In their own words

Past commissioners recall some tight-budget moments in CFL history

The Globe and Mail

In this file photo then CFL Commissioner Tom Wright speaks at a news conference in Vancouver November 25, 2005. (PETER JONES/REUTERS)

Since 1984, eight men have served full-time as commissioner of the CFL. Some lasted only a year in office while others lasted as long as five years, including current commissioner Mark Cohon.

For the 100th Grey Cup, several of the former commissioners were asked to recall their most memorable, unexpected time in charge. They spoke of bag money, terrorist attacks, even finding out the league was broke during halftime of a Grey Cup game. Here are the commissioners, in their own words.

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Tom Wright, 2002-06

Now the head of UFC Canada

“In the summer of 2003, the league owned the Toronto Argos. On Aug. 14 after 4 p.m., the power went out in Ontario and on the eastern seaboard of the United States. It was the second most widespread blackout in history. The Argos were playing Edmonton that night [a Thursday]. I met with [Argos coach] Pinball Clemons and [Eskimos coach] Tom Higgins and TSN’s Keith Pelley and we made the call to postpone the game [until Sunday].

“The Eskimos didn’t have workout clothes [to practise in during their layover]. They had their suits and football uniforms. We got them shorts and running shoes, but the team had no cash. [With no power there was no way to use credit cards.] The [collective agreement] called for $60 per day. That was over four days for 60 people, so what we needed was north of $14,000. The CFL banked with RBC and my account was there, too. I walked into a bank, went to a teller and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this but I’m Tom Wright, commissioner of the CFL, and I need to take out a bunch of cash from my account.’ I got the biggest guy [from the CFL office] to come with me as a bodyguard when we went to the Eskimos’ hotel. We carried the money in a sports bag.

“The league paid me back.”

Michael Lysko, 2000-02

Now director of sport management at Southern Methodist University in Texas

“I had spoken with the NFL and I knew they were about to announce the postponement of games [after the 9/11 attacks]. Every U.S.-based pro sports league was waiting on the NFL. I arranged a conference call for the CFL governors and I was expecting it to be short. Thirty minutes later, the vote was 8-0 – in favour of playing! I was in shock that not one of them was even remotely concerned about playing that weekend in spite of the number of U.S.-born players, management, even owners. I told them if the CFL were to play games, we’d be the only professional sports league in North America doing so. One governor said, ‘If we’re the only ones on television, we should get great ratings.’ Another said, ‘We can wear black armbands. This is really good.’ I was disillusioned and more than a little disgusted that I worked for a group of individuals that didn’t recognize the significance of what had occurred, and some that actually thought they could benefit from the tragedy that had taken place.

“Over the next 24 hours, most of them came to their senses and implored me to postpone the games. I ended up making the executive decision to postpone the games and, after the announcement, I got a call from [B.C. Lions owner] David Braley saying, ‘Your days are numbered.’ I told him, ‘If you think you have the votes to fire me then you should take your best shot.’ In my heart I knew I made the right decision to postpone the games, but I knew full well it may eventually cost me my job.”

John Tory, 1997-2000

Now the host of a Toronto radio show

“It was at halftime [of the 1996 Grey Cup in Hamilton] that Jeff Giles, our CFO, said, ‘John, there’s a bit of a problem.’ At the end of the game, as commissioner, you hand out the cheques to the players because they disband. A lot of them go straight home to the U.S. Jeff said, ‘I’ve done the calculations and it would seem there isn’t enough money in our account to cover the cheques to the players.’ The game wasn’t what we had budgeted for.

“I said to Jeff, ‘I’m really not planning to go to the dressing room and tell the players: a. we can’t give you your cheques; b. here are your cheques but hold on to them and don’t cash them right away.’ We had to come up with a better answer. During the rest of the game, Jeff went to a major Canadian corporation and asked, ‘Would you be able to front us some money?’ It was about $30,000. This company is a very popular company named after a hockey player [Tim Hortons]. They said they would and they agreed to cover the account.”

Bill Baker, 1989

Now a Calgary businessman

“The work I did as general manager of the Riders got me involved in a lot of league matters. I went to B.C. for the 1987 Grey Cup. The Lions had spent all the money and it was only Tuesday of Grey Cup week. I was there, [Riders president] Tom Shepherd, Hugh Campbell and Rick LeLacheur [of the Eskimos]. We talked to Joe Galat, the Lions’ GM, and Chuck Walker, the team president. They said, ‘We have no money.’ Then Galat says, ‘Yeah, but Lisa’s back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And Galat says, ‘Lisa’s our favourite cheerleader. Look at this.’ And he pulls out a photo calendar showing all the Lions’ cheerleaders. They haven’t got a nickel in the bank, the next year the league took over the team, and the GM and president are talking about Lisa being back? It was, ‘What planet are we on?’

“My highlight as commissioner was easy. I got to present the 1989 Grey Cup to the Riders. That was truly special.”

Doug Mitchell, 1985-88

Now national co-chair of the Borden Ladner Gervais law firm

“I remember when the U.S. Football League was in the midst of folding and wanted us to merge with them. I continually got calls from the Tampa Bay Bandits’ owner [John Bassett]. He wanted to meet with us. He said, ‘We’re trying to set down criteria.’ Half the teams had the criteria to carry on, half didn’t. He said every team had to put up a $100-million [U.S.] line of credit. He asked me, ‘Could every one of your teams do that?’ All I could say was, ‘Does it have to be from a bank?’ There was a long pause. That ended the discussions we had.”

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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