People & Culture

The Grey Cup turns 100

With the 100th Grey Cup set to kick off this November, the Canadian Football League and its rough-around-the-edges charm is winning converts
  • Sep 30, 2012
  • 4,212 words
  • 17 minutes
Calgary Stampeders players Jabari Arthur, Quincy Butler and Marvin White meet fans and sign autographs Expand Image

It is a steamy July afternoon in Hamilton, Ont. On a scorched field near creaky Ivor Wynne Stadium, football coaches and parents from nearby Welland prepare sausages on propane barbecues and sip whoknows- what from red plastic cups. Earlier today their Peewee- and Atom-aged players had the run of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ field. Now, the children are parading the Niagara Regional Minor Football Association’s banner around the tailgate party inside a fenced-off park, much to the delight of the fans revving up for a game against the rival Toronto Argonauts.

“The kids are having a blast,” says first-year junior coach Tim Puttman. “I’ve been down to Buffalo Bills games, but it’s more of an adult thing. Here, it seems more family-oriented.”

Now, it is almost game time at Ivor Wynne. With the player introductions set to begin, the stands are about two-thirds full, and beyond the bleachers to the west, the steel plant smokestacks belch grey plumes over Lake Ontario. Cheerleaders form an aisle near the end zone, and the Ticats starting players jog through one by one, followed by the rest of the team, their entrance punctuated by fireworks shot out of a machine on the field.

Welland’s young football players spring into action, hurrying to stretch a giant Canadian flag across the football field just as a singer begins the national anthem.

True patriot love . . .

Junior cheerleaders in shimmering gold tops scurry to their posts on the field. They crouch as the Atoms hurriedly haul the flag over them. Remarkably, not a single girl is bowled over as the flag is pulled from one 10-yard line to the next. Working together, the cheerleaders bob beneath the flag and the players pump their arms to create a wave motion until the anthem concludes.

There’s a quaint informality to this production compared with the flawless choreography on display at a National Football League (NFL) game in the United States, even in the league’s hinterland of Orchard Park, New York, home to the Buffalo Bills and just an hour’s drive from Ivor Wynne.

And perhaps this is the way it should be. Although the administration of Canadian Football League (CFL) commissioner Mark Cohon and a strong group of owners are managing the league with slick professionalism, the Bull Durham moments dotting CFL history have always been front and centre. Only in the CFL would you hear of a team drafting a deceased player, of a general manager boasting about his closet full of shoes and challenging a reporter to a boxing match in the same radio session, of one franchise’s nickname being “Roughriders” while another’s was “Rough Riders,” of a grocery store chain sponsoring a contest on a national broadcast even though the chain has stores only in the West, of a newspaper revealing that the owner of one team also owns another.

Amazingly, after the near-bankrupting expansion into the United States in the first half of the 1990s, the CFL is doing just fine and dandy. Television ratings are up; attendance is stable. The league has compensated for its public relations gaffes with an often exciting brand of football featuring pass-happy offences — touch football in pads. In the early part of the 2012 season, scoring, at an average of 55 points per game, had increased 10 percent over 2011. More than 63 percent of the games were decided in the final three minutes, and seven of the first 16 games ended with a margin of four points or less. The CFL is in the midst of a resurgence that would have seemed highly improbable 10 years ago and, outside of Toronto, is enjoying an uncharacteristically long run of stability.

“In tough times, there is no substitute for tradition and track record,” says Brad Pelletier, a sports marketing expert. “When the economy was red-hot, the CFL was on weaker ground. Now the economy is challenged, and the CFL is on solid ground. There’s less competition for the dollar, and people gravitate to admired brands when times are tough.”

This November, the CFL celebrates its history by staging its 100th Grey Cup game, in the city that gives its local football team the least support of any franchise: Toronto. The Argonauts drew barely 20,000 fans on average last season, down one-third since 2005. Crowds are sparse at the Rogers Centre this year as well. Professional sports leagues, says Pelletier, are obligated to prop up their weakest franchises, and Toronto now qualifies as the weak link.

Toronto as a locale makes business and historical sense. The majority of Grey Cups have been held in the city, starting in 1909 in what is now Rosedale Park. The league is trying to get the most out of Grey Cup attention by pouring $1 million worth of promotion into the southern Ontario area, where the existing CFL fan base hardly reflects the young and multicultural makeup of this part of the province.

