TORONTO - Jon Cornish doesn't like his chances of being the first Canadian in 34 years to be named the CFL's outstanding player.
The Calgary Stampeders' running back is the West Division's nominee for the award but is up against the versatile Chad Owens of the Toronto Argonauts. Cornish, a native of New Westminster, B.C., is attempting to become the first Canadian to capture the honour since tight end Tony Gabriel, a native of Burlington, Ont., did so in 1978 while with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
The CFL will honour its top individual performers at its awards banquet Thursday night.
"I've always been just trying to help my team,'' Cornish said. "But in this particular case, you're up against a player as great and game-changing as Chad Owens, I wouldn't speak too highly of my own chances.''
Owens, 30, was the CFL leader in receiving (94 catches for 1,328 yards and six TDs) and return yards (2,510) and accumulated a league-record 3,863 all-purpose yards. Owens, a native of Hawaii affectionately dubbed The Flyin' Hawaiian, is a big reason why Toronto is making its first Grey Cup appearance since '04.
But the six-foot, 217-pound Cornish had a record-setting season of his own.
He led the CFL in rushing with 1,457 yards, becoming the first Canadian to do so since Orville Lee achieved the feat in '88 with Ottawa. But Cornish also broke Norm Kwong's 56-year-old record for most rushing yards in a season by a Canuck of 1,437.
"It would be a huge honour (to win outstanding player) and it would really be a testament to how far Canadians have come," Cornish said. "I really think Canadians can bring the 'C' back to the CFL.
"I would say this is a start, as a nation we've been building up our football program. Coaches are getting better, the programs have more money, so I think over time that will improve. So with us, (B.C. Lions running back) Andrew Harris, (Hamilton slotback) Andy Fantuz, (Montreal linebacker) Shea Emry, all the great Canadians in this league, we're just a start.''
Even if Owens is named the outstanding player, chances are good Cornish won't leave the awards banquet empty-handed.
He's also a finalist for outstanding Canadian, a heavy favourite for the award against Emry, a native of Richmond, B.C., who had a career-best 87 tackles this season with seven sacks.
Emry is also a finalist for the top defensive player award, the first Canadian to do so since 2006 when B.C. Lions defensive end Brent Johnson, a native of Kingston, Ont., won it. Trouble is, Emry is up against Edmonton linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who had a league-record 130 tackles along with three sacks and five interceptions.
The other nominees include: Hamilton receiver Chris Williams and B.C.'s Tim Brown (top special-teams player); Lions offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye and Montreal tackle Josh Bourke (outstanding lineman); and Winnipeg receiver Chris Matthews and Lions defensive lineman Jabar Westerman (top rookie).
The five-foot-nine, 155-pound Williams — the CFL's top rookie last season — had a league-record six return touchdowns in 2012 (five punts, one missed field goal). He was tops in punt returns (78 for 1,117 yards) and second in missed field goal returns (five for 256 yards).
Brown finished second to Owens in all-purpose yards (2,687), was second in punt returns (72 for 914 yards, two TDs) and third in kickoff returns (55 for 1,303 yards).
Bourke and Olafioye are outstanding lineman nominees for the second straight year. Bourke won it last season.
The six-foot-seven, 315-pound Bourke anchored an offensive line that surrendered just 30 sacks as Montreal finished tied for first in the CFL in both touchdowns and fewest sacks allowed as well as second in passing. The 30-year-old Windsor, Ont., native was a 2011 league all-star.
The six-foot-six, 346-pound Olafioye helped B.C.'s offence lead the CFL in yards per game and rushing. The 24-year-old Detroit native hasn't missed a start in three seasons with the Lions.
The six-foot-five, 229-pound Matthews was Winnipeg's leading receiver as a rookie, sixth overall, with 81 catches for 1,192 yards and seven TDs despite the Bombers using three different quarterbacks this season.
Westerman, a native of Brampton, Ont., was selected second overall in the 2012 CFL draft and recorded 14 tackles and four sacks for a defence that led the league in 18-of-25 categories, including sacks (47).