McEvoy of B.C. Lions talks smoke, future of training camp in Kamloops

The Tournament Capital, in all its glory, was glistening on May 18, when the B.C. Lions opened main camp at Hillside Stadium.

“It feels like you owe money just being here,” said veteran Lions’ defensive back T.J. Lee, with Mounts Peter and Paul shimmering in the distance amid sunny, clear sky. “It’s like a postcard, like hanging out in a postcard.”

Three days later, the postcard was an apocalyptic haze, a picture clouded in smoke.

“It just seems it’s getting earlier and earlier,” said Neil McEvoy, B.C. Lions’ co-general manager and director of football operations. “Two years ago, when we were here in July, you can understand it. I don’t remember the smoke being this crazy over the last 30 years. We’re in the middle of May here. This is something unprecedented basically for all of us.”

Smoke from wildfires raging in Northern B.C. and Alberta rolled into Kamloops in time to force the Lions inside on Wednesday, moving training camp operations into the Tournament Capital Centre from adjacent Hillside Stadium.

Practise on Thursday — bumped up to 2:30 p.m. from 3:30 p.m. — may be moved into a yet-to-be determined indoor location, according to a Lions’ press release.

The CFL club is preparing for the 2023 campaign and there are obvious limitations to working indoors, where walkthrough practices, while not without value, do not emulate the padded intensity required in an ideal training camp.

McEvoy said the club wishes not to practise outdoors when the air quality index reaches 8, with concerns for the health of players who breathe heavy during extensive drills and scrimmages.

“Our hope and what I’ve heard is that yesterday [Wednesday] was the worst day, so things are starting to clear up and the restrictions won’t be as bad as maybe they could have been,” McEvoy said.

“The reality is that regardless of where you are, this is just something we as British Columbians and Canadians are going have to deal with. That’s just the reality.”

Kamloops is not alone in 2023. CFL camps in Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon moved inside earlier this week.

The Lions — who often rave about the one-stop-shop offered at the TCC, Hillside Stadium and Thompson Rivers University dorms — brought training camp to Kamloops in 2010 and never left, despite interest from other cities across the province.

There is an estimated economic spinoff of $300,000 per year into the community, according to the city, and the deal includes extensive marketing of Kamloops and the Tournament Capital brand on the Coast.

Jeff Putnam, the City of Kamloops’ parks and civic facilities manager, told KTW the Lions are traditionally here for nearly a month, spending money at restaurants, nightclubs, the movies and malls.

"You name it, there is a gamut of companies they do business with, rental companies for vehicles, scissor-lift companies for camera crews, photographers, that type of thing,” Putnam said.

FanFest is held each year during training camp, attracting tourists to the city and its hotels and restaurants.

In July of 2017, the Lions signed a three-year contract extension with the city to continue holding camp at Hillside Stadium through 2020.

That deal — the city to pay the Leos $45,000 in 2018, $50,000 in 2019 and $55,000 in 2020 — did not account for COVID-19, which forced the cancellation of the entire CFL schedule in 2020.

The city and the Lions agreed to roll over the final year of the contract to 2021, when camp was pushed back to July from its usual May start due to the pandemic.

Wildfires burning across the province that summer smoked out the Lions, who cut camp short and headed for the Coast.

A labour dispute threatened camp last year and had an impact on FanFest, which is this year slated for Saturday, May 20, and may be affected by smoke if it lingers.

Last spring, the Lions and the city inked a two-year deal, for 2022 and 2023 (the city to pay the Lions $55,000 each year), with an option for 2024 upon mutual agreement.

McEvoy was asked if the smoke this year will affect the Lions’ desire to sign on for 2024.

“I don’t know if it does to be quite honest,” McEvoy said. “I just talked to my family down on the Coast and they can see the smoke there, too.

“Kamloops is an amazing facility. They have all the things needed to run a professional training camp. That part of it is certainly very solid. We’re certainly very happy to continue to be here. It’s just like I said, hopefully, the weather makes it easier for all of us.”