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CFL labour harmony good for a league with so much riding on 2014 season

CFL commissioner Mark Cohon admits he breathed a huge sigh of relief earlier this month when the league and its players ratified a new five-year collective bargaining agreement.

With so much riding on the 2014 season, a work stoppage would've been especially devastating.

"That (strike) was always potentially in front of us and we took it very seriously," Cohon said. "It (agreement) was important given the momentum we have.

"We didn't want to go backwards."

With labour peace achieved, Cohon has plenty to smile about heading into the new season.

A lucrative TV agreement with TSN — which is expected to net each team an extra $2.7 million in annual revenue — kicks in this year, while the expansion Ottawa Redblacks join the league and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats move into a state-of-the-art new stadium.

While not all the league's players were happy with the terms of the new collective agreement, the deal is done and the focus is back on football. The Toronto Argonauts visit the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Thursday night's season opener.

"It's very important for us to have that stability and the right foundation to build upon," said Cohon. "I'll work closely with the players and make sure they understand our business moving forward."

While Cohon builds the business, veteran quarterback Henry Burris is building a franchise.

Burris, 39, entering his 15th CFL season, signed with Ottawa as a free agent and will lead the Redblacks into their first-ever game, July 3 in Winnipeg.

Ottawa is Burris's fourth CFL stop but he appreciates being on the ground floor with the Redblacks after being released by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats despite taking them to the Grey Cup.

"To have the opportunity to build this organization from scratch and make sure we're doing the right things to build it from the ground up is incredible," Burris said. "When I was released, that definitely put some logs on the fire.

"You never want to be released, especially after what we did in Hamilton last year, but again that's not my team. Now I'm focused on making sure these men know I'm here to do everything it takes to put Ottawa back on the football map."

The CFL's newest franchise will also be playing in a new venue as TD Place Stadium replaces the old Frank Clair Stadium. Ottawa has been without pro football since the CFL suspended the former Renegades in 2006. That franchise was born in '02, six years after the Rough Riders folded.

"I remember seven years ago my first foray to the media and I think the second question asked was, 'When are you going back to Ottawa?' " Cohon said. "For years, it's been a hole in the heart of the CFL.

"But we weren't going to do it unless we had the right ownership group and we do. Having Ottawa back and doing it right were most important."

Cohon said having the Ticats at Tim Hortons Field is important for owner Bob Young, who for the first time since buying the club in 2003 has a viable opportunity to succeed financially. Hamilton played its home games at the University of Guelph last season while its new home was being built.

"Finally, I think he sees light at the end of the tunnel now," Cohon said. "People are going to be blown away in terms of the size and feel of that stadium.

"I think we have a lot to look forward to in Hamilton over the coming years."

The Ticats lost last year's Grey Cup game 45-23 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium. In the off-season, they signed free-agent quarterback Zach Collaros and released Burris.

Then Hamilton dipped into free agency to land linebacker Craig Butler (Saskatchewan), defensive back Brandon Stewart (Winnipeg), offensive lineman Steve Myddelton (B.C.) and receiver Cary Koch (Edmonton), to name a few.

But Ottawa and Hamilton aren't the only teams with interesting storylines.

Saskatchewan looks to repeat as CFL champion minus the likes of running back Kory Sheets (Grey Cup MVP now with NFL's Oakland Raiders), receivers Weston Dressler (Kansas City Chiefs) and Geroy Simon (retired), linebackers Rey Williams and Mike McCullough (both retired) and defensive lineman Keith Shologan (Ottawa expansion draft). Saskatchewan did re-sign quarterback Darian Durant this off-season, along with head coach Corey Chamblin and GM Brendan Taman.

The Calgary Stampeders are again expected to challenge the Riders, especially with slotback Nik Lewis's return. The 11-year veteran missed most of last year with a broken ankle but the Stamps still posted a league-best 14-4 record before losing to Saskatchewan in the West Division final.

Lewis, the CFL's top rookie in '04 and a three-time league all-star, had nine straight 1,000-yard seasons before last year's injury and gives an already potent Calgary offence another big-play performer. Running back Jon Cornish, a native of New Westminster, B.C., ran for a league-high 1,813 yards and was named the first Canadian-born MVP since Ottawa's Tony Gabriel in '78.

Bo Levi Mitchell, the No. 3 quarterback last year, opens as Calgary's starter ahead of Drew Tate, who has battled arm injuries the last two seasons. Veteran Kevin Glenn was 20-8 as the Stampeders' starter over that span before going to Ottawa in the CFL expansion draft.

Glenn could be a pivotal figure in B.C.'s quest to become the fourth straight home team to win the Grey Cup. Glenn opens as the Lions' starter with incumbent Travis Lulay (shoulder) still sidelined. GM Wally Buono acquired Glenn from Ottawa during last month's CFL draft.

It was the Lions, under Lulay's guidance, who in 2011 began the recent trend of home teams winning the Grey Cup. Toronto and Saskatchewan have since followed suit.

There are four new CFL head coaches this year.

Rick Campbell, Calgary's defensive co-ordinator last year, assumes the top job in Ottawa. His father, Hugh Campbell, led Edmonton to five consecutive Grey Cup titles (1978-82) as head coach and four more as GM.

Chris Jones, Toronto's defensive co-ordinator the last two years, takes over in Edmonton replacing Kavis Reed, who was fired after last season's 4-14 record. In Winnipeg, former Argos special-teams co-ordinator Mike O'Shea assumes control of a Bombers squad coming off a league-worst 3-15 mark.

Tom Higgins returns the sidelines for the first time since 2007 with Montreal. He succeeds GM Jim Popp, who took over after Dan Hawkins was fired early last season.

Higgins, 59, was the CFL's director of officiating from 2008 until December 2013 following stints in Edmonton (head coach/GM from 2001-'04) and Calgary (head coach '05-'07). Higgins won a Grey Cup with the Eskimos in '03.

One of Higgins' first tasks was deciding Chad Johnson, 36, will continue his pro career in Montreal. The colourful Johnson, with over three million Twitter followers, had 766 catches for 11,059 yards and 67 TDs over 11 NFL seasons with Cincinnati and New England but was out of football for two years before heading north.

This season, the CFL will be the first football league to allow pass interference calls to be reviewed.

"I can tell you our friends in the NFL are looking closely at what's happening here," Cohon said. "In terms of the integrity of the game, there's always the most controversy around pass interference so we want to ensure we get the calls right."

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