Six CFL things to be thankful for on (American) Thanksgiving

There has been a lot of negativity surrounding the CFL this year — of which I have helped with — and it has been a rough 2016 for Canada’s flagship pro sports league. From injuries to ref controversies to the ineptitude of the East Division to the attendance struggles in places like Toronto and Vancouver, it has been hard to escape the constant string of bad news coming from the CFL.

But it wasn’t all bad, right? There were some good things in 2016 for fans of the three-down game. With it being the American version of Thanksgiving, I thought now would be a good time to list a few things that I was thankful for this CFL season.

And before anyone gets angry that I am doing this on American Thanksgiving instead of the Canadian one, remember that half this league and a majority of its coaches (and some fans) are American, and this is a tip of my cap to them. So let’s get to it.

1. The greatness that was the Calgary Stampeders: We all bore witness this year to possibly the greatest single-season team in CFL history. Whether they cap things off with a Grey Cup win or not this Sunday, the Stamps were the best team in the CFL in 2016 and it is not really debatable. This is a team that really had no discernible flaws and they just went about their business in an effective and efficient manner. There was something quite comforting about watching Calgary operate at peak levels this year.

2. The Cardiac Cats: Prior to this season, never in CFL history had a team comeback from down 15+ in three games in one season. That changed this year with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The comebacks against Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa made for classic CFL games (and probably more than a few heart attacks amongst Ticats fans). Down 25 to the Eskimos, the Ticats rallied behind Jeremiah Masoli’s CFL record 23-straight competitions to pull off a 37-31 win. Down 20, Zach Collaros orchestrated a furious second-half comeback to outduel Ricky Ray and the Argos in a true Labour Day Classic. And desperately needing a win, the Ticats came back from down 15 at halftime to defeat the Redblacks in double overtime in Ottawa. They were three of the best CFL games played this season and helped continue the belief that no lead is safe.

3. The return to prominence of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers: Grey Cup droughts suck, but playoff droughts suck almost as much. As a Ticats fan, I have dealt with both, but fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have dealt with it even worse. They have not won a championship since 1990 — for perspective, The Simpsons was in just its second season at the time — and prior to this year had not made the playoffs since 2011. Things looked bleak early, as the Bombers got off to a 1-4 start, but a change at QB turned their whole season around and when the smoke cleared, Winnipeg was 11-7 and playoff bound. While they lost in heartbreaking fashion in the West Semi-Final to the B.C. Lions, fall football mattered in the Manitoba capital for the first time in five years and you just had to feel good for Bombers fans.

4. The Manny Show: We saw a lot of great individual performances this year, but one that is not talked about enough is the play of B.C.’s Manny Arceneaux. He finished third in the league in receiving yards, third in the league in receptions and led the league in touchdown catches, but it was his play down the stretch that wowed me the most. In his last eight games, Arceneaux caught 50 passes for 842 yards and nine touchdowns. He was phenomenal to close out the season and was a treat to watch almost every week. Like The Flash, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, The Manny Show is a program that seems to get better every year and 2016 was his best to date.

5. Saying goodbye to an old friend: Living through the closing of Ivor Wynne Stadium was bittersweet. It was a great building with many memories, but you just knew it needed to go. The feeling seemed to be similar this year out in Saskatchewan where they said goodbye to their iconic stadium, Mosaic Stadium. The Riders and their fans move into what looks like a gorgeous new palace next year, and while the season on the field didn’t go how Rider Nation would have liked, the ability to say goodbye to an old friend while getting excited to meet a new one will be one of the lasting feel-good memories from the 2016 season.

6. The origin story of a superstar: I am a big comic book fan, so I am very familiar with the origin story. It is where the hero, usually just a regular person, gets imbued with super powers and goes on to great things. We saw just that this year with B.C.’s Jonathon Jennings. We saw a glimpse of what Jennings could do last year, but while some (including myself) were skeptical about whether Jennings could repeat what he did at the tail end of 2015, he proved everyone who doubted him wrong. Third in the league in passing yards, third in the league in passing touchdowns, and guiding the Lions to a berth in the West Final in just his first full season as a starter is impressive no matter how you cut it. He was also one of the most exciting players to watch this year; a gunslinger who could run and loved to throw the deep ball. Remind you of anyone? If 2016 was just Act 1 for Jennings, I cannot wait to see Acts 2 and 3.

So that is just some of the CFL things I was thankful for this year. What were you thankful for this season? Remember, be positive. Nothing like, “I”m thankful the Argos sucked” or “I’m thankful Jim Popp was fired.” Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers, and to all the American players, coaches and fans that make the CFL what it is.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.