By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
Kyle Walters is enjoying a fourth straight Grey Cup appearance unsure of his CFL future.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers chase a third Grey Cup title Sunday when they meet the Montreal Alouettes. Walters, 50, has been the club’s general manager since 2013 but is in the final year of his CFL contract.
When he and the Bombers couldn’t agree on a new deal before the 2023 season, both sides agreed not to speak again until after Winnipeg was finished playing.
“When it was clear there wasn’t going to be anything sorted out before the season, then there was no use worrying or talking about it,” Walters said Wednesday during Winnipeg’s media day. “I didn’t want to, I wanted to focus on football, I didn’t want deal with any of this stuff until after the season . . . then figure out what the future looks like.”
Winnipeg took the same approach last year with head coach Mike O’Shea. He entered the ’22 campaign on the final year of his contract before signing a three-year deal in December.
Walters became interim GM in 2013 before assuming the role permanently the following year. Since 2014, Winnipeg has amassed a 98-72 regular-season record, registering double-digit victories and two Grey Cups (2019, ’21) the last seven seasons.
Walters expects clarity on his CFL future shortly after the Grey Cup, especially given assistant GMs Danny McManus and Ted Goveia are also on expiring contracts.
Walters said his preference is to remain in Winnipeg.
“Why would anyone want to leave this organization willingly,” Walters said. “I love the CFL, my entire adult life has been football so I certainly anticipate being in the CFL.
“I’d love it to be in Winnipeg but I don’t want it to be a distraction. We’ll wait and see what it looks like in the next week or so.”
Walters played seven CFL seasons as a defensive back with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, winning a Grey Cup in 1999. Upon retiring, Walters got into coaching at Guelph, his alma mater, serving as defensive co-ordinator (2004-05) before becoming head coach (2006-09).
Walters joined the Blue Bombers in 2010 as their special-teams co-ordinator, a post he led through 2012. But as GM, Walters has had a major hand in building Winnipeg into a perennial CFL powerhouse.
His first two hires in 2014 were McManus and Goveia, then O’Shea. Walters showed patience with O’Shea, who was a combined 12-24 his first two seasons as head coach before posting an 11-7 record in ’16 to begin the current streak of double-digit victories.
On Tuesday, O’Shea said he anticipated Walters returning as Bombers GM.
Walters has also made many solid personnel moves as GM, the biggest being acquiring quarterback Zach Collaros from Toronto before the ’19 trade deadline. Collaros, who battled injuries that year, has been a key figure for Winnipeg, twice earning the CFL’s outstanding player award (2021-22).
He’ll become the first CFL quarterback to start four straight Grey Cups on Sunday.
“I’d like to say I saw this coming but I don’t think any of us did,” Walters said. “We were going through some injuries and knew we needed a veteran guy . . . when we saw him come in the first couple of days, it was, ‘This is a little different,’ with the way he leads and plays.
“He’s a winner.”
Walters has been instrumental in keeping the core of Winnipeg’s roster together, a tough achievement in the free agency era. While some proven players — like Canadian centre Michael Couture (B.C.) and American defensive tackle Casey Sayles (Hamilton) — have left as free agents, other veterans have taken less to remain in Manitoba because of the club’s culture and winning ways.
“Most importantly, I believe players like being here,” Walters said. “If there’s an offer that’s relatively in the ballpark, we’ve come out on the right side of things.”
Walters has also had to make tough roster decisions, like not re-signing veteran running Andrew Harris following the ’21 season. Harris, a Winnipeg native, helped the Bombers win Grey Cups in 2019 and ’21 but his departure allowed youngster Brady Oliveira to shine.
Harris went on to spend the 2022-23 seasons with Toronto, helping the Argos down Winnipeg 24-23 in last year’s Grey Cup. Oliveira has cracked the 1,000-yard rushing plateau the last two campaigns, running for a CFL-high 1,534 yards this year while being selected as a finalist for the league’s outstanding player and Canadian awards.
“That’s the worst part of this job,” Walters said. “I’m happy it worked out for Andrew and Brady is doing great.”
Walters said continuity, on and off the field, has been key to Winnipeg’s success.
“Every single person is in charge of their departments and is really, really good so from a managerial standpoint you just step back and let these good people work,” he said. “It makes things much easier being here (Grey Cup) four years in a row but there’s still a lot of excitement here, we’re playing a different team.
“This is what you work all year for and as an organization to get here is always awesome and exciting.”