Ullrich: B.C. Lions take low-key approach to a big off-season opportunity

The platitudes and expectations associated with the first day of the football season are no different with the B.C. Lions than any of their CFL brethren, just a little lower-key than usual.

Well, make that, a lot more low key. If it started off any quieter, new general manager Ed Hervey could be accused of operating a witness protection program and chances are he’d smile at that suggestion to boot.

With the majority of their rivals setting up shop in more posh destinations working with an unfavourable exchange rate, the Lions held their first mini-camp session under cloudless 25C skies at their Surrey practice facility Wednesday.

That they made no attempt to let the outside world know by announcing things like practice times, outside of their own web portals, is just one sign that life under Hervey is going to be a lot different than when coach Wally Buono called all the shots.

Of course, that was already apparent a few months ago when Hervey did a serious rebuilding of Buono’s roster in free agency. But also new is the approach, plus the large number of players on hand for the first of four sessions, some 51 in all and almost everyone with no prior three-down experience.

Buono only reluctantly engaged in mini-camp sessions when they became part of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the CFLPA a few years back. It’s much different now, and not just because there’s a new sheriff in town.

Hervey and Buono have elected not to use the allowable three-day period to evaluate rookies prior to the start of training camp in Kamloops May 20. Buono also maintained his practice of not attending most of the team’s winter free agent tryout camps, meaning this week represents a first, last and only look for the head coach of a team which will already have to make cuts to reach a 75-man limit Tuesday.

A safe wager might be that at this time next year, Hervey will have the Lions setting up for three days of mini-camp somewhere like Las Vegas, where a CFL operation can work in complete anonymity, as he did during his days in charge of the Edmonton Eskimos.

For a team which had a much busier winter than anticipated, given matters like the curious loss of free agent Euclid Cummings and being named in a new alleged negligence lawsuit by Arland Bruce, doing more in a smaller time frame just made sense for the Lions.

“We felt in the last year or two we didn’t get as much out of it. Ed and I talked about increasing the number of players so coaches can get a better understanding of who they are and so we have a hot list of players if something occurs,” said Buono.

Nonetheless, the Lions will see CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay attend practice Thursday to determine in the mini-camp rulebook is being followed, vowing to be on their best behaviour after drawing the attention of the union last year when the Lions tried to drum up some interest by making veteran quarterback Jon Jennings available during the off-season.

And instead of responding when asked why the Lions are in stealth mode, Buono insisted the focus should not be placed on the process but on the talent at hand. Outside of a few names like Everett Golson, a former Hamilton backup quarterback, ex-Toronto receiver Kevin Elliott, who is here on his own dime as reported by 3Down Nation, or DeVonte Lynch, a 5-7 replica of his older brother, Marshawn, it’s an anonymous group for the most part.

After last year’s non-playoff stumble, the silent treatment for starters is probably appropriate.

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.