If history means anything, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are in pretty good shape as Grey Cup hosts in the 2013 season.
The last time Regina played host to the CFL championship game, in 2003, the Riders went 11-7 and came within a touchdown of the impossible dream of playing in their own stadium in the Grey Cup.
Without question there’s immense pressure on Canada’s Team as they prepare for this monumental campaign but many would call it ‘good pressure’. That 11-7 mark a decade ago was the best the club achieved during the Shivers/Barrett era.
“If players say it’s not in the back of their mind, they are lying!” Rider great Matt Dominguez, a member of that 2003 squad, said when asked about the pressure. “You cannot come to work every single day knowing that at the end of the year, someone from a visiting team will be in your locker if you don’t make it. They know. Every single day.
“And every single day they’ll see an advertisement for the Grey Cup and at the stadium there will be ads going up for the Grey Cup plus stadium improvements going on right in front of your eyes. They’ll be inundated with Grey Cup information. It’ll be in the back of your mind because it’s in front of your face everyday!”
It’s true. Since the calendar flipped to 2013 there isn’t a day goes by in the Saskatchewan capital where you don’t hear something about the Grey Cup. Whether it’s people wondering how to volunteer, people asking about Grey Cup tickets or simply the reminder you get when you drive past the majestic, snow-covered Mosaic Stadium. Expectations of this team are immense.
“There shouldn’t be added motivation, but there is,” Dominguez continued. “Sometimes you wanna create dinner in your own kitchen. The team that we have coming back is not a bunch of CFL rookies. You have, I would argue, a bunch of veterans. You have a bunch of guys with game experience and the O-line, having the least amount of experience last year, played pretty well. I see a solid team coming back that’s poised to start off the season well.”
Starting off the season well is an obvious goal. So too should be finishing off the season well. And, how about playing well in the middle? Every season has its ups and downs but after taking a big step forward in 2012, it’s time to make the big leap. That was the case in 2003. Or so we thought.
“That started a string of playoff appearances for us,” Dominguez recalled. “Every now and then things start clicking when you get the right guys in the right places. When it comes to the playoffs, if you’re at home that’s great. If you’re not, that’s okay too because you’re still in the playoffs and you still have a shot.
“In ’03 we had some good guys. I think Kenton Keith went off in one of those situations (three rushing TDs in a semifinal at Winnipeg), and I think I even scored a touchdown in one of them. You do whatever you gotta do to win.”
It’s true. The Riders vanquished the ‘Winnipeg Stadium Curse’ in 2003 by dumping the Blue Bombers 37-21 in minus-27 degrees in a division semifinal. Then all they had to do was beat the Eskimos in Edmonton to advance to the Grey Cup at Taylor Field. It didn’t happen. The Riders were jobbed by questionable officiating and saw the Eskimos advance with a 30-23 victory. It was doubly painful a week later when the Riders watched Ricky Ray and the Eskimos carry the Grey Cup out of Regina.
But perhaps that will change this year. Dominguez thinks the Riders have the team to do it.
“Weston Dressler’s in his prime now, Darian Durant is returning and there’s a solid starter in Kory Sheets,” Dominguez explained. “The only concern is on defence because there’s a lot of free agents over there. But like I said this is a solid team because there are a lot of returning players. They’ll know what the season’s all about and what the last game of the season is. They won’t be coming in with ‘unknowns’. We’re poised now to make the next step in the team development and get on a run.”
Dominguez went a little further with his assessment of Richie Hall’s defense.
“We’ve got some good defensive lineman but you want to use a rotation of them. We’re missing that breakout D-lineman. We’re missing that guy who had a ‘Fred Perry Year’ or a breakout ‘John Chick Year’. LB Tyron Brackenridge is doing great but where’s a Reggie Hunt? We need to develop a guy like that. An Eddie Davis. We have a solid defence, and I’m an offensive guy talking about defence, but I want some playmakers back there. I want a James Patrick who’s allowed to be James Patrick. Those types of things. If I was to define the defence, I’d start on the line and work my way out.”
And while the rest of the province goes about its business, that’s exactly what the Riders are busy doing behind closed doors at Mosaic Stadium. Because once they leave the office, there are reminders of the Grey Cup wherever they go in this town.