CFL Camp Countdown: Bombers don't fear NHL's return

Here's the next entry in our series of training camp previews, focusing on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Some highlights of Tuesday's conference call with team president Jim Bell, general manager Joe Mack and head coach Paul LaPolice are below.

— Most of the focus on these calls has been on the on-field preparations for training camp, but Winnipeg's off-field situation is just as interesting. After plenty of turmoil, the Bombers are finally building a new stadium and have a plan in place to pay $85 million towards it. A new element has entered the picture recently, though, and that would be the apparently-imminent relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg. Through much of their history, the Bombers had to compete with the WHA and NHL's Jets, so top-level hockey's return to the city could make things interesting for them from the points of view of both attendance and corporate sponsorship. On today's call, Bell answered several questions about how a Winnipeg NHL team could affect the Bombers. He said it can't be ignored, and the team is keeping a close eye on the situation.

"That is certainly the news of the day and the week," Bell said. "Will there be an impact? There may be."

— Bell said he's confident the Bombers and baseball's Goldeyes can survive and thrive alongside the NHL, though.

"Our view is there is room for three," he said. "As a club, we have a solid business plan going forward."

— A substantial part of that plan, projected to raise over $1 million towards stadium costs annually, involves revenues from regular attendance, corporate suites and amenities. One of the keys to fulfilling that projection will be establishing and maintaining a strong season-ticket base, and Bell said they're making great progress on that front.

"As of today, we've sold as many season tickets as we had last year," he said. "We know we will surpass our number from last year, which is very exciting."

The team sold around 17,800 season tickets last season, and Bell said they're expecting to blow past that this week.

"By the end of the week, we'll be over 18,000, which is a very promising number," he said.

— Bell said the NHL's arrival in town doesn't scare the Bombers.

"We don't feel threatened," he said. "I feel confident going forward. We have a very loyal and a very committed fan base."

— In fact, the Bombers have worked with prospective NHL owners True North Entertainment (who also own the AHL's Manitoba Moose) before on concerts, and Bell said they have a strong relationship that should continue even if True North brings the NHL to town.

"It's a very solid partnership and one we look forward to carrying on with them in the years to come," he said.

— Bell said the stadium project is also on schedule and going well.

"We're very encouraged with the progress of the new stadium to date," he said. "As of right now, we are on time and we anticipate the stadium will be ready in 2012 for the start of the season."

Fans can check out a live webcam feed of stadium construction from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Mondays through Fridays on the Bombers' website.

— Moving on to on-the-field matters, one of the most interesting storylines around Winnipeg this training camp is going to be the receiving corps. Before the draft, there was plenty of speculation that the team would use its two first-round picks elsewhere and then pick up hotly-touted receiving prospect Kito Poblah in the supplemental draft. However, at the start of this month, it was reported that Poblah would not be eligible for this year's supplemental draft, and that was his status heading into the regular draft. The Bombers took linebacker Henoc Muamba first overall as expected, but elected to go with a receiver in the fourth slot, making the somewhat-surprising choice to draft Jade Etienne. After the draft, it came out that Poblah would in fact be available for this week's forthcoming supplemental draft. That prompted me to ask Mack (pictured above) if the Bombers would have changed their draft strategy if they knew Poblah would be available.

"We probably would have," Mack said. "It would have had an impact on our draft to some degree."

That reinforces the issues surrounding Poblah's situation. It's not a bad thing that he was declared eligible in time for this year's supplemental draft, and his particular set of unusual circumstances (namely, being homeschooled during his time in Montreal, as the league usually depends on school records to check residence) do help make it understandable why it took so long to declare him a non-import. The timing is certainly unfortunate for Winnipeg, though, and Poblah's changing status may also have impacted the Toronto Argonauts, who put him on their negotiation list when it seemed likely he would be considered an import player.

— The Poblah situation may not have had a huge impact, though, as Winnipeg still has a chance to grab him in the supplemental draft. They may not have drafted Etienne as high if they knew Poblah would be there, but having a deep Canadian receiving corps can be tremendously beneficial to a team's success, as Saskatchewan has demonstrated. Mack said they're very impressed with what they've seen from Poblah, and they may try and grab him in the supplemental draft.

