Canadian Football League commissioner Randy Ambrosie is a big fan of the East-West dynamic but says he would entertain discussions about a change to the league’s playoff structure.
“I would tip my hand and say that I’m a passionate believer in East vs. West … I think it is part of what has made the league special,” Ambrosie said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It has that uniquely Canadian identity.
“Having said that, I also know that we have to bring modern thinking to everything about our league. I’m willing to have the conversation for sure. We have to be open-minded because the world is changing around us and we don’t want to have our heads in the sand.”
A major imbalance in the strength of teams in the West and East this season has spurred talk of a change to the playoff format.
Currently, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs, unless the fourth-place team in one division has more points than the third-place team in the other. In that case, there is a crossover, which has occurred nine times since it was introduced in 1996, with West teams crossing to the East every time (most recently last season when the Edmonton Eskimos crossed over).
However, this year all five teams in the West have records that are as good or better than all four teams in the East. The Edmonton Eskimos alone, with seven wins, have as many victories as the four Eastern teams combined.
Going back to last season, the Ottawa Redblacks won the East and hosted the division final with an 8-9-1 record, while the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-7) and Eskimos (10-8) had to try to win two playoff games on the road.
In a column on Sunday, we suggested it’s time for the league to look at scrapping the East-West format and going to one division, with the top-six teams making the playoffs.
“I’m happy to have that conversation with everyone and I think we should have it,” Ambrosie said. “This has been, in the early days, one of the things I’m having the most fun with. I think we should have a national conversation about our game. I think the more people that engage in the conversation, the better. I think the CFL is the perfect expression of what being Canadian is all about. Where that leads us I don’t know but I think those conversations make us better and I’m happy to have them.”
Ambrosie, who was an offensive lineman in the CFL from 1985 to 1993, has been on the job as a commissioner for only a little more than a month, but has already shown a propensity for decisiveness and a willingness to converse, listen and change, if necessary.
It seems unlikely he’d be voting in favour of a change to the East-West structure himself, however.
“Like most who have a history with something, my history with East and West goes back to being a kid and we used to do fundraisers, selling football pool tickets,” Ambrosie said.
“We went around to all our friends and neighbours and it was East vs. West and it was like that in my earliest recollection of Grey Cup games and Grey Cup parties. I was from Winnipeg and rabidly cheering for whoever was representing the West over the evil empire from the East, whoever that happened to be, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s just a big part of being Canadian, East vs. West.”
Ambrosie also likes the fact that a team like the Redblacks, despite not having a great regular season, was able to win the Grey Cup last year, beating the 15-2-1 Calgary Stampeders in an overtime thriller.
“I went 16-2 in Edmonton in 1989 and we lost to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who were 9-9, in the Western Final, and they went on to win the Grey Cup.” Ambrosie said.
“I was in Regina this weekend and I saw how proud they are of that Grey Cup. It’s a reminder that regular seasons are important but playoffs matter more. Calgary last year, right? Sometimes there’s just some magic in getting hot at the right time.”