In order to experience the last Labour Day Classic to be played at Taylor Field, having spent many a Sunday “Labour Day” afternoon as a young man baking (not basking) in the east side stands (Section 28 Rules!) so that I could return to school with my lower thighs, forearms and nose burned to a scabby mess (I did not take my shirt off; nobody needed to see that), Discombobulated made the pilgrimage to Regina to watch another historical landmark slip away into the dustbin of Canadian sports history. Like Maple Leaf Gardens* and the Forum in Montreal, time stands still for no building, leaving in its wake a trail of angry voters wondering why the government is cutting services across the board after dropping a mint to build a largely unnecessary state-of-the-art stadium for a team that may be entering another Dark Age. Telethons await! In the meantime, I can report that the new Mosaic Stadium is spectacular. Too bad if Saskatchewan seniors are getting their benefits cut so the government can reduce its appalling but completely predictable budgetary deficit. Those seniors should have thought twice before deciding to get all old and stuff; did they think the oil boom would last forever? Dummies. All hail Premier Wall.
Anyway, it is an odd feeling in Regina right now. Everything seems the same. Rob Vanstone is giving the Riders his always cogent and historically-informed bitch-slapping in The Leader-Post. There is much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth among Riders fans of questionable sobriety. The ubiquitous Rider =S= appears on every street lamp, storefront and item of clothing like Regina residents are living in some dystopian fascist nightmare. Same odd smell from Wascana “Lake”. Pot holes galore (seriously, guys, fix the damned potholes).
But there is a difference lurking under the placid but tentative surface of Riderville.
There is a tinge of restlessness and discomfiture in Regina that goes beyond the typical unhappiness and never-satisfied but almost-always-drunk Rider fans. We have been through long winless streaks and lengthy periods of incompetence (John Herrera, Jack Gotta, Ray Jauch, etc.). This is the town, after all, where the reputations of good coaches and GMs go to die. We have been through rebuilding programs, some that went somewhere, some that went nowhere. Most that went nowhere. That’s not the problem. We can smile through these times like we have in the past, typically with copious amounts of alcohol, but right now there is an uneasiness about the way the Saskatchewan Roughriders are going about this rebuild.
Rob Vanstone summarized it nicely in the page 2 portion of his September 3, 2016, article in The Leader-Post, thus partially enunciating the football zeitgeist in Saskatchewan this 2016 CFL season. (Quick digression: The Regina Leader-Post appears to be little more than a thin community newsletter designed to deliver a parade of advertisements for truck sales, Safeway, and an impressive roster of local realtors looking awesomely knowledgeable, approachable and/or trustworthy. A bunch of real go-getters. The sports section appears to contain 90% of the local content, with the rest of the “content” being AP wire stories and one or two major inserts from the National Post and Financial Post. I’m not sure what it says that the Leader-Post still runs Horrible Hagar cartoons, but it can’t be good. High marks, however, for the horoscope section that takes up more than a half-page; things are looking up for me; something about Uranus. Quick further digression: The local Co-op grocery stores still have enormous cardboard cut-outs of Weston Dressler holding a bag of chips, all decked out in Blue Bomber blue. You can tell where everyone’s heart still is.)
Anyway, back to Vanstone’s observations (or Robservations as he sometimes calls them; get it? Robservations. Robser—ah, never mind. You people.), Mr. Vanstone described a litany of decisions and occurrences this season that are not exactly considered to be the Rider Way of Doing Things. He starts with the release of Chick and Dressler, then all the nasty fines that have piled up for conduct of a questionable nature, the salary cap penalty for some other stuff, the weird and still-not-totally explained controversy over NFL linebacker Greg Hardy (who blocked who and why/how did it come up in the first place), and ending with the recent saga of social-media-challenged but still monstrous Khalif Mitchell. This last issue has been heating up the phone-in lines as the undercurrent of grumbling is beginning to bubble up, along with the completely understandable concern that none of us knows who all those players on the field are. Yes, there’s Durant, and Bagg, and Knox Jr., and we all love the newish guy Roosevelt, but then it gets a little hazy. Is George Reed still playing?
We all know that this would all be forgotten already if the Roughriders had won even two or three more games so far. It will all be forgotten if the Roughriders emerge from this rebuild with another powerhouse even remotely similar to the 2007 to mid-2014 Golden Age. But right now, we are all wondering if we have made a Faustian Bargain by handing the team to General Manager and Head Coach Dark Helmet, or offended the football gods by the manner in which we snatched him from Edmonton even before his name had been stamped onto the Grey Cup. Some are wondering if Dark Helmet brought the Evil Empire with him.
It reminds me of the brief but bright Don Matthews era in Saskatchewan. In a move that was reminiscent of the attempted recall of the White Witch in Prince Caspian, the Roughriders made a bold decision back in the middle of the 1991 season to conjure up one of Canadian football’s greatest legends to turn the struggling franchise around. Indeed, by the time Robokicker tripped and fell down on the last play of the 1992 Western Semi-Final in Edmonton, Coach Matthews had turned the Roughriders into a very respectable team with a very bright future. I remember as Ridgway picked himself off the field and the season ended, I watched Coach Matthews kinda shrug and jog off the field. “Hmh,” he seemed to be thinking, “I wonder if I’ll get home in time to catch the end of Matlock.” After one further non-Grey Cup season (11-7) at the helm, Coach Matthews was off to Baltimore to continue his Grey Cup conquests with other teams and other players. Coach Matthews brought a stone-cold icy mercenary feel to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, but he manufactured a good team. We’d be happy if our current fearless leader Dark Helmet does the same thing, but he has to start, if not yesterday, or right now, at least real soon.
So Riderville is watching its team with wary eyes, hoping for the best but wondering if it should be bracing for the worst. It reminds me of the look on a farmer’s face as he stands in his ripe but still unharvested field, scanning the clouds above and wondering if, not only might they contain hail, but whether a tornado is on the way. This is the odd undercurrent I felt as I wandered the mean streets of Regina this 2016 Labour Day long weekend.
*Speaking of Maple Leaf Gardens, when I was in Toronto for the 2012 Grey Cup, I asked the young man at the concierge desk at the hotel I was staying at (which shall remain nameless) the directions to Maple Leaf Gardens so that I could pay my respects. It had been converted to some kind of multi-use facility but I still felt I needed to make the effort. The young man at the concierge desk did not know what I was talking about. The best he could come up with was the Botanical Gardens. The doorman, who looked to be about 80 years older than me and the concierge kid combined, overheard our conversation and gave me directions. But seriously: you live in Toronto and you’ve never even heard of Maple Leaf Gardens? <sputter>
Ozymandias would be chuckling.