Bombers' surreal season

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:32 AM ET

WINNIPEG - Returning to the toy department, Monday, it seemed as if I’d woken up from a 20-year sleep, a la Rip Van Winkle, instead of simply escaping to the lake for some R and R.

I mean, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers finishing the first third of the CFL campaign in first place, at 5-1?

That hasn’t happened in, well, more than two decades.

Then there was the crushing news the Bombers lost a member of the family, assistant coach Richard Harris, simply one of the kindest men you’ll ever meet.

Coaches just don’t die on the job, dammit. And didn’t the man’s loved ones deserve some sort of warning, a chance to say goodbye?

Of course, life’s more unfair than any game could ever be.

And yet the Bombers soldiered on, winning a couple of days after the tragedy, and again last Friday, under circumstances nobody practices for, nobody has a how-to guide for.

It’s all still a little surreal.

Longtime Bomber fans must be wondering if it’s real, too.

So I went to the place I always go when I’ve been away for a while: my neighbourhood hardware store.

For the uninitiated, Hardware Hank is a veteran Bomber booster. Has season tickets at midfield, Section 10, in the upper deck.

What I like about Hank is he tells it like it is, not how he’d like it to be. He may wave pompoms at the game, but amidst his garden hoses, tools and vacuums he sees a team for what it is, leaks and all.

Monday, between cutting keys for one customer and telling another how to silicone a sink, Hank took some time to talk about the inner workings of his favourite football team.

“The best defence, bar none,” he began. “They come out a little slow... then they just shut ’em down.”

The most recent exhibit: the Edmonton Eskimos and quarterback Ricky Ray, the hottest hand in the land.

“Until he got here,” Hank said, referring to Friday’s dismantling of the Esks attack like it was one of those cheap, metal garden sheds, the Bomber defence banging away at it until it collapsed, then methodically removing the nuts and bolts.

“And that’s without Doug Brown,” Hank pointed out. “They’re laying lickings on guys.”

And separating them from the ball with sledgehammer-like subtlety.

The Bombers are running away with the most important stat in football, the turnover ratio — they’re plus-15, while the next team, the Esks, are plus-seven.

“They call themselves Swaggerville,” said a guy lurking near the counter.

Now, I’m not big on cockiness from a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in two years and hasn’t won a championship in 20, and I don’t think Hardware Hank is, either.

But he doesn’t seem to mind the attitude Winnipeg’s defence has adopted.

“We had some pretty good defences that have been cocky in the past,” Hank said. “And it took us a long way. It doesn’t hurt to swagger a little.”

So it’s all good in the land of the Big Blue?

“The only thing that’s going to slow us down is our offence,” Hank said. “Pierce has only had one great game.”

Like I said, Hank doesn’t ignore the rust spots.

But while Buck Pierce may not be lighting it up, he is still in one piece. And from what I’ve seen he’s giving the Bombers the kind of quarterbacking — smart, efficient and capable of big plays — they haven’t had since Khari Jones was in his prime.

Last, but not least, Coach LaPo appears to have learned from his rookie season, too.

“I haven’t seen a real boneheaded decision, yet,” is how Hank put it.

That’s when the third guy suggested the unthinkable: the Bombers playing on the fourth Sunday of November.

I looked at Hank, expecting him to be rolling his eyes.

“If they keep playing like this, they’ll get there,” he said.

I rushed home to check the calendar, knowing exactly how Van Winkle must have felt.


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