitely felt ready to go in the summertime last year, but having the year off — as hard as it has been — the one good thing that I think all of us have taken from it is physically we’ve been able to get back to being as healthy as we’ve ever been in our careers.”

For receiver Bryan Burnham, an end his enforced absence from the football field also has another positive effect.

“As much as I miss actually playing the game of football, it’s really the people — the guys in the locker-room, everyone upstairs, the front office people. Seeing those guys every day, just saying ‘hi,’” Burnham said.

“Having those interactions is definitely something I think everyone’s missed, especially dealing with the quarantine in 2020 … being socially distanced and not really seeing people all that much. It was definitely something you kind of took for granted a little bit.

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That’s the biggest thing. I’m looking forward to getting back with all the guys, and being able to be outside and run around again, and do what we love.”

Campbell knows it’s going to be a surreal moment when the Lions come out of the Mosaic Stadium tunnel for their season opener against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in August. Like LeLacheur, he was confident they would play this year, but there’s no denying how emotional the return to play will be.

“(The past 1 1/2 years) was just an exercise in patience of seeing how things played out. Literally, the pandemic has had twists and turns, but there was never a question, from everything that I knew, of people being motivated to make it work from ownership all the way down,” he said. “(Playing) is gonna be weird at first, and then I think … it’s going to be the same as riding a bike — once you get back on, you’ll go.

“I bet it’s a little emotional for people too, just because you of appreciate things that have been taken away. For a lot of us, coaches and players, we haven’t been doing this for a long time. You’re going to see this enthusiastic group of people; it’s going to be high energy, high enthusiasm, high emotions … all those things. Definitely looking forward to it.”

The schedule itself poses a challenge in terms of travel — the Lions are the only Western team who will visit each Eastern team this year — but comes with a big potential reward. Six of their seven home games will come against divisional teams, putting huge importance on each one in the playoff standings.

“I think it’s a good deal. It’s a good trade off,” said Campbell. “All the games are going to be important and they’re even more important this year because there’s only 14 of them instead of 18. Every game is going to be big, and there’s much less room for error.

“I think the fans, for the first quarter of the first game, are just going to be excited to see football back, but I think everybody’s allegiances and competitive nature are going to come back fast. The good thing is, it’s going to feel normal again.”

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