VANCOUVER — A story is told of the crusty Scottish caddie at St. Andrews, whose player takes a mighty swing and hits a high pop-up off the first tee of the Old Course, into a strong wind coming off the sea.
The golf ball goes up, up, up ... and then starts blowing backward and left, toward the 18th green, 30 yards or so away. His first shot of the day lands on the putting surface of the course’s final hole and rolls to within a couple of yards of the flagstick.
Silence is broken by the caddie, who claps the golfer on the back and says: “Och! A wee putt and you’re ’round in two!”
This was what it was like, watching Montreal’s Sean Whyte try to kick field goals through the battering gale during Sunday’s CFL East semifinal in Guelph, a city that -- judging by the conditions that befell the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in their reluctantly adopted temporary home this season -- appears to be in the Brrrrrmuda Triangle of Canadian weather systems.
Ball goes up, wind catches it, ball goes this way, goes that way, comes back.
Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris, who has one of prettiest throwing motions the CFL has seen this side of Warren Moon, knew not where the ball was going once it left his hand. Hardly unheard of, for the erratic Burris, but in this case, even the purest spiral would flutter. The less-than-perfect spiral would be slapped down by the wind, or flared upwards or otherwise carried astray.
Then, just for fun, it also rained sideways. And sleeted.
Eight turnovers, untold mistakes, awful plays, incomprehensible calls, a fatal (for the Alouettes) case of situational myopia by an official on the second-to-last play of regulation time, when a plain-as-day Hamilton pass interference foul went uncalled in the endzone, a play that could have given Montreal the outright win.
But also, out of nowhere it seemed, there were two touchdown drives engineered by Burris, the one in overtime polished off by backup Dan LeFevour’s legs, and a typically wild, unpredictable, thriller of a finish to a playoff game that started off dull and ended up absurdly good.
In Regina, it was minus-20 Celsius (including wind chill) at game time for the West semi, and probably considerably more frigid by the time it ended. It didn’t matter.
B.C.’s Travis Lulay and Saskatchewan’s Darian Durant put the ball in the air 49 times between them and completed 39, without an interception (though Lions’ Josh Bell dropped two of them), and there was but a single fumble -- by B.C., while attempting a desperation series of laterals on the game’s final play.
So much for the cold.
At the end, when the visitors were left scratching their heads, trying to figure out how they could have played so well and lost, they would have come up with two inescapable truths: (1) for the entire decisive fourth quarter, they never adjusted to Durant scampering out of the pocket for big yards; even when they had players in the neighborhood, couldn’t tackle him, and (2) they didn’t score enough points during the first half, which they dominated.
Recriminations, naturally, were flying through cyberspace in the game’s aftermath -- Lions’ Mike Benevides outcoached! Time to tear up the defence! Offence took its foot off the gas and played to lose in the fourth quarter! -- but presumably, cooler heads will prevail.
For one thing, the game plan worked wonderfully. The Lions contained the running of Riders’ Kory Sheets and pummeled the Saskatchewan defence with their own three-pronged ground game of Stefan Logan, Andrew Harris and Lulay.
Could they have put a “spy” on Durant after he took off for big gains a couple of times in the fourth quarter? Possibly. Adam Bighill could have done the job. Yes, they were missing inside linebacker Solomon Elimimian, but it wasn’t as though his replacement, Anton McKenzie, was without credentials of his own.
The bright side for the Lions, who got through most of two months without Lulay (and a whole season minus the glue of their offensive line, Angus Reid) and still emerged with an 11-7 record -- 11-8 now -- is considerable, especially the performance of their franchise player with a throwing shoulder that, by all accounts, is going to need off-season surgery.
Well, maybe not. He made every throw he had to, and would have needed a rocket launcher to air out a 65- or 70-yard Hail Mary on the final play of the game. So perhaps an off-season of strengthening and rehab will be sufficient, after all.
For the Alouettes, too, there is reason to hope for better than the uneven season they had while looking for someone to succeed Hall of Fame-bound Anthony Calvillo.
At last, they appear to have settled on 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, who’s neither young (29) nor inexpensive (reportedly $525,000 US per) but may have the leadership chops to make the Alouettes -- who always have talent in abundance throughout the roster -- dangerous again.
But these are ruminations for clean-out day when the losing teams’ locker rooms are emptied of personal belongings, and the equipment is packed away for the long winter.
Whoever emerges from next Sunday’s division finals in the comfort of Rogers Centre and the discomfort of McMahon Stadium might as well know that winter has only just begun. There is another week ahead in Regina, when the wind will blow and the chill will penetrate to the bones and whatever the temperature is supposed to be in the “heat” of the day, it will be much colder by the time the pre-game rigamarole is over and the ball is on the tee.
“THAT’s Canadian football!” say the denizens of the peanut gallery, who don’t have to play in it.
But they may be right. It was pretty glorious on Sunday.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun