Monday, May 30, 2011

CFL Camp Countdown: Lions look to reach home Grey Cup

We're continuing our series of training camp previews. You can check out our previous entries on Calgary and Montreal. Next in line: the B.C. Lions, based off Tuesday's conference call with president Dennis Skulsky and general manager/head coach Wally Buono.

— Most of the questions on the call obviously focused on the football side of things, but I thought Skulsky's opening statement about the team's business side was notable as well. Of course, the Lions are in one of the most interesting sets of business circumstances of any CFL team at the moment, thanks to plans to split the 2011 season between Empire Field and the newly-renovated B.C. Place, expected to open Sept. 30. Skulsky said that makes this a crucial season for the Lions.

"We have lots of emphasis on our best-of-both-worlds season coming up," he said.

— Skulsky said the team can't wait to get into the new B.C. Place, and construction is proceeding on schedule so far.

"We're looking forward to heading back to what should be one of the best stadiums in North America," he said. "I can tell you, yes, it will be ready."

— The team's going to be holding their training camp in Kamloops again next month (about a three- to four-hour drive from Vancouver for those unfamiliar) with B.C. geography), which Skulsky said is important for trying to build their brand across the province.

"That's all part of the integration and making sure we're the provincial team," he said.

— Grey Cup preparations are moving along as well. Skulsky said having the Grey Cup has been huge for corporate sales at both fields, which will be particularly important at B.C. Place (thanks to its 80 corporate suites versus Empire Field's seven).

"All of our suites at Empire Field, all of our suites at the new B.C. Place for both the regular season and the Grey Cup are sold out," he said.

— In a case where business perhaps touches the football side, Skulsky said hosting the Grey Cup puts extra emphasis on having a good season this year and trying to get to that game.

"The Grey Cup being here this fall will really be an outstanding opportunity for our community and this city to really show off the new B.C. Place," he said. "It's not so often you get the opportunity to play in a Grey Cup game or win one at home, and that's where our focus is."

— Making it to the Grey Cup isn't an easy task, but Buono (pictured above right during a game against Saskatchewan last season) said he's optimistic about the Lions' chances.

"The race for the Cup's going to be a tough road, but we feel good with the nucleus of good young players and the veterans we have and we feel good about our coaching staff," he said.

— One new addition to that staff is former Lion, Roughrider and Bomber Kelly Bates, who Buono said will help Dan Dorazio out with the offensive line. He joins other recent players on the staff, including defensive backs coach Mark Washington and defensive player personnel assistant Barron Miles. Buono said developing coaches is crucial both for the organization and the league as a whole.

"We're doing what we need to do to not only make this a better organization but to help this league grow when it comes to coaches."

— The Lions' season last year was really a tale of two halves, with early struggles followed by a late revival once Travis Lulay took over for Casey Printers at quarterback. Buono said the offensive statistics for the year weren't great, but what they were able to do during Lulay's tenure was promising.

"When Travis Lulay took over, you look at the turn in offensive output; that gives us confidence going into the season," he said.

— One of the key off-season dramas revolving around the team came at kicker, where the Lions had to make a decision between 41-year-old reigning team MVP Paul McCallum and rising talent Sean Whyte. For a while, it looked like youth might convince them to opt for Whyte, but they traded him to Montreal for a first-round pick just before this year's draft and chose Alberta Golden Bears kicker Hugh O'Neill 11th overall. Buono said McCallum's possibly in the best form of his career, so it was hard to justify getting rid of him; drafting O'Neill allows them to keep McCallum for now while developing a replacement for the future.

"Paul's the kind of guy that reacts well to coaching," Buono said. "He takes care of himself. Last year, he might have been as good as he was in 20 years."

— Another off-season issue came around the CFL's new contract rules, which require a minimum deal of one year with a team option for a second and no NFL window between the years. Buono said initially he thought that would keep some talent from heading north, but that hasn't been a large problem so far, as the Lions have found plenty of promising players interested in the CFL during their free-agent camps.

"We've not really had an issue with the length of the contract," he said. "That's not been a major issue, perhaps not as big as I'd thought."

— Buono said the release of star running back/returner Yonus Davis after drug charges were brought against him will impact the team, but they were already planning to bring in guys to compete with him. That's just become more of a focus now.

"It's unfortunate, but we already had a plan to bring in someone to compete for that position," Buono said. "The only difference is that now instead of bringing in one guy, we'll probably bring in four."

Last year saw a lot of new faces on the Lions, and Buono said young players trying to adapt to the league may have contributed to the team's early struggles.

"When the young guys came in, I think it took a while for them to understand what it takes," he said. "When the rookies and veterans started to see eye to eye, things started to go well for us."

Buono said he thinks the team's in a position to compete for the Grey Cup right now thanks to the development of their younger players, but those players are going to have to improve from where they were last year in order to find success.

"I definitely believe the transition is on target, but at the same time, the young guys have to take the next step," he said. "I believe our offence is going to be a lot stronger and I believe our quarterbacking's going to be a lot better than it was."

Jennifer Gareis Ashlee Simpson Donna Feldman Jodi Lyn OKeefe Emma Watson

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