The game will deliver a slice of Canadiana. “Nothing brings Canadians together quite like the Grey Cup,” says CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon. “It’s more than our national championship. It’s a national pilgrimage. Thousands come each year in person, and millions join them through television, to celebrate something that is uniquely, intensely and proudly ours.”

Back at the pre-game party outside Ivor Wynne, the Welland youths parade a team banner past a group of tailgaters known as CFL Fans Fight Cancer. They are selling scarves and similar products, with the Ticats’ co-operation, to raise funds for Welland House, a cancer-care facility. On this day, a husband and wife have driven in from Winnipeg to support the cause. Several Argo fans indulge in a coronary- tempting concoction called a “bacon explosion,” which consists of cheese, sausage and several layers of bacon, all washed down with chilled beer from the cooler. They’re grateful that the police have exempted this fenced-in field from tough open-container laws that put a damper on traditional tailgating festivities.

“This is a way for people across Canada to come together,” says Ken Mitchell, who works with Welland House. “We have a difference of opinion for three hours. It’s a big community event. And we’ll go to Toronto too, have dinner and talk football.”

Inevitably here in southern Ontario, talk about Canadian football turns to the American game and the NFL. It has been this way ever since 1874, when Harvard smacked McGill in home-and-home games played under rugby-like rules. Canadian football is defined by how it is different from the American variety: a longer and wider field; a plumper ball; three downs instead of four; and a rule stipulating that 20 players on the 42-man playing roster must be Canadian or at the least, begat by Canadian parents.

Canadian football is tethered to its American counterpart, first as a source of talent — in a TSN poll, 39 of the league’s all-time 50 greatest players were American — and second as an indirect competitor. The CFL’s expansion into U.S. cities such as Sacramento and San Antonio in the 1990s taxed the league to such a state that a $3 million interest-free loan from the NFL was needed in 1997 to keep the CFL afloat. As recently as four years ago, the CFL proposed that the NFL take an ownership stake in the league.

Ultimately, the CFL can always pull the nationalism card from the bottom of the deck. Even if we don’t actually watch the CFL religiously, there is the tendency to push back when a threat is apparent. There’s a feet-shuffling sheepishness about supporting a game that could be the first bullet in the gun that kills the CFL. The league has unashamedly tapped into the patriotic sentiment with its marketing slogans: “Radically Canadian” and, the most recent, “This Is Our League.”

Standing on the hard-baked field, Jason Allan wears a plaid kilt in the Ticats yellow and black team colours and a black T-shirt with letters on the back spelling Box J Boys. He is positioned beneath a beige canopy that is erected in the same place before every Tiger-Cats home game, carving a roast pig that has been cooked in herbs, hot peppers and a lot of garlic. Around him, men wearing the group’s signature T-shirt drink beer, laugh, eat and goad.

“We let Argo fans in here too,” says Allan mischievously. “Just toss a little cyanide in their food.”

Allan helped form the Box J Boys in 1992 when the Tiger-Cats desperately needed community support, with the club facing apparent extinction due to financial woes. It’s a tightly restricted group, with 20 members now, friends of friends, and on this day, they are accompanied by women and children. Back then, the Box J Boys could have written off the Ticats and simply become loyal Buffalo Bills fans, setting up the barbecue on Sundays in Orchard Park.

“The franchise was in dire need back then,” says Allan. “But that’s when fans need to get together to support their team. I find tradition is the first thing that goes. We’re bringing the little ones in now, so when we get older, they can cook for us.”

He pauses an instant, flicks some pork into an aluminum tray, smiles.

“The CFL is different,” he says. “I look on the league as a homecoming, with extended family and friends across the country. They don’t get that community feeling in the States like we do here.”

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After catching one miniature football a young fan tries for another during Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos CFL action in September 2012. (Photo: Larry MacDougal/CFL)

To truly feel the love for the CFL and sample tailgating northern-style, go west. Here in Calgary in July, in post-Stampede hangover mode, sports junkies can experience the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its first ever card in the city. But it doesn’t seem to be siphoning any spirit from Stampeder fans setting up shop before the big game on a Thursday evening between the home team and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Prior to the game, canopies and barbecue stands fill the eastern parking lot at McMahon Stadium. In 2008, the Calgary Police Service started ticketing for alcohol consumption at this type of gathering, but the community revolted, and order was restored in favour of common sense. On this day, officers in black shorts, black armour and black helmets patrol the parking lot on black mountain bikes in groups of four but leave their ticket books in their pockets. Thus remains Canada’s best tailgate party.

