Two years in, Thiadric Hansen still the benchmark for Global CFL success

Two weeks from now, just as the Canadian Football League’s shortened 2021 regular season is wrapping up, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will mark the two-year anniversary of their first Grey Cup victory in 29 years.

After the pandemic-imposed cancellation of the 2020 season, the Bombers are once again the league’s best team with their eyes firmly set on a championship repeat, in large part thanks to their impressive roster continuity. The Grey Cup-winning core has almost all returned and have largely picked up right where they left off, including the man who laid that game’s biggest hit.

When he ran down the field on the kickoff team back in 2019 to de-cleat Hamilton returner Frankie Williams, German defensive end Thiadric Hansen instantly became the poster boy for the CFL’s Global initiative. He was already the lone international player getting any rotational reps on defense and a highlight reel play heard round the world was the shot in the arm that the league’s heavily criticized dalliance with uncovering international talent desperately needed.

Two years later, the Global program has grown. Unlike in its inaugural season, every team has seen a meaningful contribution from their mandated international athlete, and many have dabbled with dressing more than one at various points this season. Some of that has been due to a successful wave of Australian punters arriving in the league, but a pair of Global offensive linemen, Chris Ferguson of the Bahamas and Steven Nielsen of Denmark, have earned starts this year, and more may follow in the final two weeks.

Thiadric Hansen #1, taking down ball carrier in Polish Football League in 2020 during season with the Wroclaw Panthers Photo: Łukasz Skwiot.

Still, when it comes to position players, none have yet to knock Hansen off his perch as the league’s best Global and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While the former Kiel Baltic Hurricane first blazed a trail to prove that Global players could belong in the CFL, he is now proving they can grow in their roles as well.

Despite the hype that surrounded his bone-shattering Grey Cup play, people often forget that Hansen’s debut CFL season came to its head slowly. Converting from linebacker to defensive line, he received sparing rotational reps late in games and posted five defensive tackles, a sack and a pair of forced fumbles in 18 regular season appearances. He did not even make a special teams tackle until the playoffs, making the Grey Cup hit just his second ever. Arguably his best play, an impromptu goal line stop against Saskatchewan in the West Final, has been forgotten because it did not show up on the stat sheet.

While enduring the long off-season as a member of the Wroclaw Panthers, Hansen remained committed to improving his craft, and not just defensively. At the time, he told this publication that his biggest goal was to get on the Bombers‘ punt team, the crown jewel of their special teams’ assignments. In the special teams heavy CFL, head coach Mike O’Shea would put you on defense in a do-or-die playoff game before he would trust you with the punt team.

By all accounts, Hansen has now earned that trust and is a key piece of every Winnipeg special teams unit. In 12 games, he has 12 special teams tackles, the third most on his team but eighth most in the league. It is rare to find a snap where he isn’t in the vicinity of the ball and the growth has continued on defense as well.

Thiadric Hansen #3 waiting for Winnipeg Blue Bombers HC Mike O’Shea to send him out

Backing up all-star defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, both of whom will be in the conversation for the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player, Hansen has proved capable of providing pressure in relief, making five tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in the rotation. Those numbers will likely improve over the final two meaningless contests for the Bombers’ position in the standings, where starters will play much more sparingly.

Critics of the Global program will point to the fact that a solid depth player like Hansen remaining the top international proves them right; two years in no consistent starter or even star has emerged from the experiment. That should hardly be our benchmark for success so early however and Hansen is proving why. Even with a pandemic layoff to hinder his development, the German has been meaningfully better in every aspect of his game than he was two years ago. Mandating teams provide Global players opportunities to grow through experience has worked.

We know that Americans rarely pick up the CFL game quickly. Canadian players often take three years to adjust to the demands of the professional level when making the jump from U Sports. For Globals, the learning curve is even steeper and they are progressing exactly as expected.

Hansen benefitted from an organization in Winnipeg that emphasizes rewarding effort, that’s part of the reason why three different Global players have been able to record a statistic for them this season. Others have been placed in less open-minded environments, but most of the 2021 Global class is already at a level of play equal to or better than what Hansen showed in 2019, with players like Dutch linebacker Tyron Vrede already nipping at his heels. If they follow his development trajectory, the third-year jump for the CFL’s Global program could be something to behold.

Still, his continuing status as the Global benchmark for success likely matters little to Hansen. Right now, he’s more focused on that Grey Cup repeat.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.