February 17, 2024

Robservations: A.J. Ouellette and the numbers game … remembering Gerry James and Ken Ploen … thanks to J-Mo … and the weekly shout-outs

Thor” won’t wear 34.

That number, carried by A.J. Ouellette during his tenure with the Toronto Argonauts, has long been retired by the popular running back’s new CFL team.

For more than 60 years, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ No. 34 has been identifiable with iconic fullback George Reed, who starred for the Green and White from 1963 to 1975.

Ouellette quickly pivoted, as any elite running back will do, by reverting back to his college number. He will wear 45 for the Corey Mace-coached Roughriders after signing a two-year contract on Tuesday.

“I knew that (34) was off-limits before I even had a talk with Coach Mace,” says the eminently marketable Ouellette, who has adopted the persona of a Marvel Comics superhero named Thor.

“Green and White and 45 is very familiar with me, so I’m excited to be back in that.”

Ouellette previously sported a green and white No. 45 jersey with the Ohio University Bobcats.

In his new environs, he becomes the first running back in Roughriders history to wear No. 45.

The list of previous 45s includes Steve Zalusky (1942), Glenn Dobbs (1951-52), Wayne Nichol (1955 practice roster), Ben Koeneman (1958 training camp), Kurt Burris (1958), Gordon Stewart (1971-72), Billy Jackson (1984-87), Randy Srochenski (1994-2001), Mike McCullough (2005-13), Marvin Burdette (2014), Akwasi Antwi (2015), Carl Fitzgerald (2015), Alex Ogbongbemica (2016), Kacy Rodgers II (2016-17), Alexandre Chevrier (2018-19), Deon Lacey (2021) and Pete Robertson (2022-23).

A technical note: Fitzgerald and Ogbongbemica also played in the offensive backfield, but as fullbacks.

Another technical note: McCullough joined the Roughriders in 2003 but did not wear No. 45 until his third CFL season.

And one more: Dobbs actually played for the Roughriders until 1953, but he wore No. 94 during his final season in Saskatchewan.

We now return you to No. 34.

“I kind of knew of George from last year and the legend he was through the league and how great he was in the community and how much the community and the league respected him,” Ouellette said. “Now they’ve got an award named after him.”

The CFL’s most-coveted individual prize was re-named the George Reed Most Outstanding Player Award late last year. Reed passed away on Oct. 1, one day shy of his 84th birthday.

“Every story I’ve heard of his legendary career and of who he was in the community is who a player should strive to be in whatever city they’re playing in,” Ouellette said.

“Just come to work, do the best that you can to put yourself in a situation to win each and every week, and then just be a respectful person in the community.”

Reed’s number was retired by the Roughriders in 1976.

Prior to 1963, the team’s No. 34 had been worn by Harpo Stilwell (1940, 1956), Ernie Choukalos (1951-53) and Mike Stock (1961 training camp).

No. 34 did make a brief reappearance after Reed hung up the cleats.

Running back Morris LaGrand was assigned No. 34 when training camp began in 1977. Had he made the team, he would have been given a different number.


KEN PLOEN (1935-2024)


Like Reed and Ron Lancaster, Ken Ploen was an American-born player who became a CFL icon and proud Canadian.

A star collegian at the University of Iowa, Ploen signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1957 instead of joining the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, who had drafted him.

“Coming up here as an American, I had just come out of a Rose Bowl win and we were big heroes down in Iowa, but we never, I never, got into receptions and things like I did in Winnipeg, whether you won or lost,” Ploen said on Dec. 29, 2005 when I interviewed him for West Riders Best, my book on the 1966 Roughriders.

“I think one of the big things in Saskatchewan and Winnipeg at that time was that we were what was here. There was no (NHL) hockey here. There was no baseball. There were no professional teams of any other type.

“We were the team — not only here, but all over the province — similar to Saskatchewan.”

The Bombers were also the team that typically represented the West in the Grey Cup during Ploen’s 11-year playing career in Canada.

He guided Winnipeg to six Grey Cup berths, including league championships in 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962.

In 1961, his 18-yard run produced the Grey Cup-winning touchdown in overtime against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

Ploen’s athleticism was such that he also caught six career touchdown passes and, while excelling as a two-way player, made 10 interceptions in 1959.