They say half of Saskatchewan lives in Calgary. As if to reflect the population swing, about half of the fans at the tailgate and in the grandstands are dressed in green and white, the other half in Stamps’ red.

“It’s been like that since I played,” says Tom Forzani, a former Stampeder whose son Johnny now plays for the team. He is enjoying a Calgary treat, Spolumbo’s Sausage, at the owners’ canopy, which was set up in the middle of the mass tailgate. “They come here for the job opportunities, but they stay with the Riders. They’re not changing.”

A faint hint of derision in his voice gives way to the scene around him: Christmas in July. Beside a camper van with an Alberta licence plate, eight men wearing Roughriders gear drink out of green rather than red plastic cups. One transplanted family, the Kulings, has three Riders flags on its pickup truck and a gnome proudly placed on the roof. The mother, father and son are dressed in green and white. The son has persuaded his Calgary-raised girlfriend to jump ship just this once to wear green, while her mother shows up resolutely in red, as do two Calgarian friends. “For our children,” explains the son’s mother, Verna Kuling. “That doesn’t mean we get along during the game. Except when Edmonton is here, then we’re all on the same side. No one likes Edmonton.”

Nowhere in the league are people more united behind their team than in Saskatchewan. Grey Cup parties would seem empty without the Green Wave. A couple from Regina attending the Calgary game, Dwayne and Marge Hrischuk, are dressed head to toe in Riders gear and painted with Riders eyeshadow for added style. Marge, wearing one of her five Riders wigs, says: “We don’t get to go away every winter, but we’re not going to miss Riders games.”

This is music to the ears of those responsible for the league’s fortunes. “The league’s success now is due to a combination of factors,” says John Forzani, founder and former chief executive officer of The Forzani Group of sporting goods stores and brother of Tom. “There’s professionalism in the management, there’s a long history, and the fact is, it’s Canadian. I have an affinity for the Denver Broncos [of the NFL] but that doesn’t make me American. We live here in Canada, and this is our league.”

Seven years ago, John Forzani combined with businessman Ted Hellard, lawyer and former CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell and other partners to buy the Stampeders from California box-maker Michael Feterik. The team, rescued and now flourishing, was sold to the Calgary Flames ownership group this year.

“Here’s what bodes well,” says Forzani, speaking above the din of the tailgate festivities. “When we bought the franchise, McMahon was one of the best facilities in the league. By 2014, it will be one of the oldest and maybe the least fan-friendly places to watch a game.”

That’s due to the stadium construction and renovation that’s under way or committed to in every other city except Toronto. There, the University of Toronto could have rebuilt Varsity Stadium a decade ago to share with the Argos. Instead, the team plays in Rogers Centre, a facility too big and sterile for regular-season CFL football games.

In Calgary, the Stampeder owners have invested in minor football, as has occurred in Quebec. Forzani preaches the need to improve coaching and support university football across the country, both to boost Canadian talent and to stoke fan interest in the professional product. He believes expansion of the league to at least 10 teams from the current 8, and ultimately to 12, would solidify the CFL’s future. Ottawa, once a new stadium is built there, will bring the count to 9. Windsor, Ont., Kelowna, B.C., and Québec are other possible landing spots.

In the meantime, the television contract is up for renewal and owners are anticipating a revenue windfall. Now there’s a switch. Optimism reigns. And if that means it’s the rest of the country against Toronto, well then the CFL truly does reflect the national ethos.

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Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Brent Hawkins jumps into the air to celebrate a win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a September 2012 game. (Photo: Marianne Helm/CFL)

More great moments in CFL history

The long foot of the law
45th Grey Cup, November 30, 1957
At Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, Hamilton and Winnipeg battled in the first Grey Cup game to be covered on national television. The Tiger-Cats got tripped up by, fittingly, a Toronto fan. In the fourth quarter, Ticat defensive standout Ray Bawel intercepted a Winnipeg pass and raced to the end zone. He didn’t make it: Toronto lawyer David Humphrey, standing on the sideline near the Blue Bomber bench, stuck out his foot and tripped Bawel. No matter: the Tabbies would score that touchdown and win in a laugher, 32 to 7.

