BC Lions: Will the record crowd be a help, or a hindrance?

Along with the big crowd comes big expectations for the BC Lions. And as the winless Winnipeg Blue Bombers can attest this year, there are no pushovers in the CFL.

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Published Jun 15, 2024Last updated 15 hours ago6 minute read

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Sean Whyte was still just a kid, a long three years away from starting his career as a professional football player, when he was sitting rapt in the stands at BC Place for the 2004 West Final. It was a legendary game, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and BC Lions slugging it out before the home side prevailed 27-25 in overtime.

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BC’s Duncan O’Mahony’s hit a game-tying 47-yard field goal as time expired, then another one in overtime to win it. And then, there was the crowd — what a crowd. 55,527 loud, raucous Lions fans, mentally and emotionally willing their team to win in a home playoff game for the first time in a decade.

Whyte didn’t realize it at the time, but that crowd played a small role in his own career transpired arc. The deafening roars from the upper and lower bowl were focused squarely on Roughriders kicker Paul McCallum in overtime, and he infamously missed the 18-yard chip shot wide left. Back in Regina after the Lions win, McCallum’s house was egged, manure was dumped on his neighbor’s driveway, and his wife threatened. A year later, he was playing for BC, where he mentored Whyte and was ultimately the reason the White Rock native got traded to Montreal.

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The days of having those kinds of electric, influential packed houses at BC Place have been gone for more than a decade, with the expected 53,000-plus for Saturday’s home opener against the Calgary Stampeders poised to snap that string. Not since the Lions pulled 50,213 in 2011 against Edmonton, the first game in a renovated BC Place, has there been such a number.

“It was just a packed house. You couldn’t hear a thing, it was shaking,” Whyte said Friday, standing on that same field 20 years later.

“I was practicing with the Lions, but they wouldn’t let me on the field. So I ended up watching the stands, and I just remember thinking ‘Man, I wish I was in this game.’ And I haven’t seen the stands that full since. This is probably the only time since then, so to be a part of this team, and to go play in front of my home province is pretty friggin’ cool. It’s like a dream come true for me, for sure.”

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There isn’t a single player on the Lions roster who has seen 50K in BC Place as an active player. Defensive coordinator Ryan Phillips was still playing the last time, against Edmonton, they reached that mark, and offensive line coach Kelly Bates had just retired and switched to coaching that same year. Bo Lokombo probably holds the team record for playing in front of the most people, having seen 102,035 fill Neyland Stadium when his Oregon Ducks took out the Tennessee Volunteers in 2009.

Current Lions head coach Rick Campbell remembers coming into a galvanized Dome in Vancouver with visiting teams, first with Edmonton in 2011 — they also drew 41,313 for their West Final win over the then-Eskimos — and the following season when he coached with the Stampeders and upset BC in front of 43,216 in the division championship game.

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“I sure hope it’s energizing. I’ve been in here before when BC Place has been full on the opposing team,” he said. “That crowd gets going, and we’re hoping it’s a pain in the butt for (Calgary’s) offense that they can’t hear, and then we just want to feed off the energy of the crowd.”

The 2024 season didn’t start off the way BC hoped, losing 35-27 in Toronto last week, and their home opener is their next chance to get into the win column. But with the excitement over the crowd, and the pre-game concert from 50 Cent, is there a chance the hoopla could harm the Leos, either as a distraction or expectations?

“The guys that played in those big universities, they’re at that point, it’s one whole big sound and it just looks like one giant blob of darkness out there. So it actually doesn’t affect the nerves as much as you think,” said Whyte. “The noise is going to be awesome. It’s going to be just so wild in here. I just can’t wait.

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“(The crowd) doesn’t scare me. For me, it’s exciting. As a kid growing up and playing all different sports, every time I skated on the ice or ran on to a field, I just like ‘man, I wish there were more people here’ and now I’m getting that opportunity. I love nerves. That’s why we do this. You get a little high out of it. It’s gonna be a fun time.

“The adrenalin starts going so yeah, you can kick the ball 10 yards further. Well, in my case — 20,” he added with a laugh.

“And I hope it’s a great game so that we continue to do that, and keep bringing more people in to see how great this (CFL) game really is.”

Lokombo had his allotment of 10 family tickets in hand on Friday morning, and could have easily given out twice that number if he was permitted.

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“It’s gonna be incredible. It’s gonna be awesome to look up and see family, but just see this thing filled up,” he said, gesturing around the stadium.

“It’s a really good thing for BC, it’s good thing for Vancouver, it’s a good thing for the BC Lions, and it’s a great way to continue this trend bringing the culture back.”

Whyte didn’t get any tickets, and not for lack of demand. His parents, wife and her family, his sister and 15 of her friends, his brother and his family will all be at the game.

“I told everyone I’m not helping this time. I gave everyone an email address to the ticket guys that help us, and I said there’s too many people to deal with. Y’all get my discount but you guys do it on your own,’” he said, smiling.

And no family suite, either. “I can’t afford that. I’m a kicker in the CFL.”

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Looking at the West standings heading into Friday’s game — Edmonton (0-1) hosts the Montreal Alouettes (1-0) — the two teams who’ve topped the division the past two years have yet to win. The Lions are 0-1, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in early-season desperation mode at 0-2.

Campbell isn’t surprised. If anything, he’s surprised people are surprised.

“I always tell people at the start of a CFL season: the only thing that’s surprising to me is that people get surprised, because you don’t really know what you’re going to get,” he said. “When I say you’ve got to be on point to win, what I’m saying is that the teams are so even, that anybody literally can beat anybody. Sometimes a few teams fall off as the season goes on, but particularly early, anybody literally can win and so you got to play really well for 60 minutes to beat anyone.”

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There’s no desperation or concern for the Lions, but they are exceedingly motivated to win.

“I don’t know if there’s pressure, but we definitely have a sense of urgency,” Lokombo said. “We know at the end of the season, that’s when the point system matters and that’s when the playoffs matters.

You gotta bring your ‘A’ game every week. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a team is 0-15 or whatever you got to bring it every time. And that’s the beautiful thing about this game; you got to bring it every single weekend.”

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