WINNIPEG -- With temperatures above 80 degrees -- or above 25 degrees if you’re talking Celsius, like the locals -- Investor’s Group Field in June feels like baseball weather.
For Americans, it doesn’t feel like traditional football weather. Certainly not to those of us who have suffered through some of the most challenging elements watching the sport in the Dakotas and Minnesota.
And that’s not the only adjustment to make when traveling two and half hours north of Grand Forks to watch the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
Compared to the NFL, the CFL field is wider and longer, so players have more room to make big plays -- although there are 12 players per team on the field rather than 11. The CFL has three downs per possession rather than four, so you don’t see a lot of grind-it-out, run-oriented offensive philosophy.
At first, Americans might even think the action is a little chaotic, with wide receivers starting in motion -- in any direction -- as long as they’re behind the ball at the snap. If that’s not enough, the field goal posts are at the front of the end zone rather than the back and the penalty flags are orange, not yellow.
These quirks can be fun for new CFL fans. And it's an easy drive for those who seek an exciting, fast-paced product, where games are seemingly never out of reach when teams punt on third down.
Take for instance Winnipeg’s home opener against the Edmonton Eskimos on a recent Thursday night, where my wife and I bought upper-deck tickets ($26 U.S. each) as part of the three-day trip to Manitoba.
The heat wasn't a problem for most fans, with about 80 percent of the seating covered in shade provided by the stadium's canopy. The warm weather was a little extra manageable for some fans taking advantage of the $4.85 beer special (that's $3.70 in the U.S.).
I wanted to catch former UND running back Brady Oliveira’s professional debut in his hometown.
Oliveira was a four-year standout for the Fighting Hawks, creating a fanbase with his punishing running style that earned him the nickname the “Manitoba Moose.” The Bombers made Oliveira the No. 1 overall running back taken in the 2019 CFL Draft when he was selected 14th overall in the second round.
Oliveira isn’t the only former UND player to burst onto the scene recently with the Blue Bombers. Former UND wide receiver Weston Dressler, a native of Bismarck, became a star during eight years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders before spending the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons with the Bombers.
Despite not playing this season, Dressler’s No. 7 jersey is still one of the top five most visible jerseys in the stadium as you walk around the concourse.
Oliveira’s No. 20 jersey hasn’t caught on just yet. He was Winnipeg’s backup running back in a league where running backs are used much less than in America. That meant Oliveira had yet to see action on offense early in his first season.
Then, on special teams duty, Oliveira suffered a severe leg injury late in the first half against the Eskimos. It soured his home debut.
He needed ankle surgery and his return this season is doubtful, although Bombers coach Mike O’Shea has yet to rule Oliveira out for the year.
Oliveira's UND teammate, John Santiago, spent the preseason with the Blue Bombers before he was released when rosters were trimmed for the regular season. After Oliveira's injury, there's a chance Santiago could be a target to rejoin the Winnipeg squad.
After Oliveira’s exit, the Blue Bombers held on against Edmonton but it wasn't pretty.
Winnipeg’s new No. 7 -- Lucky Whitehead -- scored the first two touchdowns of his career, one on a 75-yard bomb in the first quarter and another a 41-yard score in the third. He finished with seven catches for 155 yards. Dressler’s No. 7 jerseys might be joined in popularity by Whitehead’s No. 7 fairly quickly in Winnipeg.
The result was far from a blowout as Winnipeg running back Andrew Harris, a four-time CFL All-Star, fumbled twice, including once with 61 seconds to go, to provide some late -- perhaps unnecessary -- fireworks.
In the end, Winnipeg beat previously unbeaten Edmonton 28-21 in front of 25,336 fans. The Bombers improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2014 and became the only unbeaten squad in the CFL’s powerful West Division.
The Bombers have struggled in recent years, not winning a Grey Cup -- the CFL version of the Super Bowl -- since 1990. Winnipeg hasn’t won a Division title since 2011. But Winnipeg is experiencing a new resurgence, finishing 10-8 last year and climbing to the top of some power rankings early in 2019.
It might be just the time to hop on the bandwagon.