CFL schedule not expected to be announced this coming week, Manitoba ‘the only gray area’: Lalji

Screengrab courtesy: TSN

Full stadiums in Alberta, fans in B.C. by August and teams preparing for training camps, the optimism in the air around the CFL is infectious.

That won’t make an official 2021 schedule come to fruition any faster.

When B.C. Lions president Rick Lelacheur issued a statement Tuesday saying the CFL schedule would be announced ‘in the coming days,’ many fans pegged next week for the reveal. Those in the know expect that expectation to be met with disappointment.

“Lately, the CFL office has whispered to select media members to not expect a schedule release this week. Trying to soften the blow from fan outcry,” Sportsnet’s Arash Madani tweeted Thursday.

“Provinces where teams play, while hopeful there can be a season, still have not signed off on the league’s return-to-play plan.”

That statement echoed the sentiments of his colleague at TSN Farhan Lalji during his regular segment on the SportsCage Wednesday.

“If you were to release it right now knowing what’s happening in Manitoba, why would you do that? You’ve got time and all you’re doing is opening yourself up to criticism,” he explained.

“If I was the CFL, I would wait. I know that’s not what fans want to hear, but that would be the smart thing to do. Why put yourself in a position of criticism when sensitivities are high in any given province?”

The current draft of the CFL schedule has teams in Ontario and B.C. on the road to begin the season, with Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to play host to the opening weeks. However, no province has yet approved the CFL’s return to play plan and the federal Public Health Agency of Canada has made clear they will not grant the league the exemptions necessary without provincial sign-off.

Optimism remains high that all those conditions will be met before the August 5 target date for a 14-game season, but the expectation that fans must be in the stands in those Western venues has been threatened by one province in particular.

“I think the only gray area right now for an August 5 opening based on the schedule is Manitoba,” Lalji said.

“You don’t want to ask that question today. You hope that based on the small size in the province — it’s not as populous as the big four — that based on vaccination rates and COVID numbers that they’ll be in a position to follow through on that, because certainly we began this process thinking Manitoba was in great shape and would be able to host early on.”

In the meantime, Quebec has become the first Canadian province to authorize spectators. 2,500 are expected to be in attendance at the Bell Centre should the playoff series between Maple Leafs and Canadiens head to Game 6, meaning more should be authorized for an outdoor venue in Percival Molson Stadium come August. This was not a development anticipated by the CFL but adapting the schedule is no easy task.

“I do think that it’s going to get under control by then, but would you consider flipping Manitoba and Montreal if they don’t open up in Winnipeg and do open up in Montreal? The league is not there yet because it’s not as simple as flipping,” Lalji continued.

“When you look at broadcast and stadium availability and the fact that there are nine teams as opposed to an even number, it’s complicated.”

‘It’s complicated’ will not be enough to satiate fans and players hungry for certainty from a league that has eaten up much of the benefit of the doubt. For those people, Lalji has some reassurance to offer.

“The feeling of optimism and excitement and energy around the start is like nothing I’ve ever felt. Starting at a team level, because they’re the biggest indicator,” he noted.

“When they actually meaningfully start to prepare, you know something’s happening.”