For a moment there, Kavis Reed was worried.
“I looked around and 50% of the team was clamoring around the heaters,” he said of Friday’s final regular-season game.
“It wasn’t that cold.
“But then I thought about it.
“For them it’s cold.”
The game time temperature was a mere minus five.
With so many first-year players, and most of them from the deep south, they won’t find out this year about football at 40 below with a wind chill.
It’s supposed to be a balmy plus three Celsius Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in Commonwealth Stadium for the Western Conference semifinal between the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos.
It may be the warmest day for a playoff football game in Edmonton.
Or maybe not.
“I’m pretty sure we had one above-zero game, but I couldn’t tell you when or what the temperature was, but I’m pretty sure it was against B.C., because I remember thinking ‘This just isn’t fair! We earned it by finishing in first place!” said Hugh Campbell, the coach of the five-in-a-row Eskimos and GM and CEO of the team that went 25 consecutive years providing a home playoff game every season.
And the equipment manager for all those years, who is still there today, is Dwayne Mandrusiak.
And here he is this year, a guy who thrived on cold weather and the field conditions at Commonwealth Stadium, and the first home playoff game since 2004 will be the first one not played on grass.
“The weather and the field won’t be a factor,” said Mandrusiak, the Eskimos equipment manager of 42 years, almost sadly.
Mandrusiak over the years of frigid football in post-season play in the big stadium and in the cold, wind-blown stadiums in Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg, was able to be a factor, a real factor.
Now, at plus three degrees and on field turf, not so much.
“Well, it’s not going to be the 1975 Grey Cup in Calgary,” he said of the 9-8 Eskimo win in minus-15 temperatures with a 25-km wind playing havoc with the punting and passing games.
“It wasn’t that crossover Eastern semifinal in Winnipeg in 2008. That was cold,” he said of coming close to the Grey Cup record low temperature of minus 17 in the same stadium in 1991.
“Those Western Finals during the five-in-a-row, they were all cold with snow on the sidelines,” he remembers of the 1978-79-80-81-82 run.
Those were the days when men were men and Mandrusiak had them wearing pantyhose because of the way the materal held in the heat (later to become battery-operated heating suits to scuba gear to the Poly Propayne cold weather, very thin, very warm expansion material they wear now) while he went around spraying them with water.
“I remember in 1993 in Calgary it was minus 53 with the wind chill and Mandrusiak was spraying water on our shoulder pads because it would freeze and the defensive linemen couldn’t grab us,” Blake Dermott told Jason Gregor on the Team 1260 earlier this week.
“It turned us into sheets of ice. And the sheets of ice actually protected us from the wind because it was so cold. The best part of that was that was the year Doug Flutie’s hands froze up and on the last play of the game he couldn’t even throw the ball.”
Mandrusiak noticed that when the players drank out of water bottles and slopped some on their uniforms it froze.
“I started spraying them with a real light mist. There’s a rule you can’t put foreign substances on uniforms but water isn’t a foreign substance. Chris Walby of Winnipeg used to put Vaseline on his uniform. He denied it. But he didn’t have much of a case. Grass was sticking to it.”
Then there was the time the Eskimos won the 1996 semifinal here 68-7 over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers because the visitors had the wrong footwear and Mandrusiak’s shoe supply of about 2,000 (he still won’t throw any out) had the Eskimos covered.
“Winnipeg had plastic cleat baseball shoes,” said Mandrusiak.
And then there was some gamesmanship that went with it.
“We went out there before the game and I said to my assistant Rob Strecker in a voice just loud enough that I knew Bob Cameron and Troy Westwood, their kickers who were out there early experimenting with different footwear could hear: ‘Oh damn, they’ve got the right shoes, they’ve got the broomball shoes.’”
This resulted in the Bombers hitting every sporting good store they could find to buy broomball shoes.
And they were an even poorer choice than the baseball cleats.
“It’s pretty satisfying when you know you contributed,” said Mandrusiak.
There always was an edge for the Eskimos in the cold on the grass in Commonwealth.
“It was mostly a mental advantage,” laughed Mandrusiak.
“We convinced our players that when they fell down to jump right back up like nothing happened. The players on the other team would fall down and be bitching and complaining.
“But there were some real advantages, too. There would be ice patches and we had guys who liked to play backyard football. Brian Kelly used to make routes up for Warren Moon to take advantage of a defensive back hitting an ice patch.
“I loved the grass. But the 2002 Grey Cup taught us that it was not really good for either team and most of our players had not played on real grass until they came here,” said Mandrusiak, knowing that his frigid football footwear follies were coming to a conclusion.
“One of the things I loved about Hugh Campbell was his philosophy. He always told me ‘If it will help us win, buy it.’ ”
Campbell learned his lesson early, in his first Grey Cup as head coach.
“An Alouette player went by me on the sidelines with snow under his shoes like he was skating,” he said.
That was the 1977 Staples Game in Montreal.
Campbell said it was shoes where Mandrusiak was always a magic man.
“Dwayne always showed his excellence in that area. We’d always have options. He always kept us ahead. Players get traded and players talk.”
Campbell said a lot of those games were won psychologically as well.
“A big part was just learning how to dress. Early on, when you aren’t used to it, the tendency is to over-dress. A lot of that was experience and passing it on to rookies. Rookies were like my dad, who was born and raised and spent his life in California. He said ‘How can you drive a car on a road with snow on it?’ Some players are like that. I always prayed for a couple real wet, cold days in training camp so I could get a clue about some of those players.
“Bud Grant and Eagle Keys never wanted players from the deep south, especially handling the ball on field goals. We might have won the 1975 Grey Cup because of that,” he said of the holder Jimmy Jones on the bad placement on the game-ending field goal which went wide.
So Sunday it will be plus four. And if the Eskimos win they’ll advance to the Western Final in BC Place.
And if they win again they’ll advance to the Grey Cup in BC Place where they also played two late-season games.
These, ah, Eskimos have no idea how good they have it this year.