For Chadd Kehler, Friendly Manitoba isn’t just an annual bus trip for crazed Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans. Friendly Manitoba is Chadd Kehler.
It’s printed in capital letters on the back of Kehler’s blue and gold jerseys. He’s become “that guy” to many CFL fans after an infamous moment at the 2009 Labour Day Classic between the visiting Blue Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
While out at sports games, Kehler likes to socialize. He even enjoys friendly banter with opposing Riders’ fans. In fact, he seeks it.
This was the case in 2009 when Kehler noticed a fan decked out in green apparel become green, crouching over in the stands. Kehler’s natural Friendly Manitoba instincts kicked in.
“I went down to help him, and I put my hand on his back to ask if he’s okay,” says Kehler. “Before security escorted him out, another guy and I actually tried to pull a ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ and prop him up as if he wasn’t falling asleep.”
The brief, harmless interaction has become an iconic CFL fan photo.
It also changed Kehler’s life.
Hours after seeing a Michael Bishop-led Winnipeg team lose in Regina, Kehler could only think about how much fun he had mingling at the stadium, and how boring his bus ride home was.
Kehler knew he could offer a better bus trip — the best bus trip — to the Labour Day Classic, so he started his own in 2011. Now on the first Saturday afternoon in September, The Friendly Manitoba Tour bus cruises West down the Trans-Canada Highway.
Kehler runs the annual tour with his accountant turned friend Nate Brideau.
Brideau stays at home and handles the logistics of each trip, while Kehler captains the party bus headed from Winnipeg to Regina. The two also have help marketing their annual football-themed party weekend.
“We do have a secret weapon: my wife Melanie,” says Brideau. “I like to say she’s the magician behind the scenes who makes us look good. Because of her experience in graphic design, she guides us with a lot of the writing and design work.”
Approximately 30 hours before kickoff, Brideau gives the green light and bodes farewell to his 50 guests. He and Kehler also load up all of the passengers’ complimentary beverages.
“The tasty beverages is a huge selling point,” says Kehler. “It’s something I like to share with everybody — beers on me, let’s have a good time. It’s something that has people talking about my trip for weeks.”
Ask any of the 50 passengers and the majority will tell you that the staple of Kehler’s tour is the bus ride there. They’ll also tell you to forget about catching any shut-eye before arriving at the hotel.
“Fifty people go on the bus. No one knows everyone for the first hour but you leave the weekend with 49 friends,” says Kehler. “My tour is about bringing people together.”
On top of complimentary gift bags, each passenger on The Friendly Manitoba Tour is entered to win prizes such as mini-fridges or Bombers’ tickets.
Despite Winnipeg’s 1-8 record in Regina during the existence of their Labour Day trip, Kehler says there is rarely an empty seat. They’ve also expanded their business idea, reversing their route the following weekend.
Starting in 2018, Brideau and Kehler also run a tour from Regina to Winnipeg for the Banjo Bowl the following Saturday.
Unlike Labour Day, Brideau isn’t behind the scenes for the rematch. Instead, his role becomes the host and cook for an epic pre-game barbeque outside IG Field. Kehler is again on the bus and promotes the tour in Regina during the leading up weekends.
As of August 13, only nine of 50 spots remain open for their 2019 Banjo Bowl tour.
“We have such a wonderful rivalry here on the prairies and there’s nothing in Canada like watching all of it unfold on the field — the ups, the downs, the laughs and even the cries,” says Brideau.
With the Blue Bombers at 7-2 and in first in the West and the Roughriders close behind at 5-3, the football during The Friendly Manitoba Tour’s ninth Labour Day Classic and second Banjo Bowl is sure to satisfy all sides, unless a team comes out 0-2.