Extra points for the party
36th Grey Cup, November 27, 1948
In eking out a 12-7 victory, the Calgary Stampeders didn’t exactly trounce the Ottawa Rough Riders. But they did win, just as they had in every game they played that magical season. The 1948 Stamps are the only CFL team to go undefeated in the regular season and playoffs. They celebrated by tearing down the goal posts at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium and lugging them back to the lobby of their hotel for a raucous party.

The snow bowl
84th Grey Cup, November 24, 1996
The temperature hovered at -10ºC but for the Toronto Argonauts the real cold snap came from the grandstand at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton. Embracing the Edmonton Eskimos for the day, Tiger-Cat fans rained down jeers and snowballs on the arch rival Argos. It was the perfect time for Argos pivot Doug Flutie to shake criticism that he was a fair-weather quarterback. In scampering for a touchdown, Flutie led the Argos to a 43-37 barnburner win.

Green redemption
54th Grey Cup, November 26, 1966
Saskatchewan Roughriders fans suffered through decades of Grey Cup futility, watching their team lose in all eight appearances. In 1966, they finally got the chance to celebrate the final whistle of the football season. Thousands of fans stormed the field of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium to fete their team’s 29-14 victory over Ottawa. In the second half, the Riders stalwart defence held Ottawa to just three first downs, and mighty-mite quarterback Ron Lancaster cemented the win with a fourth quarter strike to Hugh Campbell.

The staples game
65th Grey Cup, November 27, 1977
Montreal and Edmonton knew they were in for a wild ride. The weather: snow and cold. The venue: an open-aired Olympic Stadium. Field conditions: one long sheet of ice. Als’ defensive back Tony Proudfoot had the brilliant idea to fire staples into his footwear to gain traction, and many of his mates did the same. It worked as the Als flew by the slipping Eskimo defenders, winning 41-6. Despite a transit strike, a record Grey Cup game crowd of 68,318 had plenty to cheer, including Queen Elizabeth awarding the trophy to the home team.

Tom’s the bomb
72nd Grey Cup, November 18, 1984
When Winnipeg and Hamilton faced off in the first Grey Cup game held in Edmonton, both quarterbacks had something to prove. At the end of the previous season, the two teams had exchanged signal callers, and Winnipeg’s Tom Clements and Hamilton’s Dieter Brock were itching to show who got the better of the trade. On a frigid November day, that player was Clements. Battling temperatures that dipped as low as -35ºC, the Blue Bombers quarterback managed to complete 20 of 29 passes for 281 yards to earn bragging rights: Winnipeg 47, Hamilton 17.

Battle royale
93rd Grey Cup, November 27, 2005
Two years before, the Alouettes had beaten the Eskimos on Edmonton’s home field. In the third quarter of this grudge match in Vancouver, Edmonton’s Tony Tompkins returned a kickoff untouched 96 yards for a touchdown, the longest kickoff return in a Grey Cup game. But at the end of regulation time, the two teams were deadlocked. In the first overtime, the teams traded converted touchdowns. The Esks would take it in second overtime: Edmonton 38, Montreal 35.

Into the sunset with style
57th Grey Cup, November 30, 1969
By announcing his retirement at the pinnacle of his game, Ottawa Rough Riders quarterback Russ Jackson wrote a compelling script. In his final game, Jackson threw four touchdown passes, also holding the ball on all four converts and a missed field goal. He was in on every point the Riders scored in their 29-11 victory over Saskatchewan. Considered the greatest Canadian-born football player, Jackson retired a legend.

Plucky Lions
73rd Grey Cup, November 24, 1985
In their first 30 seasons, the B.C. Lions had won just one Grey Cup, and with star receiver Mervyn Fernandez unable to play, the Western champs were in tough against the Hamilton Tiger-cats at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. But even without the CFL’s most outstanding player catching passes, the Lions offense roared out of the gate, jumping to an early lead on an 84-yard Roy Dewalt touchdown pass to Ned Armour. The Lions won 37-24 on the strength of Dewalt’s 394-yard, three-touchdown performance.

