Manitoba·Analysis

The Grey Cup drought is over, easing a city's pain

During a remarkable fall when the Red River is running high, it's only fitting to see the end of the great drought in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg waited 29 years for a CFL championship. It couldn't have come at a better time

Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris, all smouldering intensity, helped propel the Bombers to a drought-busting Grey Cup victory. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

During a remarkable fall when the Red River is running high, it's only fitting to see the end of the great drought in Winnipeg.

The Blue Bombers have won a Grey Cup for the first time in 29 years, thanks to a 33-12 victory over an excellent Hamilton Tiger-Cats squad that most of the big brains in football expected to prolong the misery of the Winnipeg Football Club and its long, long-suffering fans.

Most current Bombers had yet to take a breath in 1990, when 26-year-old quarterback Tom Burgess last led Winnipeg to a Canadian Football League championship. He's now 55.

Much of the Bomber fan base also wasn't alive and has no memory of that night in Vancouver.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Adam Bighill celebrates winning the 107th Grey Cup against the Hamilton Tiger Cats in Calgary on Sunday. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

Instead, they have very fresh memories of an unseasonably mild November night in Calgary, when homegrown running back Andrew Harris scored two touchdowns and ran for 134 yards, kicker Justin Medlock kicked six field goals and the Bomber defence took the ball away from Hamilton's offence seven times and sacked quarterback Dane Evans six times.

Harris became the first player to be named both the most outstanding in the Grey Cup as well as the most outstanding Canadian.

The Winnipegger, who was suspended for two games this season after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug, savoured the Bomber victory and his achievement.

"I'm just happy to come out on top. To everyone who kicked me when I was down, you know where to stick it," he said after the game.

The game was just as poignant to quarterback Zach Collaros, who started the season with Saskatchewan and was traded to Toronto before landing in Winnipeg.

"What do they call it, the revenge tour?" he joked. "We finished it. It's over. It was the last show tonight."

Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea, during the first half of the historic game. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

To Collaros, Harris and the rest of the Winnipeg Football Club, the victory is not just a validation. It's an act of redemption for a club that rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity over the past three decades.

To diehard fans, it's a cause for celebration and form of closure to alleviate decades of frustration. Portage and Main is probably swelling with fans by the time these words wind up online — and North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty, who led the campaign to keep the intersection closed to pedestrians, can't do a thing to stop it.

He's here in Calgary, where he cheered from the stands at McMahon Stadium. And if he wasn't, he'd probably be at Portage and Main.

Harris said he hopes Winnipeg keeps Portage and Main closed until he gets back.

Bomber defensive back Mike Jones closes on Hamilton receiver Brandon Banks in the first half of the Grey Cup. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

Outside the world of football and its fandom, the Bomber victory is fraught with meaning for Winnipeg, a city that's seen more than its fair share of humiliation and despair.

This city is fine with unusually high water. But it's reeling right now, thanks a record-setting pace of homicides, a rash of outrageous thefts, a police service overtaxed by methamphetamine-related calls and a municipal government pleading poverty.

A single Grey Cup victory won't wash away all the anguish afflicting Winnipeg. But it does offer some relief, especially in a city where sports plays an outsized role in the civic psyche.

The collective mood of this city often rises and falls with every victory or loss by the Winnipeg Jets. The departure of the team in 1996 and its return in 2011 remain the defining metaphor for the renewal of this city.

So did the 28-season Grey Cup drought, which was a statistical improbability. In a league with only eight or nine teams for most of its recent existence, you have to absolutely excel at failure — or be cursed with exceptionally poor luck — in order to wind up without a championship for nearly three decades.

What the Bombers did at McMahon Stadium changes the narrative for the club. No longer will the words "Grey Cup" automatically evoke the memory of 2001, when an impressive 14-4  Blue Bombers team choked in the big game and allowed the 8-10 Calgary Stampeders to eke out a win.

No longer will it automatically bring to mind the injury that kept quarterback Kevin Glenn out of the 2007 championship, won by the arch-rival Saskatchewan Roughriders. No longer will it bring fans back to the 2011 Grey Cup, when the Bombers were simply outclassed by a superior version of the B.C. Lions.

Bomber fan Kevin Slobodian, wearing a Chris Streveler T-shirt, posed with Streveler after the game. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Instead, fans will recall a lopsided Bomber victory.

"I am feeling elated," said 20-year Bomber season-ticket holder Kevin Slobodian, standing on the McMahon Stadium field as the post-game confetti was still settling, clad in a sombrero and what appeared to be a Chris Streveler T-shirt.

"I thought we had a chance today and we did it! I have tears of joy. Like, I can not describe to you how happy I am. Like, I can't even talk about it."

Bomber fans will now recall how Winnipeg started the 107th Grey Cup in the best imaginable manner, with the defence stealing the ball away from Hamilton three times during the first four Tiger-Cat possessions.

While Hamilton's defence limited the Bombers to only eight points on those turnovers, Winnipeg pushed the Ticats around on both sides of the ball throughout the remainder of the first half.

Harris scored twice in the first half, one on a 15-yard run and the other on an 18-yard pass from quarterback Chris Streveler, who's better known for his rushing than for his passing. 

In total, the Bombers offence racked up 226 net yards in the first half alone.

The Bomber defence, meanwhile, refused to give Ticats quarterback Dane Evans much space to make the big plays Hamilton was known for on their way to a 15-3 regular-season record. All Hamilton could muster in the first half was a pair of field goals.

Bomber fan Daniel Trenchard shook his cowbell well after the game. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

In the second half, that defence maintained its dominant ways and the Bomber offence stayed on the field just long enough to prevent Hamilton from gaining any momentum.

The game didn't feel like a lock for Winnipeg until the final minutes. No self-respecting Winnipeg fan would fool him or herself into counting on a positive result until the play clock counted down to zero.

But that eternal Winnipeg pessimism is no longer as strong on a Sunday night when the only drought in Winnipeg involves the tear ducts of its football fans, drained this time from joy instead of dejection.

 

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