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B.C. Lions named Canadian Press team of the year

Sports editors and broadcasters across Canada voted for the BC Lions as 2011 team of the year, ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.

Early this season the B.C. Lions hardly had the look of a champion.

They opened with five straight losses and through seven games were a dismal 1-6. But with CFL MVP Travis Lulay coming of age, B.C. won 12 of its final 13 games and defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 34-23 to capture the Grey Cup at B.C. Place.

The Lions were rewarded for their improbable championship run by being named The Canadian Press Team of the Year for 2011 in voting by sports editors and broadcasters across the country.

Not only did the Lions become the first team to win a Grey Cup after an 0-5 start, they were the first to do so at home since dispatching Baltimore 26-23 in the ’94 final.

“Starting 0-5 was frustrating,” said veteran slotback Geroy Simon. “Having a good year as an individual was great but winning as a team and knowing where we came from to where we ended up makes this the best year I’ve ever had as a football player.

“And to have someone recognize such a team effort is truly a great honour.”

The Lions finished with 116 points in the poll, including a majority of the first-place votes (22).

“(The) Lions’ comeback was incredible — almost fairy-tale like,” commented Mark Stephen of Calgary radio station CHQR.

The Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver Canucks were second with 82 points, ahead of the Memorial Cup-champion Saint John Sea Dogs (69 points).

Lions defensive end Brent Johnson said the voters got it right.

“Obviously I’m biased but it is the right choice,” he said. “All the things sports likes to use as cliches were actually true this year.

“It’s a story about a group of 50-some guys when their backs were against the wall and no one else believed in them, they rallied together and found a way to make it work and pull it off. Those stories don’t come around every day and don’t happen to a lot of people. I’m just so proud to be a part of the great team this year’s was and it’s going to take a long time before that’s ever repeated.”

Head coach Wally Buono credited owner David Braley’s patience as well as the character of his veteran leaders for B.C.’s remarkable turnaround.

“Guys like Brent and Geroy kept that locker-room together and were big in selling the coaches’ messages to keep working hard, keep focused and don’t listen to what’s going on around you,” Buono said. “I learned a long, long time ago you can’t listen when things are going well and you shouldn’t listen when things are going poorly . . . you must weather the storm and isolate yourself in a way that you kind of almost protect yourself so it doesn’t become a detriment or negative that affects all the other decisions you have to make at a critical time.

“The (front-office) leadership didn’t panic and didn’t put pressure on me. I think David realized there was already enough pressure on the football guys to get this turned around. The big thing he’d always say was, ‘I know you’re going to fix it.’ You walk away from the conversation feeling you have your boss’ confidence that if you keep working and doing the things you believe in you’re going to get it worked out and I think that was critical.”

On Wednesday, figure skater Patrick Chan was named the top male athlete while freestyle skier Jennifer Heil captured top female honours Thursday.

The Lions’ Grey Cup win was especially significant for Buono, who just over a week later resigned to end his 22-year CFL coaching career and concentrate full-time on his duties as general manager. Buono promoted defensive co-ordinator Mike Benevides, a Toronto native, as his successor and the league’s only Canadian head coach.

“If you’re honest with yourself, there’s a time and place you know it’s time to move on and for me it was that time,” Buono said. “Mike is the next wave and it’s exciting to give a fellow Canadian this opportunity but it’s not a token thing, it’s well earned.”

Buono, 61, leaves as the CFL’s winningest coach with a regular-season record of 254-139-3 and a record-tying five Grey Cup titles.

Buono not only left coaching on his own terms, but also while on top.

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