Like all teams in the Canadian Football League, the Saskatchewan Roughriders can feel a little bit of optimism as the league announced Wednesday plans to play in 2021.
However, the season’s target date was pushed back to Aug. 5 from June 10, and as many have learned during the coronavirus pandemic, nothing is for certain.
“I think what we want to do today was announce a firm commitment to playing, but be realistic with what those conditions to play are,” said Craig Reynolds, Saskatchewan Roughriders’ president and CEO.
“And the first is, obviously, we need health and safety approval across all the provinces.”
Pushing back the start date gives the CFL more time for its return-to-play protocols to be approved by Canadian health officials.
Amended protocols are before the six provinces where franchises are based — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec – and must be approved.
Then the return-to-play plan would go to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which was examining the league’s health-and-safety protocols last year when it cancelled the ’20 season.
The CFL also might have to secure a national interest exemption from the federal government for games to be played before the completion of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination program.
“We’ve received tremendous feedback from the provinces,” said Randy Ambrosie, CFL commissioner.
“We have a little bit more time and we’ll continue to refine our return-to-play protocols to make sure they’re perfectly synchronized with the situation that we’ll find ourselves in as we get closer to launch our season.”
With a potential Aug. 5 start date, the league is reducing the number of games played to 14 per team instead of a full 18-game schedule. The Grey Cup game is scheduled for Dec. 12 in Hamilton instead of Nov. 21.
Along with masking and distancing measures, there will be reduced attendance capacity at each stadium across the league.
However, neither Ambrosie nor Reynolds could say exactly what that percentage of fans allowed in could be.
“We’re very optimistic that we’re going to be able to have our fans. The Aug. 5 target date is very realistic from what we’re hearing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fans in every jurisdiction across the CFL at the start,” Reynolds said.
“Were prepared to open the season and host more games in the West, returning to Ontario and Quebec and potentially B.C. when fans are allowed in those jurisdictions.”
Canadian kicker and Roughrider Brett Lauther said it’s a welcomed announcement after spending more than a year in limbo waiting for good news.
”The last few months and past year, there’s been so much uncertainty so it’s something to look forward to,” Lauther said.
“It was kind of what I was expecting as well, but hopefully when that time comes, we are playing. I’m hoping for the best like everyone else, and just looking forward to getting back out there eventually.”
Despite the uncertainty, Lauther said the target date this year is much more realistic than last year.
“I think we’re in a much different place this year with the vaccinations and what we know,” Lauther said.
“This time around, things are looking a lot better so, yeah, hoping for the best, but obviously prepared for whatever happens either way.”
Ambrosie said there has been no discussion regarding the CFL starting the season without fans and being allowed to gradually allow spectators into games. He was also mum on if the ’21 campaign would be cancelled outright if stadiums had to remain empty and whether the CFL could survive a second straight year without games.
“We’re going to play football in 2021,” Ambrosie said. “We have backup plans and backup plans to our backup plans, we’re committed to finding a way to play.
“There’s no perfect answer right now because like almost everybody else, we’re at the mercy of what’s happening with this pandemic. What I am going to continue to reiterate and am happy to say is we are going to play football.”
The CFL and CFLPA must also agree on an amended collective bargaining agreement. Brian Ramsay, CFL Players’ Association’s executive director says talks are ongoing.