Preparing for CFL training camp in 2021 is unlike anything else anyone has ever seen before.
Never have we, in modern times, viewed anything remotely similar to a Canadian Football League having to dial it up after a year-plus away from it all.
The closest parallel might be the lockout that wiped out the 2004-2005 NHL season. Despite his connections to Canada and its national game, Saskatchewan Roughriders’ head coach Craig Dickenson hasn’t been reaching out to any of those pro hockey coaches for advice on how to enter the season.
“I don’t know any of these NHL coaches. They would probably refuse my call if I called them,” said Dickenson with a chuckle from his home in Montana.
The second-year field general, not including the year off, has consulted with a number of NFL coaches and concluded the way to approach this new world order is to make as little change to the routine as possible.
“The football stuff, I think, is going to be a piece of cake. Everybody in our building has coached football and knows about football,” said Dickenson.
“The tricky part is going to be how we do the best job we can in coaching football and playing football while still adhering to the guidelines, that will be the challenge.”
Training camps are only weeks away and it is almost certain there will be at least a handful of veteran players on each squad who return to their active rosters out of shape after not only a 19-month absence, but also a time period where they’ve been forced to look for employment elsewhere.
Working an off-season job might be a responsible habit for these athletes to get in to, financially and long-term, but often it requires sacrifice to their off-season training and conditioning which jeopardizes the ability to be elite football players or even avoid roster cuts.
It’s the ultimate catch-22 for any CFL player.
Dickenson normally likes to monitor his players off-season progress but admits he let them be for a while, as soon as the 2020 season was cancelled.
“We left them alone for the most part until about January of this year and then Clint Spencer, who is our strength and conditioning coach, got a program together which he does every year and he started emailing the guys and we started contacting them mainly by positions,” said Dickenson.
“We had our position coaches reach out to them and communicate with the players and then I’ve had a couple of general meetings with the team in the last two months. Mainly just to give them an idea of what we’re looking at for the season and then also just to get a feel for where they’re at with their conditioning and their work.”
The bench boss realizes he’s facing the prospect of retirements from players who have transitioned into civilian careers during the pandemic and also veterans who will not be in football shape the way he normally expects them to be come training camp.
Dickenson is under no illusions over what’s ahead in the next month as players begin shuffling into their respective camps.
“I do believe we’ll have some guys show up who didn’t do what they needed to do in the off-season. Does that make me nervous? No. Not a lot, because you know what’s going to happen? A good, young player is going to beat him out.”
The 49-year-old expects the combination of two draft classes of Canadian rookies and two sets of negotiation list signings of American talent to create more competition than usual at the upcoming camp.
“You’re going to see some surprise cuts, I believe, this year in the CFL just because there’ll be guys that have worked hard and trained these past two years, and there will be guys who maybe didn’t do as much as they should have,” said Dickenson.
Those who have followed the CFL for any meaningful length of time know this is a league where a contender can be pieced together in short order and Dickenson knows it, too.
The 2017 Toronto Argonauts entered free agency without a head coach or general manager and still ended up winning the Grey Cup that November. The prospect of fortunes doing a 180, good or bad, have been accelerated by the uncertainty thrown at us by the coronavirus.
“Everybody’s starting from scratch,” said the Riders’ head coach.
Never has that ever been more accurate in the CFL than at this very moment.