Grey Cup is B.C. history for Lions


Lui Passaglia has been through the good, the bad and the euphoric with the B.C. Lions.

In 1985, Passaglia was part of the Lions' first Canadian Football League championship in 21 years. Then, he witnessed a gradual slide in which B.C. bottomed out with a 3-15 record in 1992. Passaglia's fortunes came full circle last November in the Grey Cup, when he kicked four field goals, including the game-winner with no time left on the clock, to lift the Lions to a 26-23 championship victory over the upstart expansion team from Baltimore.

Tomorrow night at B.C. Place in Vancouver, Passaglia, 41, begins his 20th season with the Lions, who begin their defense of the Grey Cup with a rematch against the Baltimore Football Club.

"It's only Game 1, but as far as getting pumped for the game, we're developing a rivalry with Baltimore already," Passaglia said. "I think they're one of the teams to beat. We know they're going to come in here hungry."

And so will the B.C. fans, added Passaglia. He said the Grey Cup victory produced a surge in civic pride, something he noticed during the off-season.

"Everywhere we go, it seems like everybody was watching that day," he said. "When we greeted people on the street, there was always a smile on their faces. They wanted to stop and be a part of it by talking to you. We hit a new nerve with some of the young kids.

"Three years ago, when we were 3-15, a lot of people would go the other way and hide."

Although the birth of the NBA expansion Grizzlies has created a stir in the streets, third-year Lions coach Dave Ritchie noticed the same thing about the Grey Cup's effect on the city. But Ritchie said he hasn't mentioned the championship to the team throughout training camp. All he has talked about lately is Baltimore, and only because that is the Lions' opening opponent in an 18-game regular season.

"I think it's great for the city. They've only won three [Grey Cup titles] in 30 years," Ritchie said. "But we put last year away as soon as we went to training camp. Now, we have to begin a new year, and we know the most important thing is to be a good football team at the end of the year."

Ritchie should know. B.C. wound up third in its division last year with an 11-6-1 record, but played its best football in the playoffs.

To repeat its dream season, the Lions will have to navigate through numerous question marks. Nine starters have been replaced, with the most notable coming on an offense that averaged 33.6 points and ranked fourth in the CFL last year.

Quarterback Danny McManus took over capably for the injured Kent Austin in the postseason, and he'll run the offense this year, after Austin was traded to the Toronto Argonauts. Wide receiver Ray Alexander, who made the controversial catch that kept the Lions' game-winning drive alive in the Grey Cup, is now with the Ottawa Rough Riders. He's been replaced by Robert Gordon, who had 1,002 receiving yards in Toronto last year.

The biggest loss might be fullback Sean Millington. He signed with the San Francisco 49ers after rushing for 522 yards and opening holes for returning halfback Cory Philpot (1,451 yards) with some of the best blocking in the CFL. Former backup Ryan Hanson moves into Millington's spot. Then there's the left side of the offensive line, where three-year backups Cory Mantyka (guard) and Todd Furdyk (tackle) take over for retired Rob Smith and Denny Chronotoulos, who signed during the off-season with the Calgary Stampeders.

Defensively, the Lions' front seven is established. But the secondary looks vulnerable after losing Barry Wilburn to the Philadelphia Eagles, although Eddie Thomas, acquired from Toronto, should help. All-CFL cornerback Charlie Gordon is back, but rookie halfback Robert Davis (Vanderbilt) has been pressed into service with Wilburn's departure.

"We've lost nine guys, and I'm anxious to see how the new guys respond," Ritchie said. "I'll be real disappointed if our guys don't stand up and play well."

Passaglia, who played for Baltimore coach Don Matthews on B.C.'s 1985 Grey Cup team, said he is looking forward to renewing the league's new, coast-to-coast rivalry.

"If we win this game, we've got bragging rights," he said. "At least for a while."


Opponent: B.C. Lions

When: Tomorrow, 10:30 p.m.

Site: B.C. Place, Vancouver, British Columbia.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)

Last meeting: B.C. defeated Baltimore, 26-23, on Lui Passaglia's last-second, 38-yard field goal in the CFL's Grey Cup title game.

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