May 30th, 2024

Inside the CFL: The rebuilding must be over in Edmonton

By MEDICINE HAT NEWS on May 16, 2024.

sports@medicinehatnews.com@MedicineHatNews

Happy 75th anniversary, Edmonton Eskimos/Elks!

Started in 1949, the team has been one of the great success stories in sports, ranking up there with the New York Yankees, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Celtics. They won 14 of 25 Grey Cups and they had a 34-year stretch of making the playoffs.

They have been a model of community ownership and the flagship franchise of the CFL. But recently, they have fallen on times so tough, the team has been put up for sale.

Since becoming the Elks in 2021, the franchise has won a grand total of 11 games and has finished last three years straight. Attendance plummeted.

At the general meeting last week, club board chair Tom Richards announced a loss of $3.9 million. They have lost $15 million over the last three years, chump change in the NHL but catastrophic in the CFL.

When it comes to supporting its teams and events, Edmonton has always been second to none, truly the City of Champions. The fact they had fewer than 20,000 fans show up on average last year means the faithful were staging a protest at the mismanagement of the team by president Victor Cui, who was fired, and coach Chris Jones, the man with all the titles who is in charge of everything, now in the third year of a four-year contract.

The last time Edmonton experienced a prolonged gridiron losing streak came with Neil Armstrong’s six years at the helm, 1964-69, during which they won 37, lost 56 and tied three games. He had three semifinal losses.

Armstrong was such a fine fellow they called him Nice Neil and wished him well when he joined Bud Grant and the Minnesota Vikings, developing the dominating Purple People Eater defence.

Cuddly Chris has set new records for futility in his recent engagement in Edmonton. Many green and gold fans wish he would find employment in the NFL or elsewhere and that may not change even if they make the playoffs.

And they just might do that.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” The Elks have turned to the Good Ship Argonaut to fortify their crew, appropriate since one of the city’s tourist attractions is a restored paddle-wheeler on the North Saskatchewan River, and, the fact Canada’s submarine fleet was once based at the West Edmonton Mall.

To improve the offence, they’ve signed former Double-Blue pivot McLeod Bethel Thompson who toiled six seasons with in Toronto. He backed-up Ricky Ray in the Argos’ 2017 Grey Cup win over Calgary and was the starter when his team upset Winnipeg in the Big Game in 2022. That year he led the league in passing and was an Eastern All-Star. Last season he was the top passer in the USFL.

He’s good, a winner who stays healthy. Behind him is fan favourite Canadian Tre Ford. He would sell more tickets than the dull Thompson who will win more games.

The veteran has an impressive receiving corps, starting with perennial CFL All-Star Eugene Lewis, plus Dillon Mitchell, Kyran Moore and former Argo star Bethel-Thompson battery mate Kurleigh Gittens, Jr. Ex-Stampeder Hergy Mayala is the fifth man. Running back Kevin Brown is entertaining and effective. The offensive line, anchored by centre Mark Korte, is as good as any.

To acquire receiver Gittens, the Elks had to give up defensive lineman Jake Ceresna. A.C. Leonard has not been signed so the front four is a serious question mark. Elks selected middle linebacker Joel Dublanko first overall in the CFL draft. He may move to the outside given Nyles Morgan played well in the middle last season. The fact that Chris Jones has 21 defensive backs in camp speaks volumes. After seven years in Saskatchewan Jason Shivers is the defensive co-ordinator.

The Elks turned to Toronto to strengthen their special teams, signing place kicker Boris Bede and return man Javon Leake, the CFL’s 2023 Most Outstanding Special Teams winner after he totaled 1,216 punt return yards, the third highest total in league history.

So the offence will be much stronger, the defence weaker.

The best cure for off-field distractions is success on the field. The rebuilding must be over. This team desperately needs to win now, starting with their home opener against Saskatchewan on June 8.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 52 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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