Last year the Winnipeg Blue Bombers re-signed their "Big 3" free agents.
One of them (Matt Sheridan) didn't play at all and is now gone, another (Tom Canada) played half a season and is now gone, and the other (Dan Goodspeed) helped get the Bombers to the playoffs, but they flamed out in the first round.
This year the Blue and Gold have gone in a different direction, losing three big starting Canadian offensive linemen through free agency instead.
Left tackle Alexandre Gauthier (Hamilton), centre Dominic Picard (Toronto) and right guard Kyle Koch (Edmonton) each bolted Winnipeg yesterday, signing with new teams in the first 24 hours of CFL free agency and leaving a gaping hole on the line.
The Bombers tried to stop the bleeding by signing a pair of free-agent offensive linemen out of Saskatchewan, import Glenn January and Canadian Steve Morley, but it appears Winnipeg took a hit. Losing three Canadian starters in the CFL, especially on the offensive line, is never a good thing.
"Do you think I'm happy about it? No," head coach Mike Kelly said. "But we had to be prepared for it, and we had to have an alternative plan. And we did that."
Kelly not only put on a brave face yesterday afternoon -- "We're going to be a better football team, I promise you," he said -- but he also suggested it's the former regime's fault that Gauthier, Picard and Koch all walked.
"The way we need to operate in the future is that we can not allow three starters, if you will, with Kyle being a spot starter, to get into free agency," he said. "You can't do that.
"As you have good players that you know you want to keep, as they are approaching their option year, you need to start renegotiating with them then. Not wait until the last minute and say, 'Oh, geez, it's free agency time.'
"That's not a prudent way to do business as far as I'm concerned. So we will be more proactive than reactive in the future."
Gauthier, 32, received his financial offer from the Bombers a couple of weeks ago, but he said it came too close to free agency for him not to explore the market. Kelly scoffed at that late last week, but Gauthier said there was no tension between the two that forced him to leave.
"The last two years were great over there," Gauthier said yesterday from Hamilton, where he will be formally introduced as a Ticat today. "I wasn't joking when I said (the Bombers) were in the race. That's all part of negotiation, actually, what happened the last couple of days. That's not really a factor why I'm not going back there.
"I thought Hamilton would be a good opportunity to be closer to home, and they are rebuilding the team here and putting a lot of effort into winning more games. I just want to be a part of that.
"It's nothing that Winnipeg did wrong. We decided to try something else. It's part of the game."
Picard and Koch didn't return messages, but Koch's agent, Darren Gill, said his client received a "better opportunity." Picard had reportedly verbally agreed to a deal with the Bombers several weeks ago but changed his mind and decided to explore the market.
Picard and Rob Murphy, a two-time CFL O-lineman of the year with the B.C. Lions, are expected to be introduced at a press conference today in Toronto as the newest members of the Argos.
Gauthier signed for one year and an option worth $140,000 per year, while Picard will earn $110,000 a season. Kelly said the Bombers did everything they could to re-sign the duo.
"Believe me that we did our best to try to keep them here, but there's other considerations that are involved," Kelly said. "There's family considerations, and I think those played a factor in both those young men apparently making decisions to go elsewhere."