WINNIPEG - How sad. It was Valentine’s Day afternoon, and it looked like the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and all-star offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte were in the process of breaking up.
LaBatte isn’t returning Winnipeg’s calls, and Winnipeg is already talking like it’s getting ready to move on. All that’s left to do is wait for a press release from another CFL club and let Bomber fans begin the seven stages of grief.
Yes, CFL free agency, which begins Wednesday at 11:01 a.m., is probably going to be about the player the Bombers lose more than anyone they sign.
LaBatte has been Winnipeg’s O-line anchor since the team made him the sixth overall draft pick in 2008. The left guard has been the team’s top offensive lineman three years running, and he was tabbed as the one free agent the Blue and Gold couldn’t let get away this off-season.
It appears, however, Winnipeg’s nightmare is about to become reality, with the belief being the Weyburn, Sask., native is heading home to join the Roughriders.
“I can’t see it being about money, because our offer was very, very substantial,” Bombers GM Joe Mack said Tuesday. “I can’t imagine in any way, shape or form it’s about money. Brendon always expressed the fact that he really liked being here.
“… There’s the obvious thing that Brendon’s from Saskatchewan, so we’ve been aware of that. He has family there. He’s very close to his family. Time will tell if that’s the thing, but at times you can’t compete with geography. So that may just be the case.”
It’s believed the Bombers are offering $170,000 per season to LaBatte, and they even tried to help him with his stock car racing team, which is the 25-year-old’s real passion.
Mack said he has been trying to extend LaBatte’s contract for a year and a half. He said based on their relationship, he hoped LaBatte would have have been “forthright as soon as possible, but of course there’s a business aspect to it.”
Yes, breaking up is hard to do.
Then again, there are plenty of fish in the sea. If LaBatte does indeed file for divorce, a CFL source said the Bombers will slap an engagement ring on Toronto offensive lineman Dominic Picard. The 29-year-old played for the Bombers between 2006 and 2008, and has an edge to him. The Bombers are also believed to be interested in Calgary O-lineman Tim O’Neill.
Thanks to Steve Morley’s re-signing with the team on Tuesday and the anticipated return of right tackle Glenn January, the Bombers already have four of their starting five O-linemen for 2012. Kelly Butler and January will be the import tackles, and Obby Khan and Morley will be somewhere in the interior.
The Bombers also have the next generation of Canadian hogs in Chris Greaves, Chris Kowalczuk, Justin Sorensen, Paul Swiston and Brendan Dunn from which to possibly choose.
No LaBatte, however, would leave a gaping hole. Mack put on a brave face and said no matter what happens Wednesday and beyond, Bomber fans have no reason to worry.
“Standing here today, I would feel very comfortable and good with the roster we have right now of going and being able to play the season,” he said. “Having said that, I’d like to think we’re going to get some more pieces to upgrade us in certain areas, but right now we’d be able to be competitive, and that’s a pretty good feeling for the club and hopefully our fans.”
Receiver Greg Carr will become a free agent on Wednesday morning, and Mack isn’t sure what will happen.
“Greg has always told me that he really, really likes it here,” Mack said. “We felt we were real close. I don’t know what advice he’s getting from other people, so something may have been interjected there. Obviously we’d like to have him back.”
Receiver Aaron Hargreaves and defensive tackle Don Oramasionwu will be free to explore their options, and left tackle Andre Douglas is going to pursue his NFL dreams, so the Bombers are moving on.
Defensive tackle Doug Brown hasn’t retired yet, which technically means he’ll also be free at 11:01 a.m. Imagine the reaction if another team signed him.
Once again, GM Joe Mack said the Bombers will not be big players in free agency. They’ll look to maybe improve their Canadian content, but that’s about it. Here’s a look at the top Canucks slated to go free at 11:01 a.m. on Wednesday.
— SB Andy Fantuz, Saskatchewan
— OL Dominic Picard, Toronto
— P Burke Dales, Calgary
— OL Tim O’Neill, Calgary
THE OTHER CANUCKS
— OL Taylor Robertson, Toronto
— LB Kevin Eiben, Toronto
— LB Walter Spencer, Montreal
— DT Matt Kirk, Hamilton
— WR Matt Carter, Hamilton
— FB Graeme Bell, Saskatchewan
— SB Jason Clermont, Saskatchewan
— WR Arjei Franklin, Calgary
— OL Rob Murphy, Toronto
— S Willie Pile, Toronto
— CB Byron Parker, Toronto
— DE Jermaine McElveen, Montreal
— CB Mark Estelle, Montreal
— K Justin Medlock, Hamilton
— DT Aaron Hunt, B.C.
— CB Dante Marsh, B.C.
— DB Ryan Phillips, B.C.
— RB Wes Cates, Sask
— KR Tristan Jackson, Sask
— LB Rod Davis, Edmonton
— DE Greg Peach, Edmonton
— LB Mark Restelli, Edmonton