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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

CFL, COMMISSIONER, READY FOR OPENING DAY

A view from the announcer's booth at BMO Field
TORONTO - CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge says he couldn't hope for a better way to begin the 2016 regular season than two bitter rivals opening a new stadium.

The Toronto Argonauts host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Thursday in their first regular-season game at BMO Field. It's not only a showdown between two longstanding rivals, but the game features a number of players squaring off against their former teams.

Slotback Chad Owens, the '12 CFL MVP who helped Toronto win the 100th Grey Cup that year, makes his Hamilton debut after signing there as a free agent. The Argos' roster features defensive linemen Brian Bulcke, Bryan Hall and Justin Hickman, all former Ticats free agents.

"It's going to be incredible, especially with the personnel changes you'll see,'' said Orridge, who'll attend the contest. "We couldn't hope for a better opening-season matchup.''

On Friday night, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Montreal Alouettes. Action concludes Saturday with the defending champion Edmonton Eskimos facing the Ottawa Redblacks in a Grey Cup rematch before the Calgary Stampeders visit the B.C. Lions.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders, looking to improve upon last year's league-worst 3-15 record, open June 30 hosting Toronto.

There are four new head coaches this season with Jason Maas (Edmonton), Dave Dickenson (Calgary), Wally Buono (B.C.) and Chris Jones (Saskatchewan). Buono and Jones both have previous head-coaching experience but Maas and Dickenson are both in the first seasons.

Orridge begins his second year on the job following a busy off-season for the CFL. In February, several high-profile players like Owens, defensive linemen Justin Capiccotti, Shawn Lemon and Keith Shologan, kicker Justin Medlock and quarterback Trevor Harris changed teams as free agents.

The CFL and its players agreed on a new drug-testing policy to be conducted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. There were no tests last year after the league severed its partnership with the CCES.

The agreement calls for the number of tests conducted to be equal to 100 per cent of the players in the league. But because testing is random, it's possible some will be tested twice while others won't be tested at all.

CFL teams are also sporting new uniforms, sideline and streetwear apparel by Adidas. Reebok had served as the on-field supplier for the previous 10 seasons.

The league will have expanded video review in 2016 with a second official in the command centre to address obvious errors not covered by replay challenges. It's one of 10 rule changes adopted by the CFL board of governors, including making offensive pass interference, illegal contact and illegal interference on pass plays as reviewable offences.

Orridge doesn't believe the changes will result in longer games.

"They're actually designed to make the pace of the game even quicker and also make sure we get those calls right,'' he said. "We'll have a video official in the command centre so if there's an obvious call that was either missed or should've been corrected, we'll have the ability to do so quickly.''

Orridge said the league has made many fan-friendly changes for 2016.

"For avid fans, we've updated and revamped our website so there's more statistics, news and information,'' he said. ``We've also created more content for social media ... on-field content, football-specific content and more casual content.

"It's about giving fans more reason to engage with us.''

And appealing to a younger audience.

"We're focused on not only satisfying our avid fans but really getting the attention of that next generation of fans and providing them with what they're craving,'' Orridge said. "We understand that next generation of fans is consuming sports in a very different way and we've got to be where they are.

"It's about fantasy gaming, social media and sharing and getting together and talking about the exciting things happening in the league.''

The CFL also has an officiating partnership with the NFL. A group of NFL officials worked in pre-season games and will continue into the regular season before heading to the NFL's annual officiating clinic next month.

The 2015 season was an unpredictable one that featured expansion Ottawa's surprising rise in the East Division and Edmonton's late-season charge (10 straight wins to end the year). Orridge expects more of the same in 2016.

"The great thing about the CFL, particularly this year because there was so much movement in free agency and among coaches, is you never know what's going to happen,'' he said. "Last year was exceptional where we had half of our games decided by six points or less and a third decided in the last three minutes.

"Once again we anticipate the same thing. I think it's a wide-open field ... and that's what makes the CFL super exciting.''

(Canadian Press)