"He's had a tremendous career at Central Michigan," Mack said. "We've done a lot of research on him."

— Winnipeg has the first crack at Poblah in the supplemental draft thanks to waiver priority, but it's a bidding process where each interested team offers a pick; priority mostly matters for breaking ties. The Bombers could lock up Poblah by conceding their top 2012 pick, but they may opt to go lower, which could open the door for another team to step in. Mack wasn't tipping his hand as to which way he's leaning on Poblah.

"We're certainly going to do our due diligence on him," Mack said. "We're excited to see where it falls out."

— LaPolice said improving the club's Canadian content is a particular focus this year, and the team sees the draft as a crucial way to do that. That was behind their trade of quarterback Steven Jyles to Toronto for the 2011 fourth overall pick and a conditional 2012 pick. LaPolice said Jyles was important to the team, but getting a high pick in return was well worth it.

"It was very valuable for us to pick up a first-round pick," he said. "We believe Canadian talent is a priority. That put us in position to really draft well."

— The Bombers nabbed Etienne with the fourth-overall pick they acquired in the Jyles trade. LaPolice said the team could afford to make that trade because of the strong year-ending performance from Joey Elliott, who only joined the team last July and was originally a fourth-stringer, only starting after injuries to Buck Pierce, Steven Jyles and Alex Brink. LaPolice said Elliott showed enough promise to convince the team he could be a capable backup to Pierce this season.

"We were very comfortable with some of the things we saw from Joey Elliott," he said. "The thing that impressed us tremendously was in his second or third practice, he was trying to coach up the receivers."

— LaPolice said one of Elliott's biggest advantages is that he's already demonstrated an ability to think on his feet and get rid of the ball rapidly, which will only improve as he gets used to the CFL.

"The thing I like most about him, similar to Buck, is he makes a decision, he throws the ball quickly," LaPolice said.

— LaPolice said Pierce is making good progress on his rehab efforts, and he's been very impressed with both Pierce's commitment to the team and his commitment to being active in the Winnipeg community (even filling in as the Winnipeg Sun sports editor for a day).

"He made a commitment to live here in the offseason to rehab," LaPolice said. "He came in this morning and told me he's in the best shape of his career."

— LaPolice said the team was quite happy with the way the draft turned out, and they're excited about the potential of Etienne in particular.

"We felt we had a great draft," he said. "Jade Etienne will come in and compete for a roster spot right away."

— The team's first-overall pick, linebacker Henoc Muamba, is also expected to make a strong impact as a ratio-buster, or a guy who plays a position that's traditionally been held by Americans. Muamba hasn't yet officially signed with the Bombers, but Mack said talks are going well.

"We're having productive conversations," he said. "We don't anticipate any real problems."

— Another intriguing player the Bombers picked up was Calgary Dinos' offensive lineman Paul Swiston, who they chose 24th overall with the first pick of the fourth round. LaPolice said they were thrilled to get him that late.

"Paul Swiston was someone we thought of highly in the draft," he said. "He's a big body who can move his feet well. We were ecstatic to get him in the fourth round."

Depending on his training camp performance, Swiston may stick with the Bombers this season or return to the Dinos to finish his CIS eligibility.

— One area to watch during this year's camp will be the defensive line, where the Bombers have to replace 2010 CFL sack leader Philip Hunt. Hunt left for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles earlier this offseason, and he will leave a void. LaPolice said there should be an interesting camp battle to replace him.

"We have a bunch of young guys we think can be talented players," he said. "It should make for a good competition in camp."

— The Bombers may have been a CFL-worst 4-14 last year, but they were better than their record showed and were in a lot of close games. LaPolice said they can't take too much consolation from only losing by four points or less on nine separate occasions, though.

"I call that TBU: true, but useless," he said.

— The team is hoping to learn from those experiences and turn things around in the win/loss department, not just put up a good point differential.

"We're not in games to get close, we're in games to win," LaPolice said. "I hope those are experiences we're learning from."

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