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Elks and Riders, once proud CFL teams fallen on hard times, seek redemption in 2024


The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Elks both have green as their primary colour. But Saturday’s season-opening matchup between the teams at Commonwealth Stadium will feature significant hints of double blue.

There will be so many former Toronto Argonauts in the building, it might feel like that team is celebrating an alumni night, rather than the Elks beginning their 75th anniversary season.

The Elks will be helmed by quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who led the Argos to the Grey Cup in 2022. Former Argos kicker Boris Bede signed with the Elks for 2024. Javon Leake, named the CFL’s top special teams player in 2023, has moved from Toronto to the Alberta capital. And the Argos traded 2022 CFL all-star receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. to the Elks in the off-season.

Meanwhile, former Argos defensive co-ordinator Corey Mace is the Roughriders’ new head coach. And Saskatchewan’s biggest free-agent splash was the signing of former Argo running back A.J. Ouellette, who gained 1,009 yards on the ground in 2023.

“You know, all good things end up falling apart,” Gittens said of the great Argo exodus. “But I’m excited for those guys, they got a great team over there. Coach Mace is an awfully good coach. It will be exciting for these two teams to get this thing going.”

A hip injury hampered Gittens in 2023 after he helped the Argos win the Grey Cup the previous year. He said he was “super surprised” that the Argos traded him to Edmonton for lineman Jake Ceresna. But he’s excited for the new start with the Elks, who were 4-14 in 2023 and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2019.

And he’s happy to be catching passes from Bethel-Thompson, so everything old is new again.

“One hundred per cent, it’s an exciting thing,” he said. “I am blessed. The recovery process has been smooth, no real setbacks. I am working, just getting better every single day. I am pretty much thankful for all the little things.”

But while Gittens adds to the Elks attack, the rebuilt defensive line will have to figure out a way to stop Ouellette.

“He’s a good player, you’ve got to find a way to gang tackle him,” said Elks general manager and head coach Chris Jones. “You’ve got to get a whole bunch of people around him. And, when you get a hold of him you’ve got to grab on, grab cloth, and pull him to the ground. He’s really good in the weight room, he’s really strong. But the biggest thing about him is his will to win. “

The Riders, meanwhile, will need to focus on Edmonton’s running attack led by Kevin Brown, who was second in the league in 2023 with 1,141 yards. What Leake can do in the return game also concerns the Riders’ new head coach.

“Brown is a heck of a back, and they brought in Javon Leake, who’s dynamic when he’s got the ball in his hands,” said Mace. “It’s about keeping the gaps down and, really, we call it ‘STB,’ which means sprint to ball. Twelve hats, one ball, tackle by population.”

Saskatchewan quarterback Trevor Harris said his team needs to be ready to face a dynamic Elks’ defence.

“You know that Chris Jones is going to have great athletes,” Harris said. “They can play football. He’s a very, very hard worker at finding that talent.”

Like the Elks, the Roughriders — another team with deep CFL history — missed the playoffs last season. Saskatchewan was 6-12 in 2023.

Jones understands that this is a game between teams looking to reclaim lost glory. The Elks are bringing in greats from the past for their 75th season-opener — and there is the added distraction of alumni dinners and other events piled onto the week.

This Saturday’s game will feature a halftime celebration of the franchise’s 14 Grey Cup triumphs. Legendary Elks quarterbacks Warren Moon, Ricky Ray, Mike Reilly and Tom Wilkinson will be among the alumni in the building.

But Jones thinks reflecting on the franchise’s proud history is an important thing — and a lesson for his players.

“Edmonton’s always used to winning,” said Jones. “Both in hockey and football. The universe is right, right now, in hockey and we’re about to make it right in football.”


Saturday, Commonwealth Stadium.

EARLY START: The game was moved from its original start time of 5 p.m. MT to 2 p.m. to accommodate Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final between the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers.

CHANGING THE SCRIPT: Saskatchewan is looking for something different this year after ending the last two seasons with seven-game losing streaks.

MODEST SUCCESS: One of Edmonton’s four wins last season was a 36-27 win at Regina.