Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea believes level of Canadian talent in CFL ‘will speak for itself’

Photo Scott Grant /
Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/

There is probably not a better person in the CFL to speak on Canadian talent than Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea.

Prior to becoming a two-time Grey Cup-winning head coach, the North Bay, Ontario native spent 16 seasons in the CFL with both the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats following a stellar collegiate career at the University of Guelph. O’Shea won three Grey Cups as a player with the Argos, won Most Outstanding Canadian in 1999 and upon his retirement was the CFL’s all-time leader in tackles by a Canadian. O’Shea was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2017.

So when O’Shea speaks about Canadians, we should all listen.

“I’m not worried about the talent coming from this country,” O’Shea said after the second day of Bombers’ rookie camp. “The talent level will speak for itself.”

The role of Canadians in the CFL has become a hot topic after word leaked that the league was looking to reduce the Canadian ratio as part of their negotiations with the Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The current CBA expires on May 14.

Currently, CFL teams are required to dress 21 Canadian players on game day, seven of which must be listed in the starting lineup. If the league has their way the required number of starters will dwindle significantly, if not be eliminated entirely.

This has sparked outrage from all corners of the CFL fandom, with many believing that the loss of homegrown players would be the start of the league losing some of its uniquely Canadian identity.

One reason floated as to why teams wish to see the number of Canadians on the roster reduced is due to a lack of quality Canadian talent, a premise O’Shea himself simply doesn’t buy.

“Guys who have been around this league understand the talent level and quality of player from this country,” O’Shea stated. “I think there is great talent, great athletes at all positions now. I think there are guys who can play every position on the field.”

Recent roster trends back this up. For a long time, the vast majority of Canadian starters played just a handful of positions, mostly along the offensive line, at safety, and out wide as a team’s fifth receiver.

But over the last decade we have seen that change. We witnessed the rise of two of the greatest Canadian running backs in CFL history in Hall of Famer Jon Cornish and future Hall of Famer Andrew Harris; two future Hall of Fame slotbacks in Andy Fantuz and Brad Sinopoli were the focal points of their teams’ passing attacks, not just Canadians out there to meet a requirement; and seen Canadians like Henoc Muamba and Chris Ackie playing linebacker positions traditionally saved for American players.

Just this year, we are about to see the B.C. Lions begin a season with a Canadian as their No. 1 quarterback in Nathan Rourke and we just had a draft where Waterloo’s Tre Ford, a Canadian quarterback trained at a Canadian school, was taken in the first round.

The notion that there isn’t enough Canadian talent just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny and we haven’t even talked about Canadian players like Chase Claypool (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh Steelers), Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State, Carolina Panthers), Jevon Holland (Oregon, Miami Dolphins) and John Metchie III (Alabama, Houston Texans) who all played for major American college football programs and are now starring in the NFL.

There is more than enough Canadian talent to sustain the current ratio requirements in the CFL — I might even be so inclined to say the ratio could increase without any sort of dip in the quality of play — but clubs just need to know where to find it.

There are certain aspects of the Canadian game that make it unique from its American counterpart — three downs, 110-yard field, 20-yard end zones, 12 men, etc. — but one of the most important ones is rosters featuring a large number of Canadian players.

If some teams are having a hard time finding enough quality Canadians, that’s on them.

The talent is out there, just ask Mike O’Shea.

Josh Smith has been writing about the Ticats and the CFL since 2010 and was sporting his beard way before it was cool. Will be long after, too.