Bombers-Riders rivalry runs long, deep
REGINA — In 2007, a decades-long outflow of humanity reversed course and 1,549 more people came to live in Saskatchewan than fled the rectangle for other parts of Canada.
The Roughriders, who had been a .500 team in three preceding CFL seasons, finished 12-6, waded through Calgary and B.C., in the playoffs and beat the hated Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup.
The Riders were 12-6 again in 2008 and the province gained 4,171 more inhabitants, roughly the equivalent of a Saskatchewan practice roster. In 2009, there was another uptick of 2,983 stubble jumpers as the Riders finished first in the West.
Out here, winning seasons and in-migration go together like canola fields and broadleaf herbicide.
Alas, the Riders’ spectacular run of four Grey Cup appearances and two wins in a seven-year span petered out. The team’s record fell to 18-36 from 2014 through 2016, and the province lost about 10,500 people — none of them to Winnipeg, at least, none who would admit it.
So, football as a catalyst for interprovincial migration? You could consider changing political and socio-economic conditions, sure, but it’s hard to argue the Riders’ omnipotence. They induce fans to appear after Labour
Day in an untimely combination of green and white, to don hollowed-out watermelons as head gear, to applaud the antics of a mute, man-sized gopher, to swill Pil and hate the Bombers.
United by said distaste, Rider fans will transform Mosaic Stadium on Sunday into a seething pit of vitriol — or at least an uncomfortable place for Matt Nichols and the Winnipeg offence — as the West semifinal is contested.
Unlike the annual rivalrystoking Labour Day tilt here and the Banjo Bowl a week later in Winnipeg, there is no guaranteed post-season meeting, and the Bombers haven’t been to Regina for a playoff game in 43 years. But regular season familiarity breeds post-season contempt.
There are other CFL rivalries worth watching, but this one is rooted in prairie dirt and sensibilities, and it blossoms every summer. So let the big cities in Alberta have a go at one another, these prairie burgs will show everyone how rivalry thrives.
“It was bred into me, no doubt about it,” Winnipeg native Eddie Steele, now a Rider, told Riderville writer Ian Hamilton. “To this day, my stepmom says that whenever she has to put my Rider jersey on, it makes her skin burn.”
When he was younger, Steele went to Bombers home games, threw back the beverages and hurled abuse at Riders Wes Cates and Nealon Greene.
“There would be some Labatt Blues in me — not Pilsner — and you know how things are said when those are flowing,” he told Hamilton.
Beer goggles might have been to blame when an apparent Bombers fan tried to rip Gainer the Gopher’s head off during the Labour Day tilt in 2017.
It wasn’t a real head, rather a fabricated mascot melon, but the episode was still apparently traumatic, as evidenced by this overwrought report from Riders announcer Rod Pedersen, who said he thought the fan should be charged with assault.
“Responding via text message on Monday, Gainer The Gopher said he’s unable to comment on the situation publicly due to club policy,” Pedersen wrote, presumably with a straight face. “However he did seem shaken by the incident.”
Not too shaken to respond via text, despite his OVERSIZED MASCOT FINGERS.
There was talk of a police investigation but cooler, nonstuffed heads prevailed, and the rivalry merely gained a layer of lore.
A week later, the rivals went at it in Winnipeg.
“After every play there was something going on; pushing, shoving, swearing, scratching and clawing. It was fun to be part of,” said Bombers running back Andrew Harris.
It is fun set to a soundtrack, a score that underscores the intensity, no matter the score. The Banjo Bowl origin story dates back 15 years to the sharp tongue of ex-Bombers kicker Troy Westwood.
He strummed its first chords on the eve of the 2003 West semifinal by referring to Saskatchewan fans as “banjopickin’ inbreds,” and then doubled down with a faux apology.
“I was wrong to make such a statement, and I’d like to apologize. The vast majority of the people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo,” he cracked.
Westwood played 18 CFL seasons, but this is his legacy and he doesn’t mind.
“Oh, heck no. Are you kidding me? I get such a kick out of it,” he said from Winnipeg, where he’s a morning show host on TSN radio. “It’s just absolutely a treat that one week a year I’ll be in a grocery store in Winnipeg and there will be a couple of people in Rider jerseys on the Friday before the game — they’re looking at me, I’m looking at them — and some fun words are exchanged.
“I’ve been on a float in Yorkton with five banjo players, waving to the people through a town parade, like the queen. The folks of Saskatchewan have treated me like gold.”
Team staff gets into it, too. In 2011, with Winnipeg 7-1 and the Riders 1-7, the Bombers paid for three electronic billboards in Regina that flashed: “We love our Saskatchewan neighbours. They’re just a little backwards.”
There is no off-season to this rivalry. The Bombers sign a Riders free agent in February, the Riders draft a big, strapping lineman from Manitoba in May, and it’s fodder for the coming season’s swapping of insults.
This relative rarity of a playoff game between the two will also be important to the narrative, whether or not the winning team gets past Calgary in the West final and takes another crack at a Grey Cup.
Winnipeg has won 10, Saskatchewan just four. But the Bombers are in the throes of a 28-year dry spell, and prairie folks on both sides of their shared border take drought pretty seriously.
Both Gainer the Gopher, the Riders mascot, and former Bombers kicker Troy Westwood have played roles in the fierce rivalry that exists between the two teams.