Many football historians will tell you the Grey Cup festival didn’t come into its own until 1948, when a large contingent of rowdy Calgary Stampeders fans arrived in Toronto by train and transformed the city into a western playground.
The Calgary supporters came with ponies, chuckwagons, cheerleaders and 10-gallon hats to take over the town.
The CFL is hoping to recapture some of that magic during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Grey Cup, only this time the plan is to take the game by rail to communities throughout the country.
At an otherwise barren rail yard in Toronto’s west end on Wednesday morning, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon stood proudly in front of a locomotive hitched to three CFL-themed coaches that will soon embark on a 10-week cross-Canada odyssey.
“Every year Canadians make a pilgrimage to the Grey Cup city,” Cohon said. “Now it’s our chance to bring the Grey Cup, to make the pilgrimage across Canada.”
The CFL is billing the journey as the Grey Cup 100 Train Tour that will begin on Sept. 9 at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver when the Grey Cup is placed on board the train during an official ceremony.
From there the train will head east on what will be a journey across Canada and visit more than 100 communities from coast to coast.
The tour will be stopping in all eight CFL cities as well as Ottawa, Quebec City, Moncton and Halifax. The tour schedule will also include whistle stops in Newfoundland and Nunavut.
On Nov. 17, the train will finally pull into Toronto, its final destination, where the 100th edition of the Grey Cup championship will be played on Nov. 25 at Rogers Centre.
“We saw the [Olympic] torch relay and what that did for the country,” Cohon said. “We saw what Rick Hansen had done with his relay. We really wanted to marry strong Canadian imagery around the Grey Cup. The fact that this country was built on the railway, it’s a great way of marrying the two.”
All the cars and the engine have been decorated with CFL symbols, including the logos of all eight teams, a job that Cohon said took more than 500 man hours to complete. The train will include a museum car that people can wander through and learn about the CFL’s storied history through interactive media, including video from some of the greatest moments in the Grey Cup game.
Visitors can learn how Foster Hewitt, whose familiar pipes were more associated with early hockey play-by-play, called the first national radio broadcast of a Grey Cup game in 1930 from Varsity Stadium in Toronto.
There is also a team car filled with more up-to-date league paraphernalia, outfitted with miniature lockers of all the CFL teams and stuffed with team helmets, jerseys, tape, gloves and cleats.
And finally, there is a car that showcases the trophy where members of the public can see the dented chalice up close and have their picture taken with it.
Cohon, who presides over a league in which the owners have to pinch pennies if they hope to turn a profit, said the Grey Cup 100 Train Tour was not inexpensive.
“It’s costing a lot,” said Cohon, estimating that bill ran into the millions.
“It’s not just an investment,” he said. “It’s about celebrating the past, but it’s also about launching us into the future.”
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