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Tailgaters gather prior to a Stamps-Hamilton Tiger-Cats game in Calgary last month. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Tailgaters gather prior to a Stamps-Hamilton Tiger-Cats game in Calgary last month. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Allan Maki

The tailgate...CFL style Add to ...

One hundred and 22 minutes before kickoff and Don Phelps is at work in a small office behind the south end zone of McMahon Stadium.

On his desk are a series of walkie-talkies and two phones, his hotlines. Wall-mounted above him is a pair of flat-screen televisions, each showing multiple images of the stadium from its entry points to the two main parking areas, east and west.

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This is security central, where Phelps sees all inside and outside the 35,000-seat facility. For these two hours, he is a loutish tailgater’s worst nightmare – an authority figure with high-definition TV cameras and a low tolerance for stupidity. The assistant stadium manager confidently notes that from where he is he can tell “if someone is drinking Molson or Labatt’s.”

Is that not more than a little intrusive? Of course. But it’s also why Calgary is home to the best tailgating party in the CFL.

Here, in the northwest quadrant of the Foothills City, Stampeders fans socialize next to the stadium and set up their tents and barbecues for a U.S.-style pregame festival, come rain or snow. According to civic bylaws, people are not allowed to consume liquor in a public setting, and yet it happens. Most fans drink discreetly and act responsibly. They learned their lesson three years ago.

Before Phelps was asked to clean things up, the east-side parking lot was a frat house jungle. People were selling beer out of their vans. There were fights. Guys were rolling in for the start of the game already blitzed. One morning, Phelps was driving to work and heard on the radio there was a fire at McMahon Stadium.

He arrived to see a parking lot portable toilet had been set on fire by people who had stayed all night after a game.

These days, the regulars know how to keep their fun in check.

“The police come by here every game on their bicycles and check us out,” said Mike Barrell, who has been tailgating at McMahon for 26 seasons, and has missed only a half-dozen home games in that span. “They know us now and we know them. This is a family event. It’s not for a bunch of drunks.”

The Stampeders’ willingness to encourage tailgating while keeping a televised eye on it is not shared by all their CFL brethren.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Edmonton Eskimos are not big on the idea. (The residents who live near Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium complained loudly when tailgaters urinated on private property.)

The Toronto Argonauts and B.C. Lions have downtown stadiums where space and parking is at a premium. In Hamilton, the stadium stands in the midst of a residential neighbourhood, so fans meet at nearby Scott Park Field or entertain driveway to driveway. (Open liquor in public isn’t legal in Ontario, either, but police will turn a blind eye as long as everyone is behaving.)

Montreal, naturellement, is a party city, but Percival Molson Memorial Stadium sits on the flanks of Mount Royal and doesn’t have anything that remotely qualifies as a parking lot. Still, where there’s a will, there’s a guy in a team jersey who understands the need for improvisation. Claude Martel, a software engineer and ardent Alouettes fan, has a mobile tailgating set-up that includes a table, canopy and barbeque he transports on his bicycle.

“Everyone’s welcome,” said Martel, who estimates the pregame gatherings draw 300 people on average. “We usually advertise on [Internet] chat forums, more and more people are coming out and bringing their barbeques, it’s a very relaxed vibe. … We always invite the visiting fans to drop by as well, and usually a few do, but we’re not that well known.”

Saskatchewan Roughriders fans are nationally regaled as the CFL’s liveliest. (You’d expect nothing less from people who wear hollowed-out watermelons on their heads.) And yet, the Riders don’t promote parking lot get-togethers. Instead, they’ve created a “tailgating experience” by fencing off a portion of the team’s practice field and serving food, drinks and entertainment there.

“We’ve talked to the province, and they don’t want to make a change in the liquor laws and have tailgating at ball tournaments and hockey games,” Riders president Jim Hopson said. “We’re a little bit reluctant [to do tailgating]. We want to have a good family environment at our games.”

While tailgating is engrained in U.S. football culture from college games to the NFL to football-themed weddings, it’s taken a concerted effort to make it work and work well in Calgary. On average, 25 city police officers are on-site. (More will be brought in for Sunday’s West Division semi-final when Riders fans invade McMahon Stadium and let down their watermelons.)

Some of the 30 groups that tailgate regularly at McMahon go the extra yard and hire bands. Others take donations for charitable causes.

“We’re raising money for prostate cancer,” said Doug Lapierre, who once tried out for the Stampeders and tailgated outside the Saddledome during the Flames’ Stanley Cup run of 2004. “We collected $17,000 on our biggest day. It’s like a big family barbecue.”

Back at security central, Phelps has had nothing more serious to handle on this day than shooing away a group of people handing out advertising material that wasn’t cleared in advance.

Phelps is relaxed. The police are happy. A good time was had by all.

“I get calls from people at other stadiums – ‘How do you do this? It’s so spontaneous and fun,” Phelps said. “You can’t make it too structured. You have to have some spontaneity. I know there are guys in the corner [of the parking lot] who are pouring beer into a Pepsi can, but the police are very good at using discretion. It’s a delicate balance.

“We’re happy with what we have now.”

With reports from Sean Gordon in Montreal, Rachel Brady in Toronto

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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