Alain Couture was as excited as anyone else about the CFL returning to play in 2021, but it also made him extremely anxious.
As the director of health and performance/head athletic therapist for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Couture feared what a year away from football was going to do to the players.
"I think coming into it, I was concerned about how the players were going to respond and what injuries were going to look like. Looking at data from other leagues coming off of either a long lockout or a missed season, the stats weren’t very pretty," Couture said in an interview this week.
It was up to people such as Couture to ensure players were easing themselves back into the swing of things. Before training camp began, Couture and strength and conditioning co-ordinator Brayden Miller took groups of players to the field after they completed their quarantine periods to knock off the rust and get their bodies prepared for the coming weeks. For teams that didn’t take the right approach, they paid the price. There’s no better example than the Saskatchewan Roughriders who had four players tear their Achilles tendons in on-field workouts days before training camp.
Things didn’t go perfectly in Winnipeg — running back Andrew Harris injured his calf and strong-side linebacker Mercy Maston and wide receiver Blake Jackson each tore an Achilles tendon in camp — but overall, Couture and the Blue and Gold made it to Week 1 in decent shape.
“We had a 19 per cent increase in injuries for training camp this year compared to 2019 which I was pretty happy with after a year off." — Alain Couture
"We had a 19 per cent increase in injuries for training camp this year compared to 2019 which I was pretty happy with after a year off. I came in thinking it’d be a little bit worse from a total volume of injuries," said Couture.
"You’re always gonna have injuries that are unfortunate like Blake Jackson, etc., but they weren’t out of the realm. I’ve had numerous seasons where I never had an Achilles injury and I’ve had a couple seasons where I had two or three over the whole span. We had those two and we never had one for the rest of the year."
Couture’s gig means he has the final say on whether or not a player is healthy enough to play. The Bombers didn’t have any catastrophic injuries during the season, but the health of No. 33 was a story for a large chunk of the year. The 34-year-old Harris missed the first three games before making his return to the lineup. He looked as good as ever until Week 11 in Edmonton when he left the game with a knee injury. Harris ended up missing the final four games of the season and didn’t play again until the West Division final at home against Saskatchewan on Dec. 5. After Winnipeg prevailed 21-17, Riders head coach Craig Dickenson spoke to the media and accused the Bombers of using the injury as an excuse to rest Harris for the playoffs.
Not true, says Couture.
"That was not the case. I’m not going to say I’m surprised how he played because I’m not surprised by Andrew anymore. But it was pretty impressive and it did come down to the wire," said Couture. Harris rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown despite being listed as a game-time decision.
"I’m certainly glad we got the bye and finished first because we needed it. (Andrew playing) wasn’t going to happen otherwise. It was pretty nice knowing we had the bye when we did because we knew for a little while. That West Final was an aggressive date for us. You’re working backwards and it’s like ‘This has to be accomplished by here and we need to get X done by this date’ and it looked like we might have a chance when we were putting a program together."
Couture, 38, started with the Bombers when he was 19 as a student therapist and has worked his way up the ladder ever since. Couture, who’s also a registered massage therapist through the Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, thought he had seen it all, but that quickly changed with the 2021 season taking place in the middle of a pandemic. Nobody knew exactly how it was going to play out, but the Bombers ended up making it through the entire season without a single positive case.
" I can’t stand at the door and keep COVID away. Everyone has to do their part and I’m no more important than a coach or a player and I think we all did our best," said Couture.
"I think there were a lot of rules to follow and I would say our players did a very good job with it. Not excellent, it wasn’t perfect. It’s a seven day a week environment, but I thought everyone did a pretty good job and we were fortunate that we didn’t have a case all year. I also think our low-test-positivity rate in the province was a big part of it. It’s not like we’re sitting here taking all the credit for it because we were fortunate."
The 2022 season will be the University of Manitoba grad’s 20th with the club. He had to wait a long time to see the confetti rain down on the Bombers, but even now with two Grey Cup rings, Couture isn’t looking for a new challenge elsewhere.
"During the season, I wake up at roughly 3:30 in the morning every day and I’m excited to go to work. As challenging and stressful as some of the days are, I’m still excited every day. I’ve told myself that when the day comes when I get up at that hour and I’m not excited about going in, then it’s time to walk away. But for right now, I’m still definitely having fun and the players are a big part of that, too."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.