Small league, big country
Long before a visiting CFL team takes to the field, there's an even bigger game plan afoot: How to get 46 hulking men, scores of coaches and staff. plus thousands of pounds of equipment to the game itself
You think it's a challenge to pack a couple of kids, a tent, assorted gear, bikes, coolers and the rest into a car for a weekend camping trip?
Try moving an entire CFL team, with its thousands of pounds of equipment and four dozen hulking men, across the country for a road game. It's not only complicated; it's not cheap, either.
Consider the logistics: 46 players and approximately 30 staff and others travelling for each of the teams'$2 10 road games (including the preseason). Then add loads of player equipment, coaches' sideline paraphernalia, the trainers' kits, video stuff, and all manner of gear for multiple weather situations – often shipped out separately by truck or cargo plane. The team travels on buses, VIA trains and airplanes, and unlike in the NFL, some CFL teams still fly commercial to save money, squeezing players into economy seats next to business travellers and crying babies.
There are lots of road trips ahead in the second half of the CFL season, and lots of rain jackets and hand-warmers, mufflers and bad-weather cleats to pack.
We talked to players, equipment managers and operations folks from across the CFL about the secrets of taking a football team on the road, such as putting GPS trackers in equipment bags, shipping home dirty laundry and sweat-soaked pads, and carefully distributing the 300-pound linemen around the plane to avoid tipping the aircraft. They told us all about their per diems, epic travel glitches, and the wide variety of stuff packed in their travel trunks. Teams have it all down to a science.
"With a football team, you're essentially packing up your locker room and your training room and taking a mini version of that with you so that you can create for the team a comfortable work area in a new city for 24 hours," said Brad Fotty, the long-time Winnipeg Blue Bombers equipment manager. "You've got to consider every scenario, and think of everything that every guy needs to have on game day, and you make sure you've got all of that packed in a trunk."
Teams that regularly charter – such as the Montreal Alouettes on their new team plane from Nolinor Aviation – have a travel advantage. The plane can fit the team, its equipment and luggage all at once and then fly home right after the game, avoiding an extra night's hotel stay. They have more sitting room, tailored in-flight meals, and as the plane's only passengers, they dictate the schedule.
We observed the Toronto Argonauts as they packed up for their recent trip to Calgary – one on a commercial flight. Veteran Argos equipment manager Danny Webb was sending the equipment on an overnight cargo plane, and he'd meet all of it at McMahon Stadium in Calgary the next morning to begin the four-hour job of setting up the visitor's locker room with two other staffers.
Shipping the gear to Calgary from Toronto costs about $10,000 each way. Webb slides small GPS trackers into a couple of key equipment bags – such as the one belonging to quarterback Ricky Ray – so he could track them if anything goes missing.
"We take every safeguard we can," Webb said. "Our games are on national TV; we can't afford to be missing things."
They had 30 minutes from shower to bus departure, and the whole operation hummed expertly. Equipment bags were swiftly loaded. Everything was labelled with player numbers or a printed name label. There was a CFL-branded case for game-day footballs complete with dividers separating the balls like glass Christmas ornaments. Each player's underclothes were tightly zipped into individual numbered mesh laundry bags so even a stray sock couldn't get loose.
Webb said equipment bags are a lot heavier to haul after a game than before it. The team's entire load, in fact, can often weigh in at about 500 pounds heavier on the way home.
"All that equipment, it all absorbs a lot of sweat," Webb explained frankly.
Players lined up next to the team bus after practice on a Thursday afternoon to depart for the airport ahead of their Saturday game against the Stampeders. They were dressed in a wide array of travel attire, ranging from khaki pants and Argos polo shirts to velvet suit jackets and designer jeans, to full suits and polished dress shoes.
They popped their rolling suitcases into bus cargo storage and collected some important items. Each man was given a boarding pass for the flight, his per diem for meals (a league-mandated $115 for each day he's on the road) and two game tickets (unless he had already traded them with another player).
Players use their meal money at the restaurants they choose, eating at the times of day they prefer. They have their favourites in many CFL cities – in Calgary, many Argos flock to Booker's BBQ & Crab Shack. It's typically two players to a hotel room and CFL teams stay in nice ones.
The two buses of Argos players and staff let out at Pearson International Airport's departures level two hours ahead of the flight – as with all the other travellers, who gawked at the large group of oversized men.
Whether flying commercial or by charter, the Argos always send a list of player weights so the airline can seat the huge linemen into different areas of the cabin. It avoids putting too much weight in one area of the plane, and helps land the biggest players in seats with more elbow or leg room, such as on the aisle or beside the emergency exits.
"I always try to engage in conversation with the person next to me and show that just, because we're big people, we're not intimidating or scary," said Chris Van Zeyl, a 6-foot-6, 312-pound bearded Argos offensive tackle. "Especially when a kid sits beside me and gives me a sideways look – I always talk to them, ask them what video games they're playing."
Sometimes, the Argos charter. On Labour Day, players took a bus or drove their own cars to Hamilton. When going to Montreal, they go by VIA Rail, a favourite of many Argos.
"Trains are really fun for us," Van Zeyl said. "It's really easy for us at the train station, and it's a straight shot to Ottawa or Montreal. We have two cars completely to ourselves and we play cards the whole time. It's really relaxing."
