The CFL easily could make a case it has been hurt more than most other men’s professional sports leagues by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A league driven by gate revenue was at the mercy of the virus for the past two years, leading to a cancelled season in 2020 and a shortened campaign with crowd restrictions in many cities in 2021.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the CFL without another hiccup or two – and here we are in 2022 with camps starting four days late because the league and its players couldn’t solve a labour dispute until Wednesday.
Although it wasn’t a good look, at least it was settled before the regular season – and 2022 should represent a much-needed fresh start for the CFL, with all nine teams fully open for business.
But, as we know, it’s a changed world, so it won’t just be a case of opening the doors and expecting full houses – even in CFL hotbeds.
The biggest questions facing the league in 2022 is, do the fans come back in previous numbers to Saskatchewan, Winnipeg and Calgary and can longtime trouble spots Toronto, Montreal and B.C. gain momentum after decades of woes?
On the field, the league is desperately trying to get more offence back into the game after several years of less-than-thrilling play on that side of the ball, leading to some rule changes in the off-season.
At the franchise level, eight teams will be trying to prevent the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from winning a third Grey Cup in a row.
The regular season kicks off June 9 with Calgary entertaining Montreal.
Here’s a look at a big question facing each team heading into camp:
Montreal Alouettes: Can Vernon Adams Jr. stay healthy and lead the team to its first playoff win since 2014?
The quarterback seemed to be poised to try to answer this question last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in October. The Als then acquired veteran Trevor Harris in a trade with the Edmonton Elks, but he had a rough afternoon in an East semifinal loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Harris is back as backup, but Adams is the man the Alouettes need to thrive. The heat is on coach Khari Jones, a former quarterback. If the team doesn’t clean up its discipline problems and Adams doesn’t take a step up, Jones’ status will fall into question in his third year.
Ottawa Redblacks: Will rookie GM Shawn Burke’s off-season overhaul pay off?
After making three Grey Cup games (and winning one) in their first five seasons in the league, GM Marcel Desjardins’ team started a nasty decline. The Redblacks won just three games in 2019 and Desjardins was canned in the midst of last year’s three-win season. The Redblacks hired Shawn Burke to fill Desjardins’ role in the off-season and the former Tiger-Cats executive didn’t waste any time making his impact felt. He landed former Ticats quarterback Jeremiah Masoli in free agency – a guy who has star potential but also has battled inconsistency. There are changes all over the roster. Running back William Powell returns for a second stint after two 1,000-yard seasons with Ottawa and the offensive line and receiving rooms have very different looks. Defensively, key additions include linebacker Patrick Levels and lineman Kwaku Boateng.
Toronto Argonauts: Can big moves in free agency propel the team to an East title?
The first full year with Ryan Dinwiddie as coach and Michael (Pinball) Clemons as general manager went reasonably well, but the Argos blew a lead at home in the East final against Hamilton. That obviously wasn’t good enough for Clemons, who was busy in free agency. The Argos signed former Winnipeg Blue Bombers star running back Andrew Harris and ex-Hamilton defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis, a playoff standout, among others. The quarterback, however, will be a familiar face. McLeod Bethel-Thompson enters his fourth season in Toronto, but still has to prove he can win the biggest games.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats: Now that he’s the undisputed No. 1 QB, can Dane Evans get the team over the last hurdle?
After Masoli suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2019, Evans took the reins and was excellent, guiding the Ticats’ to the league’s best record before the team was upset by Winnipeg in the Grey Cup game. With Masoli back in 2021, the Ticats had a two-headed monster at QB. Neither QB put up eye-popping numbers, but they were good enough to get the team back to the Grey Cup game – after Evans replaced an ineffective Masoli in the East final and went 16-for-16. The momentum was short-lived, though. Evans suffered a game-ending neck injury in the second quarter of the Grey Cup. Masoli took over and host Hamilton lost to Winnipeg. Masoli is now a Redblack. It’s Evans’ team. Now, Ticats fans want him to end the league’s longest Grey Cup drought.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Can Mike O’Shea’s team become the first squad to three-peat since Warren Moon and Edmonton won five in a row from 1978-82?
Considering how long it has been since a team has won three titles in a row, the odds are against the Blue Bombers. But on paper, the team sure looks like a force. Quarterback Zach Collaros has provided stability – he has reignited his career since the Bombers acquired him in a 2019 deadline deal with Toronto. He has lost several key weapons on offence – including Harris (Toronto) and league-leading receiver Kenny Lawler (Edmonton). But Winnipeg has depth at running back, signed two notable receivers in Jalen Saunders and Greg Ellingson and returns the bulk of a defence that was a huge force in 2021.
Saskatchewan Roughriders: Can the home team make the Grey Cup game again?
The Ticats turned the trick last year, only to lose to Winnipeg. The Roughriders were the last team to get into a Grey Cup game at home before that, doing so in 2013 and then beating the Ticats. That also happens to be the Roughriders’ most recent appearance in the Grey Cup. Coach Craig Dickenson and quarterback Cody Fajardo have led the Roughriders to the West final the last two seasons, but they couldn’t get past the rival Blue Bombers. Roughriders GM Jeremy O’Day boosted the defence in free agency, signing linebackers Darnell Sankey and Derrick Moncrief and veteran defensive end Charleston Hughes.
Calgary Stampeders: Can Bo Levi Mitchell return to MVP form after an injury-riddled stretch?
The Stampeders’ star quarterback has battled injuries in each of the last two seasons, a stretch in which Winnipeg overtook Calgary as the class of the West. At 32, Mitchell certainly isn’t too old to return to top form. If the two-time most outstanding player can do so, he’s probably the top quarterback in the league – which would make the Stamps serious contenders again. The Stampeders have made the playoffs 16 years in a row, but things have fallen off a bit since the team made five Grey Cup games in seven years from 2012 to ’18.
Edmonton Elks: Can Chris Jones turn things around after the team’s horrific 2021?
Armed with a new name, the Elks were a disaster on the field in 2021. They didn’t win a single home game and finished 3-11, resulting in the firings of coach Jaime Elizondo, GM Brock Sunderland and president Chris Presson. The Elks have brought Jones back to run football as GM/coach after he went to a West final and won a Grey Cup with Edmonton in 2014 and ’15. But he has lots of work to do to get the team back to contending status. For starters, the team’s quarterback picture is muddled. Veteran Nick Arbuckle was acquired from Toronto last season, but he couldn’t keep the top job with the Argos. Taylor Cornelius returns after playing nine games for Edmonton last year and then there are a bunch of newcomer, including intriguing first-round draft pick Tre Ford, the reigning Canadian university player of the year with Waterloo.
B.C. Lions: Will Nathan Rourke be that elusive Canadian quarterback to succeed?
With veteran Michael Reilly retiring in the off-season, the Lions have opted to go with a Canadian at quarterback – so all eyes will be on the product of Oakville, Ont. It hasn’t been easy for Canadian QBs in the CFL. Opportunities are scarce and the few who have had legitimate chances just haven’t been able to hold jobs. Rourke, a standout college QB at Ohio, was 52-for-82 (63.4 per cent) for 754 yards passing with three touchdowns and five interceptions in his rookie year in B.C. The Lions’ backup – Michael O’Connor – also is Canadian. The early schedule is kind for a developing quarterback – the season opener is at home against rebuilding Edmonton, followed by a bye week and another home game against Toronto. The first road game is at rebuilding Ottawa.