Just as the body of Corporal Nathan Cirillo was arriving in his hometown of Hamilton after its procession along the Highway of Heroes from Ottawa, a little piece of Steeltown was unravelled on a football field back in the nation's capital, in a touching show of patriotism and solidarity.
The CFL's Ottawa RedBlacks called the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, asking to borrow a unique flag that is unfurled at every Hamilton home game – the world's largest Canadian flag. The RedBlacks wanted to open the distinctive flag during the national anthem before Friday night's game versus the Montreal Alouettes, the first large-scale public gathering in Ottawa since Wednesday's shooting at Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial, where Cpl. Cirillo was killed by a gunman.
The Ticats, honoured to be asked, quickly had the massive flag couriered to Ottawa by truck. A pair of Ticats game-day staff also made the trip to help orchestrate the complex unravelling of the flag, which requires about 150 people, as it covers nearly the length of a football field.
"We were trying to think of something special to try and reinforce that feeling of patriotism," said Jeff Hunt, president of the Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group, which owns the RedBlacks. "This game has taken on a much bigger importance than a 2-13 football team would normally expect, and I think what we're seeing here is the power of sport and its ability to help heal a community after a tragic event like this."
The highly emotional pregame tribute was to honour Cpl. Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who was killed Monday in the parking lot of a federal building in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.
During the national anthem, the massive flag was opened across the field at Ottawa's TD Place by members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Carleton University football team.
While opposing teams in a CFL game would normally be off on their separate sidelines during the anthem, it was vastly different Friday night in Ottawa. All of the players and coaches from both the RedBlacks and Alouettes gathered together along the sideline edge of the enormous flag and waved it together.
TSN cameras captured highly passionate Ottawa RedBlacks quarterback Henry Burris giving a pregame speech to his teammates.
"We're here to represent our city tonight, our country – people have lost their lives," urged Mr. Burris. "Tonight is much bigger than us."
All four CFL games this weekend were to feature a solemn moment of silence and all teams would wear helmet decals bearing the logo of the Canadian Armed Forces.
"These are heartfelt gestures and yet they feel small when compared to the enormous sacrifice and bravery displayed constantly by the Canadian men and women in uniform who have always put their lives on the line, for our way of life and our freedoms," said CFL commissioner Mark Cohon in a statement.
"That these men were in harm's way here at home deeply offends us all. That they lost their lives so suddenly and so tragically shocks us all. And that their families and friends have been robbed of their company and comfort deeply saddens us all. Our teams want to express respect, appreciation and sympathies, on behalf of us all."
Likewise in the NHL, the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs will each stage tributes simultaneously at their Saturday night home games to honour the Canadian soldiers.
"As we continue to reflect on the tragic circumstances surrounding the deaths of two [of] our country's soldiers on Canadian soil, we do so with heavy hearts," said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. "But what doesn't break us, makes us stronger. Today, our country stands more united than ever and so does the entire NHL family."
Despite the last-place RedBlacks being well out of contention for a playoff spot, a sold-out crowd of about 24,000 filled the new stadium in Ottawa, just four kilometres from the spot where the gunman had terrorized Parliament Hill two days earlier. The stands were spotted with small Canadian flags and signs reading "Ottawa Strong" and "True North Strong and Free."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also took the field flanked by numerous members of the Canadian military. Photos of both Cpl. Cirillo and WO Vincent were posted on the stadium's video board before a moment of silence.
"Tonight is about mourning, being sad as a community, paying tribute to the victims of this week's violence and then helping one another to move on," said Mr. Hunt. "The transition from the pregame ceremony to the actual playing of the game symbolizes people getting back to a feeling of normal. This is what many of us do as Canadians – we go to a CFL game on a Friday night."