Meanwhile, in the Vancouver suburbs, at B.C. Lions headquarters in Surrey, the Lions were packing up for their charter flight to Ottawa. Most everyone charters in the playoffs, but in the past few years, it has become the Lions' de facto way to travel in the regular season, too. To somewhat defray costs, the team sometimes sell packages to bring some diehard fans along on the ride.
"Chartering is not as expensive as we first thought it would be," said Neil McEvoy, director of football operations and player personnel. "And it helps the players stay healthy and gives us the rest the players need. You just get on the plane and go. It's much easier, postgame, get on and fall asleep, and get back to Vancouver, even at three in the morning, and knowing you're going to sleep in your own bed."
The way it used to be, not long ago, meant a trip to Regina included a hotel room after the game and waking at 3 a.m. for a 5 a.m. commercial flight home. Back then, instead of shipping equipment on a cargo flight, two Lions staffers drove it to some West Division games. That would entail a 1,700 kilometre one-way journey to Regina.
The recent trip to Ottawa in late August cost about $100,000. To move the equipment alone – 4,500 pounds on a cargo flight – would have cost at least $20,000 had it shipped separately instead of tucked in conveniently under the charter plane.
Craig Roh and Mic'hael Brooks, two of the B.C. Lions' defensive linemen, have seen football travel as good as it gets. Roh played at the University of Michigan. Even for Brooks, at a smaller Division I school, Eastern Carolina University, the team always flew on charters. Both players also tasted NFL travel, Roh briefly with Carolina, and Brooks with Seattle. They compared their experiences north and south of the border.
Roh: "The charter for the Panthers, on the way back, they had ice-cream sandwiches. They had all this candy they were handing out. People were going up in the cockpit, doing whatever the heck they wanted."
Brooks: "It's a bigger plane, too. It's sort of like looking at the [size of] the CFL crowd and the NFL crowd."
Roh: "Up here, it's a little more strict on the plane. You get peanuts and a hot meal and what not."
Brooks, smiling: "Don't call it peanuts."
Roh, laughing: "I mean, compared with the Dove ice cream bar?"
Brooks: "We had warm cookies. Legit warm cookies. All types of warm cookies."
Interviewer: "Any beer on postgame flights?"
Brooks: "In the NFL, why not? Not here."
Roh: "Not here. Maybe if it got snuck on."
Brooks: "There's a lot of drinking on an NFL flight."
The Lions lease an Isuzu NPR-HD diesel truck from Penske to carry the gear to the south terminal of the Vancouver airport to meet their charter.
A handful of guys strategically loaded 46 player bags, eight trunks, 11 coaching bags, and a dozen other bags, alongside other gear, including TSN broadcast equipment. Aaron Yeung, a Lions equipment assistant, calls the efficient packing "Tetris-ing" the truck, referring to the classic video game.
For equipment guys, the hours are long. When they arrive home from a road game, sometimes at 1 a.m., there will be another three hours of work for Yeung and another equipment assistant, Stu Mitchell, as they drive back to Lions headquarters, unload gear, and do loads of laundry.
"It's twentysomething hours without sleep," Yeung said with laugh. "But I like it. This is like a family."
In Ottawa, the Redblacks equipment staff pulled an all-night laundry shift, returning home by bus late after Ottawa's victory over the Alouettes in Montreal on Aug. 31.
"We want to open the load of jerseys right away when we get back, and the smell is horrible, some are blood-stained, some are ripped and need repairing, so we want to identify that right away, it's a top priority," said Ottawa equipment manager R.J. James. "We hang the 44 game jerseys to dry, 20 on one side, 24 on the other – usually organized by offence and defence. They'll be dry by the next morning."
A night like that lasts until at least 4 a.m., unpacking and laundering it all. While it may seem chaotic in a visitor's locker room immediately following a football game, the dirty equipment and laundry is actually being meticulously organized – separate dirty-laundry bins for game pants, jerseys, and underclothing for swift unpacking back at home, when they will fire it all right into a washing machine.
Logistics for most trips are planned months in advance, and long-standing relationships with the same shipping companies usually mean flawless delivery of gear. But most teams have experienced some travel nightmares.
For James, the most memorable one was when a player's equipment bag once got dragged under the wheels of a plane, crushing his helmet and pads.
"I had a backup helmet and I borrowed pads from the Saskatchewan Roughriders equipment manager," James said. "The player played the game without even realizing it; we told him afterward as not to mess with his head before the game. I guess it kind of validates what we do."
The Bombers' Fotty thought back on a time when his squad travelled to the Rogers Centre in Toronto, and because of a concert the previous night, they weren't allowed to unpack and set up their dressing room the day before the game, as is the norm in the CFL. When the gear was finally unloaded the morning of the game, an entire trunk of game pants was discovered missing.
"They ended up finding it on a loading dock somewhere – it had been left behind," Fotty said. "We said nothing to the players, to avoid stressing them out before the game. Luckily it was found a couple of hours before the game and no one knew the difference."
Fotty overlooks nothing when going on the road with the Bombers. His travel trunks have everything from screws and tools to tighten a helmet to replacement shoelaces, insoles, shirts, tights, gloves and socks of every type, spare batteries for a coach's headset or even extra toiletries in case a guy forgets his toothpaste.
Anything to make the road feel more like home.