Riders’ GM Jeremy O’Day switches focus to return to play following CFL Draft

For fans of the Canadian Football League, the 2021 CFL Draft was an oasis in a desert of despair.

Discussing rosters and highlighting top prospects was a welcome respite from a news cycle too often dominated by the financial challenges facing the league, the ongoing pandemic, and the looming spectre of XFL talks.

While fans can choose to linger on those warm and fuzzy feelings, those in the league cannot and Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Jeremy O’Day was frank about where his immediate focus would be during his post-draft press conference.

“We’ll really switch our focus to our return to play and start going through the health and safety plan that we’ll have to execute once the season starts,” he said in between questions about top pick Nelson Lokombo and second-round steal Terrell Jana.

“It will be a different year with what we have to do to get all our players up here, to keep them safe, but also to try to keep everyone playing football and staying healthy for the season. We’ll be working through that in the next number of weeks.”

The Riders already have a return to play plan submitted and approved by the provincial government, but there is still work to be done. Federal immigration approval will be needed to bring players in to the country, regional guidelines must be met and the team must implement their plan as the pandemic situation nation-wide continues to evolve.

The CFL has announced a delayed start date for the 2021 season, with a 14-game schedule targeted to kick-off on August 5, culminating with a December 12 Grey Cup. For that timeline to be met, the league requires that ‘a significant number of fans’ be allowed in stadiums.

Regina and other Western jurisdictions are viewed as the most favourable environment for that to occur and Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe added to that hope shortly before the draft on Tuesday. He proposed a three-step plan to relax restrictions that is expected to begin the last week of May and finish with ‘most’ restrictions being lifted in the second week of July. That’s if 70 percent of adults 18 and older receive their first vaccine dose by then.

O’Day couldn’t comment on how that proposal would specifically affect the Riders but noted it was a positive development.

“Any good news is welcome. We’ve been going through this and everyone’s probably had their challenges and all of us have been impacted. Some have been impacted more than others with the pandemic, so anything we can get that’s good news is highly welcomed,” O’Day said.

“We’re watching the rest of the country as well, to watch the case numbers and vaccinations. It’s crazy how we’re watching the numbers of vaccinations and the numbers of people with COVID in our country like it’s a running total every day. We’re giving updates to each other every day, because really it’s something that we’re up against, but we are starting to see those positive signs.”

As vaccinations rates rise, hospitalizations fall, but many experts remain concerned that the critical mass of immunized individuals necessary to stall the virus will be prevented by vaccine hesitancy. Roughly 45 percent of eligible Saskatchewan residents have received the shot already and the government believes they will be able to maintain the current vaccination rate with the aid of the proposed incentives.

For the watermelon-helmet-clad faithful, there could be no greater incentive than the ability to watch a Riders game at Mosaic Stadium. With the roster mostly in place, save for a few minor tweaks, O’Day’s main focus is on making that a reality.

“I can’t stop thinking about the feeling of us getting back on the field and our fans being able to see our team playing again. If any province misses the game of football and their team, it’s this team and these fans that have been waiting,” O’Day acknowledged.

“I just want us to get back on the field. I’m super excited for the news of progress with getting everyone healthy and getting us back on the field. We’re looking forward to getting some wins moving forward.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.