“It was a different game then and we grew up that way,” he said. “When we came up through high school and college ball, you played two ways. Platooning or specialization didn’t come around until about the ’60s.”

After signing off as a player in 1967, Ploen remained in Winnipeg and worked in sales at CJOB Radio. He was also part of the Blue Bombers’ radio broadcast team.

Only once, in 2005, did I listen to him on the other end of a telephone line.

I cherished the conversation at the time, knowing that I was very fortunate to be able to speak with someone who more than lived up to a well-established reputation as one of the league’s all-time nice people.

From a personal standpoint, the significance of that thoroughly enjoyable interview was underlined on Tuesday, when it was announced that Ken Ploen had passed away at the age of 88.

Even though we spoke for only 10 minutes, it felt like I had known him for 30 years.

We should all have such a wonderful way with people.


GERRY JAMES (1934-2024)

Fittingly, someone nicknamed “Kid Dynamite” spent most of his football career with the Bombers.

The son of former Roughriders star Eddie (Dynamite) James could do it all — and not just on the football field.

An accomplished running back and placekicker, he was also an elite hockey player. Unimaginably now, he routinely joined the Toronto Maple Leafs after football season.

He even found time to squeeze in a Memorial Cup appearance, with the victorious Toronto Marlboros in 1955.

“I enjoyed football as a living,” James told me in 1992 during an interview for a Regina Leader-Post feature. “I enjoyed hockey more as a hobby.”

A Blue Bomber for a decade, James concluded his CFL career with the Bob Shaw-coached Roughriders in 1964.

“I played 10 games,” James recalled. “They said they cut me because there were three kickers on the team at the time. But I think the real reason Shaw cut me was because I beat him when we played bridge.”

That was also the year in which I was born, so I didn’t become aware of James until I began immersing myself in CFL history books in the 1970s.

By then, he was well-known in Saskatchewan sporting circles as an SJHL coach. He was behind the bench in the junior A ranks with the Yorkton Terriers, Melville Millionaires and Estevan Bruins.

James was with Estevan when, suddenly, the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors came calling after making a coaching change. James ascended to major-junior hockey on Dec. 10, 1987, whereupon I met him for the first time.

He was introduced to the media at the Crushed Can — the old Moose Jaw Civic Centre.

Eleven months later, James was replaced as the Warriors’ bench boss, back in the days when it was rare for a Warriors head coach to last more than a season or two.

His comment over the telephone: “I certainly won’t miss working the bingos.”

I certainly will miss Gerry James.

Like Ploen — a Blue Bombers teammate from 1957 to 1962 — James passed away on Tuesday. He was 89.




The much-heralded arrival of Ouellette also signalled a change at running back for the Roughriders.

Jamal Morrow, who was the team’s leading rusher in 2022 and 2023, tested free agency and ended up signing with the Calgary Stampeders earlier this week.

But, according to TSN’s Farhan Lalji, Morrow is now unlikely to join the Stamps. As Lalji reported: “There are questions surrounding his medical.”

There isn’t any question about Jamal Morrow, the person.

A Roughrider from 2019 to 2023, he was perpetually pleasant in addition to being productive on the field.

“Jamal is a good football player and he has done a really nice job for us,” Roughriders Vice-President of Football Operations and General Manager Jeremy O’Day said. “He’s a great team guy and a high-character guy.

“It’s difficult because, with a lot of these guys, you develop relationships. It’s almost like going through a break-up.

“It’s not something that you want to do but ultimately, when you’re not successful the year before, there’s going to be some changes that happen.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that those players are at fault or that those guys are the reason. It’s just a matter of changing up the mix and shaking up the room a little bit and trying to find the right group of guys who will be successful as a team.”



  • Nice people who deserve a plug: Jamal Morrow, Edmund Bellegarde, Heather Mazurak, Malik Carney, Brady James, A.J. Ouellette, Adam Auclair, Jermarcus Hardrick, Evan Bray, Micah Johnson, Marquay McDaniel, Anthony Vitale, Merlis Belsher, Adam Johnstone, Dick Stark, Bill Knudsen, Cam Smith, Patrick Heal, Robert Hawrysh, Jim Slinn, Ken Phillips, Lindsay Dencsak, Jeff Christiansen, Rob Ramsay, Gail Mund, Tina Holtby, Carol Hoeving, Margie Lynch and Tim Fink.