They could not have known what they were starting, the men who took to Toronto’s Rosedale Field on Dec. 4, 1909, to play for a new trophy. Fewer than 4,000 fans were on hand that day to watch the University of Toronto varsity squad thrash the Parkdale Canoe Club in a sport that resembled a hybrid between rugby and modern football. The end of the game must have been anti-climactic, as there was no presentation to be made: Albert, Earl Grey, the governor-general who had consented to donate a prize that he had originally hoped would go to hockey champions, took months longer to actually have it made.
When the Grey Cup is awarded for the 100th time on Sunday evening, the scene will be more than a little different. Upwards of 50,000 fans will be packed into Toronto’s Rogers Centre, which sold out long before the hometown Argonauts qualified to play against the Calgary Stampeders. Millions across the country will be watching at home. And, yes, the trophy will be ready this time – carried by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to players who have dreamed of hoisting it.
Over the past century, it has become much more than just a piece of hardware. And even if there have been some wondrously memorable moments on the field, the Canadian Football League championship has become more than just a game.
The Grey Cup is now a roving festival of Canadiana that overtakes the host city each year, as many thousands of revellers descend upon it. It is a celebration of something that is uniquely ours.
It is difficult to determine when, exactly, the Grey Cup began to take on its current form. The best guess might be 1948 – the year that trainloads of Calgarians brought some rowdy spirit to staid Toronto, famously riding their horses through the lobby of the Royal York Hotel in celebration of the Stampeders’ victory.
But all of the things that make it what it is – the pancake breakfasts served by Calgarians, the liquid breakfasts served by Edmontonians, the parades, the concerts, the kid-friendly daytime activities and the late-night parties – have fallen into place over time, so that exhausted celebrants often go back home talking about this one having been the best one yet.
For all its down-to-earth charm, the Grey Cup has also taken on a certain swagger in recent years, reflective of the improbable resilience of the one professional sports league that Canada can truly call its own.
It is not possible for the CFL to compete with the National Football League for talent the way that it did in the mid-20th century, and to a lesser extent even in the 1980s and early ’90s; there are too many available dollars south of the border, and not enough here. For a time the CFL struggled with this reality, emerging from a failed experiment with U.S. expansion with its very survival in question.
But the league did survive, and somehow wound up stronger than it had been in many decades. That’s a credit to a new generation of management, including the current commissioner, Mark Cohon. And the sports channel TSN has also played an instrumental role, by giving the CFL the kind of expansive coverage previously reserved in this country for the National Hockey League.
Then there are the players. They are not all or even mostly Canadian. Yet wherever they come from, CFL players have embraced teams’ efforts to give them a role in their communities – mentoring kids, mingling with fans, becoming proud representatives of cities they may never have heard of growing up.
But the league’s resurgence is in large part a tribute to the millions of Canadians who have taken advantage of the opportunity to rediscover the joy of their game – from the “Rider Nation” that paints other provinces green whenever Saskatchewan’s team is playing there, to the Montrealers who flocked back to see the Alouettes when they moved from the cavernous Olympic Stadium to the smaller stadium they called home in their 1950s heyday. Gone, in most cities, is the sheepishness about a version of football that the rest of the world knows little about, replaced with a fierce support for its traditions.
There is some irony that this year’s landmark game is being held in Toronto, the one CFL city still too often inclined to treat its team as a curiosity rather than a point of pride. But that, after all, is where it all started. And there is a true feeling of something big happening, as Canada’s largest city is connected to its smaller ones in celebration of one if its most improbable successes.
On the streets and in city squares, amid the throngs of visitors, children are decked out in the hometown Argos’ colours. Not so long ago, there was no telling whether their generation would ever have a chance to see a Grey Cup played. Instead, what began so humbly a century ago will be passed on to them as something more powerful than its participants could have imagined.