‘Ambivalent’ John Hufnagel believes CFL has realistic 2021 plan, but ultimately ‘out of our control’

Photo Scott Grant / CFLPhotoArchive.com
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

Wednesday’s announcement of a postponed 2021 CFL season has many leaders across the league singing a distinctly up-beat tune, but much like in a post-game press conference, John Hufnagel isn’t cracking a smile.

“I’m ambivalent about the decision, I would rather have our season start on time, but the climate won’t allow it,” the Calgary Stampeders GM told reporters on Thursday.

“I think an August 5th start is a very realistic start date, very prudent and very well thought out.”

That sort of balanced, no nonsense outlook is what CFL fans have come to expect from the Hall of Fame personnel man and former coach.

The CFL plans to play a 14-game season beginning on August 5 and culminating with a pushed-back Grey Cup festival on December 12.

Return to play still must be approved at both the provincial and federal level, but more importantly a “significant” number of fans must be allowed in stadiums in Week One to proceed, a number estimated to be around 25% capacity.

When asked what attendance figure would be make play feasible for the Stampeders, Hufnagel remained vague.

“It all depends on what your definition of what feasible is. We’re going to lose money, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, we need some fans in the stands,” he stated frankly.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of revenue coming into the Stampeders football club for over a year and we are a fan driven league. I know our ownership, along with all other ownerships in the CFL, is very very committed to play football this year.”

After the Canadian government refused to provide a $30 million interest-free loan a year ago, the board of governors voted to cancel the 2020 season. The CFL reportedly lost between $60 and $80 million last year and are set to lose millions more if any kind of season is played in 2021.

Fan attendance is viewed as the only meaningful way to stem those losses.

“There’s not really anything definite about a number. We want as many as possible. Our fans would like to have as many as possible. I think we’ll be given permission to have enough to get done what we need to get done,” Hufnagel added.

The Alberta government under Premier Jason Kenney has been much maligned for their handling of the pandemic, but remains among the most friendly to the CFL’s conditions. An official government letter went as far as to suggest capacity restriction could be lifted by late July and responses to both Calgary’s return to play proposal and attendance requests have been positive.

“They’ve been very receptive on both of those, so I don’t think there’s a problem with what we are planning,” Hufnagel says. “They just have to feel comfortable with giving us the green light on it.”

That green light will require vaccinations to continue at their current pace, with the federal government considering anything less than a 75 percent vaccinated populace too risky to significantly ease restrictions.

August 5 looks like a reasonable projection now, but Hufnagel is well aware certainty on whether the virus will allow the CFL season to progress as planned won’t be achieved until mid-June.

“I’m comfortable with saying that it looks possible and very realistic, but if we get another downturn on this thing, it’s out of our control,” he admitted.

“Truthfully, the CFL ownership is doing as much as they can and everything they can to get us back on the field but we have to follow protocols and get permissions.”

Cautious optimism will continue, but it will be needles in arms that determine whether football is played this year, not the CFL.