Positively CFL

How to tell whether you’re watching football in Canada

B.C. LIONS
Mascot: Leo the Lion. Legend has it that Leo grew up in a den in the North Shore Mountains. Not to be confused with Leo the MGM movie studio mascot.

You know you’re at a Lions game when . . . the roar of the crowd gives B.C. the dome field advantage.

EDMONTON ESKIMOS
Mascots: Nanook the Polar Bear and Punter the Football. Of the two, Punter is the more unsettling; he looks like Mr. Potato Head as imagined by David Cronenberg.

You know you’re at an Eskimos game when . . . a touchdown is scored and the sirens wail, the inflated igloo shakes and Punter spirals into the hot tub.

WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
Mascots: Buzz and Boomer the Birds. Two indeterminate breeds of birds with a taste for sunglasses and slapstick. Buzz is the extrovert.

You know you’re at a Blue Bombers game when . . . the Touchdown Plane circles the end zone in “Swaggerville” to celebrate Bomber success.

TORONTO ARGONAUTS
Mascot: Jason the Argonaut. This dancing warrior is a budding video star on YouTube.

You know you’re at an Argonauts game when . . . you are being entertained by Argonotes, the team’s all-volunteer pep band, who are known to continue their tuneful celebrations outside Gate 2 after the game.

CALGARY STAMPEDERS
Mascot: Ralph the Dog. Known for his six paws, three tails and taste for Eskimo Pies. Top breed among CFL mascots, having signed on in 1974.

You know you’re at a Stampeders game when . . . the Touchdown Horse hits a full gallop and the rider whoops it up, looking as if she’s been tailgating since noon.

SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS
Mascot: Gainer the Gopher. Wears a jersey with the number 13 to signify the 13th rodent . . . uh, man on the field. Has more than 1,500 “Likes” on his Facebook page.

You know you’re at a Roughriders game when . . . the leather-lunged faithful in Section 28 taunt opposing players, fans join in on “Paint the Whole World Green” and watermelons are the head covering of choice.

HAMILTON TIGER-CATS
Mascots: T.C. and Stripes the Tigers. Stripes makes you want to reach for a sugary cereal.

You know you’re at a Ticats game when . . . the fans need no excuse to join the cheer — Oskie wee wee! Oskie wa wa! Holy mackinaw! Tigers, eat ‘em raw! — and the old-timers pine for the return of the original Pigskin Pete.

MONTREAL ALOUETTES
Mascots: Touché and Blitz the Larks. The younger and more impetuous of the two, Blitz was once assessed an objectionable conduct penalty and fined for bumping a game official during a touchdown celebration.

You know you’re at an Alouettes game when . . . the Als pick up 10 yards and the fans join the announcer in joyously declaring, Premier essai, first down, Mmmmmmontréal!

Pigskin pups

By Jesse Tahirali

Canadian kids are serious about their organized fun: more than 700,000 sign up for soccer each year, and nearly 600,000 lace up their skates in the winter for hockey. But for a growing number of youth, another sport has an allure of its own: football.

Some 130,000 people play tackle football across Canada, most of whom are under the age of 18, according to Football Canada. And the sport’s popularity is on the rise. In the West, for example, the number of participating youth in Saskatchewan has doubled since 2000. In the East, Football New Brunswick reports that about 3,500 youngsters play football in the province, not including those participating in the high school league, up from 2,100 in the 2005-2006 season. Olivier Eddie, executive director of Football New Brunswick, says it’s not hard to identify the cause of the 66 percent spike in his province and the general boost in interest throughout Atlantic Canada: the Canadian Football League (CFL).

“The province as a whole started to get excited about football,” says Eddie, pointing to the two CFL games that were played in Moncton over the past couple of years. To build wider interest in the Canadian game, a CFL initiative called Touchdown Atlantic pitted two teams against one another in a regular-season game previously unseen in Atlantic Canada (there is no CFL team east of Montréal). The afternoon game was preceded by three full days of football festivities, including a street festival, family barbecue and tailgate party and a “Pigskin Soirée.”

All organized sports promote teamwork and the benefits of leading an active lifestyle, but football, in particular, is up front about its commitment to youth health and development.

“When you look at the community level, football gives a different type of opportunity,” says Eddie. “Maybe your athlete is a little bit larger than the norm; maybe some of the kids have a harder time making friends at school. But they all find a spot on the football team and it helps them out in a social way as well.”

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