TORONTO — CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge's first Labour Day weekend will be a historic one.
On Monday, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (6-3) host the Toronto Argonauts (6-3) while the Edmonton Eskimos (6-3) face the Calgary Stampeders (7-2). The winners will assume top spot in their respective divisions, the first time in league history Labour Day will feature battles for first in both conferences.
The second half of the season has the potential for some interesting playoff runs. Five of the CFL's nine teams have records over .500 and in the West the B.C. Lions (3-5) and Winnipeg Blue Bombers (3-6) are tied for the third and final playoff spot. Even the Saskatchewan Roughriders (0-9) remain in playoff contention despite suffering six losses by four points or less.
The Montreal Alouettes (4-5) are last in the East Division but just two points behind third-place Ottawa (5-4) and four behind Hamilton and Toronto. On Friday night, the Als snapped the Ticats' 10-game win streak at Tim Hortons Field.
Amazingly, a whopping 63 per cent of CFL games this season have been decided in the final three minutes.
"Parity in the league and that unpredictability all lend to this kind of unprecedented excitement," Orridge told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. "The fact that everybody has something at stake keeps viewers glued to their televisions, iPads and smartphones.
"It also keeps them continuing to come to the stadium and enjoying that experience because it's a ride from beginning to the very end."
Orridge, 54, assumed the commissioner's job April 29. The New York native immediately became a trailblazer as the first black commissioner among North America's top five pro sports organizations — the CFL, NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball.
Since becoming the CFL's 13th commissioner, Orridge has overseen the extension of the league's TV deal with TSN through 2021, the naming of Shaw Communications as the presenting sponsor of this year's Grey Cup, the sale of the Toronto Argonauts and the severing of the CFL's partnership with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports to administrate its drug policy.
But Orridge said his biggest surprise has been Saskatchewan's struggles. On Monday night, head coach Corey Chamblin and GM/vice-president of football operations Brendan Taman were fired a day after a humiliating 35-13 road loss to the Ottawa Redblacks.
Special-teams coach Bob Dyce takes over as head coach while assistant GM Jeremy O'Day will assume Taman's positions. Both appointments are on an interim basis.
"Who would've predicted that?" Orridge said. "They (Riders) have a storied history of putting great teams on the field and having major success . . . but you never know and once again it's unpredictability of the season.
"More than half of the games they've lost have been by four points or less . . . we could be having a different conversation if the ball had bounced in a different way."
Penalties were up substantially to start the season as teams adjusted to off-season rule changes aimed at boosting offence and scoring. Converts went back 20 yards to the 32 while two-point attempts moved up two yards to the three-yard line.
Also, defensive backs could no longer contact receivers more than five yards downfield and on punts the five interior linemen on the kicking team couldn't leave the line of scrimmage until the ball was kicked.
The changes seem to have worked as Orridge said scoring has increased by almost 10 per cent. Defences have also got in the act, scoring 22 TDs thus far.
"I couldn't have predicted this kind of parity," Orridge said. "The rule changes are exciting and innovative but they've prompted the game to be more fun-filled and entertaining.
"We didn't know what impact these rule changes would actually have but so far so good. It has been stellar."
Youth is also being served at quarterback, with Calgary's Bo Levi Mitchell and Hamilton's Zach Collaros — who led their clubs to last year's Grey Cup game — both having solid sophomore campaigns. And injuries to veterans Mike Reilly (knee), Ricky Ray (shoulder), Darian Durant (Achilles), Kevin Glenn (chest), Jonathan Crompton (shoulder) and Dan LeFevour (shoulder) have given youngsters James Franklin, Brett Smith, Trevor Harris and Rakeem Cato the opportunity to play and shine.
"It's really exciting," Orridge said. "There's a recognition we go a lot deeper than the starters.
"I think it's important to understand we have incredible talent within this league and the fact that given the opportunity emerging talent will certainly shine. Youth, enthusiasm, energy and talent and skills are really rising to the top right now."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press