Prairire nas­ti­ness

Bombers-Rid­ers ri­valry runs long, deep

The Province - - SPORTS - DAN BARNES dbarnes@post­media.com @jrnl­barnes

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.

— POST­MEDIA FILES

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.

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