When Ken Dryden published his best-selling book The Game nearly 30 years ago, nobody needed to ask which game he meant. Hockey is the Canadian team sport, as everyone says – yet in some ways Canadian football has a better claim to belong to us and no one else. Hockey is played all over Europe and the United States, but only in this Dominion can someone throw a long pass deep into the end zone. We have our own rules, our own field – bigger than gridirons down south – and a unique relationship to a game that connects with the land and its people like no other professional sport.
The Grey Cup itself has the best claim to be, as reader Bill Kimball says, the real People’s Cup. It was contested by amateur teams for its first half-century, and didn’t always stay in big cities. The Sarnia Imperials played for the Cup three times in the 1930s, winning twice, including once on home field. (Sarnia was one of more than 100 stops on the Grey Cup 100 Train Tour that ran coast to coast for 10 weeks this fall). Kimball recalls how, after the Argonauts beat the Lions in Ottawa in 2004, “the Cup was sent around to the hometowns of players from the winning team. I have a picture of the Cup in Peterborough, Ont., with Argo linebacker Gabe Robinson, who made sure ordinary folks had a chance to see, touch – and drink from – the legendary chalice. None of that snooty, Stanley Cup packed-in-a-crate, gloved-hands treatment!”
Championships in hockey and baseball grind on for days.
But the football season’s climactic story is compressed into a single day. A related narrative flows through the preceding days, as fans travel from across the country to make national whoopee in a town that may not even have a team in the game. The days of countdown before the kickoff are essentially off the clock of normal life – they’re the carnival before combat, the delirium before the discipline. Street revels and bizarre rituals, such as marching a horse through a hotel, become keenly important.
The non-game elements were especially big in my household the year my mother, Edmonton CBC TV host Jo Green, did the on-air commentary for the Grey Cup parade in Ottawa in 1967. She noted, as many have since, the number of seats left empty at Lansdowne Park by those too hung over to make the game.
But even those who don’t watch the Cup seem to feel its pull, which unlike hockey’s playoff marathon, lasts only long enough to register a clear beginning, middle and end.
Unlike the NHL, which plays its regular season and playoff games indoors, the CFL embraces the indignities of Canadian weather. It’s not uncommon to see snow settling on helmets during playoff season, and weather-scarred finals such as the 1962 Fog Bowl are hallowed memories. The CFL even recreated the 1950 Mud Bowl this year, with help from a fire hose. Canadian masochistic pride in our harsh climate takes a new twist when you’re watching a receiver from Texas scamper through wind-driven sleet to meet a frozen ball you desperately hope he’ll catch.
Scenes like that help save us from the numbing solemnity of the American game. Our football is more about the comedy of adapting to the unpredictable, less about rival generals duelling from the sidelines.
Far from being a skewed copy of the U.S. gridiron sport, the Canadian game came first in North America. Canadians played English rugby football – as the game was then known – for years before we showed it to the Yanks during friendly games at Harvard University in 1874. They liked it so much, they allegedly stole the Canadians’ oblong ball between matches, and began developing their own game.
Whether from pride or colonial stubbornness, our teams refused for decades to consider “anything approaching the American style of scrimmages,” as a report of one league-forming meeting in 1884 put it. Changes eventually crept in, but we kept the most exciting features of the Canadian game, including the long, wide field with generous end zones, and the get-on-with-it thrills of only three downs.
CFL heroes live closer to the common grain than most pro athletes, because they’re not millionaires. The starting salary for players is reckoned to be around $40,000, and a recent tally by the Winnipeg Free Press set Argo quarterback Ricky Ray’s pay at $400,000. Many players have part-time jobs, and some even room together. These are regular guys, enacting the national survival struggle on an open field, and they compete in more provinces than NHL players do.
The CFL has spent decades resisting a more powerful U.S. competitor – a sports version of the two countries’ mouse-and-elephant relationship. The league even had an 1812 moment in the mid-1990s, launching short-lived teams in five cities in the United States, with the Cup going to the Baltimore Stallions (now the Montreal Alouettes) in 1995. Last year, B.C. MP Peter Julian tried to head off further cross-border skirmishes with a private member’s bill that would forbid football league exports in either direction. Take that, Rob Ford.
Even before the CFL formed in the late 1950s, Canadian football reflected regional tensions, as much through schisms over rules as in actual games. The Alouettes’ Grey Cup win over the Calgary Stampeders in 1970 coincided with the civil trauma of the October Crisis. That made the game doubly unforgettable for Alouettes fan Stephen H. Halperin, who at age 20 trekked to Toronto’s CNE Stadium to see the first Als victory in his lifetime.
“If ever a Canadian city needed a harmless distraction from the pain of real life,” Halperin says, “that was the place and time.” He remembers seeing Als kicker George Springate, a member of Quebec’s National Assembly and colleague of murdered labour minister Pierre Laporte, guarded on the sidelines by a security detail.
The police uniforms I associate with the Grey Cup final are the Mounties’ red dress tunics. There’s always a pair of them on guard near the trophy, and as the game nears its end, the TV cameras always cut from the play a few times to show the Cup being carried down the steps through the stadium. It’s said that there’s no ritual without walking, and the promenade that carries Lord Grey’s silver relic to the victors is one of the best rituals in sports.
Compare that to what I saw in the SkyDome after the Blue Jays’ Joe Carter won baseball’s World Series with a home run in 1993. The players celebrated briefly on the infield, then went to their locker room, leaving 50,000 of us to stare at an empty field.
No, that won’t do. We need the days of hoopla, the formal yet elemental struggle of the game, and the field ceremony that shows our revels are truly ended. The Grey Cup goes to the winner, but it stays forever with us.