A team in transition, the B.C. Lions turn to free agency

Here’s how you know the biggest transition with the B.C. Lions in 15 years is working as they head upwind into the most important part of the off-season in the CFL, otherwise known as free agency.

On one floor of their Surrey practice facility the other day after introducing his new staff, svelte coach Wally Buono is holding court on the beauty of the B.C. health care system following successful back surgery, plus relaying his chance meeting with Magic Johnson on Maui during the recent bogus nuclear warning.

A floor above, GM Ed Hervey is in his office, and the door is closed. Staffers say the door is closed a lot.

If there are issues when a power broker like Buono sticks around and gives up the control he once insisted on having to run a three-down operation, they are not evident, which has the Lions poised nicely when the green flag drops on the league’s annual talent market Tuesday.

Optics aside, there remains reason to think the Lions are about to view free agency in a manner much differently than the past, only because until last year Buono annually viewed the talent lottery as a sickness, preferring not to overpay in an open market but find his own talent.

Hervey would offer caution to those suggesting he will attempt to make a splash, however. And a gander at the list of free agents he signed last year for the Edmonton Eskimos, which include mainstays like Euclid Cummings, Cory Greenwood and Shamawd Chambers but also role performers like Travon Van, Kendail Lawrence and Andrew Lue, should reduce expectations.

He’ll stick to his previously stated wish list to improve the line of scrimmage, having been productive already with five potential starters signed on the offensive and defensive lines alone.

But without prompting Hervey also mentioned a desire to address the Lions non-import talent base, which might provide a clue as to his direction in the days ahead.

“That goes without saying,” Hervey said. “The best Canadians on the market are the players we’ll look at; if there’s someone who could change the ratio. Is there an offensive lineman who can be a starter or give us depth? Depth in the teams; linebackers, those are the guys.”

It likely therefore didn’t make Hervey’s day when an offensive lineman like Philip Blake recently re-signed in Montreal. But if it’s a linebacker to change the ratio the Lions want if seeking a replacement for Micah Awe they could hardly go wrong with Hervey draftee and Vancouver College product Adam Konar of the Esks.

Until it starts for real it’s all speculative of course, but with Buono only in collaborative mode these days the Lions are facing their best chance in years to shake things up.

Hervey has already taken a big first step when several starters, including Craig Roh, Alex Bazzie, Kirby Fabien and Ronnie Yell, were not offered contracts.

Hard choices were made too. Realizing only one import defensive back of the two seeking second contracts would likely fit under the salary cap, the Lions made an offer to Chandler Fenner and not Loucheiz Purifoy.

Purifoy had workouts with NFL teams but none came to the Lions looking for an early release. He could still be a target for the Lions but only if they don’t have success with Fenner.

There’s also not enough loonies on the table presently to bring back Travis Lulay, who met with Hervey last week but has yet to strike a deal with the rehabbing quarterback, and might now have to wait until other needs are met by the Lions.

“It’s going to be a bit longer than anticipated; not because there’s any animosity,” said Hervey, claiming the 34-year-old is still considering retirement. “I believe if Travis wants to play I’d hope it would be here.” (Update: Lulay signed a one-year deal with the Lions Monday)

However, armchair handicapping should not, Hervey said, be undertaken simply by grabbing the list of potential free agents from the team he oversaw in Edmonton only last spring. He wasn’t caught unaware when Adarius Bowman signed in Winnipeg, but never made him an offer because B.C. has already invested at the position group. The man has a plan.

“We have our priorities and I’m staying disciplined… In recent years I’ve gone after role players. We never made big a splash in Edmonton.” said Hervey, which only served to illustrate that on one level at least, the transition from Buono to a new guy in charge isn’t much of a change at all.




Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.