Toronto Argonauts defensive back Matt Black figures it’s only fitting the CFL playoffs begin on the same day Canada remembers those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for the country.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will entertain the B.C. Lions in the East Division semifinal before the Saskatchewan Roughriders host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West Division contest as Canada marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
The CFL will commemorate the day by stopping the Hamilton-B.C. game at 2 p.m. ET – 11 a.m. Pacific time – for a moment of silence to honour Canada’s veterans. The league also will pay tribute to veterans during the pre-game coin toss in both contests and players will wear a poppy decal on their helmets.
That’s all significant to Black, a 10th-year defensive back who has won two Grey Cups with the Argos. The 33-year-old Toronto native also has received the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Trophy, given annually to the CFL player who best demonstrates the attributes of Canada’s military personnel.
“The CFL, for me, is something that’s so Canadian through and through,” said Black. “It brings so many diverse and different backgrounds together and we celebrate something that’s so Canadian, this game of football that we’ve been playing here for so long.
“I think it’s good the (CFL playoffs) are happening on Remembrance Day because it can bring Canadians together. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what are Canadian values and appreciate the fact that our values come from our diversity and our differences and that we celebrate those. That’s what makes this country so special and so great … and I know no better way than by remembering our troops while playing a football game.”
The Tiger-Cats are but one example of Canadian football’s long history with Canada’s military. The Ticats were formed in 1950 with the merger of the Hamilton Tigers and Hamilton Wildcats.
The Wildcats played in the Ontario Rugby Football Union from 1941 to 1947 and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union from 1948 to 1949. They were formed in ‘41 to fill the void created when the Hamilton Tigers ceased operation that year because a number of their players had joined the army.
The team was renamed the Hamilton Flying Wildcats in 1943-44 to reflect the Royal Canadian Air Force personnel within its ranks. The Tigers resumed operation following the Second World War and the two clubs later merged to form the Tiger-Cats.
That connection certainly resonates with CFL board chairman Jim Lawson. His father, Mel, played quarterback with the Wildcats and scored the winning TD in the club’s 23-14 win over the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers in the ‘31 Grey Cup at Varsity Stadium.
At 20 years of age, Mel Lawson became the youngest winning quarterback in Grey Cup history.
Lawson’s grandfather, Charles C. Lawson, owned the Wildcats in the 1940s and was a key figure in the merger that formed the Tiger-Cats.
Eight years ago, the CFL instituted the Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Trophy. Gaudaur is the longest-serving commissioner in league history (1968-1984) but also flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War.
Black received the award in 2016 and said it remains a career highlight.
“When I look back on playing 10 years in the CFL, that’s the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “To be recognized for the work I do in the community, for giving back the trust and respect of my teammates, coaches and peers across the league, at the end of the day that’s why you play this game … and to be recognized for that is truly humbling.
“Standing on the stage and seeing how proud my family was, my mom, my dad, my brother and sister and my wife and daughter, and knowing I’m in this position because of the values they instilled in me and the belief they had in me, it’s so much bigger than yourself. It’s truly an honour and is the thing I’m most proud of in my career.”
Black, who clinched Toronto’s stunning 27-24 Grey Cup upset win over Calgary in Ottawa last year with a late interception, was among a group of CFL players and personnel who visited Canadian troops in Lviv, Ukraine and Marseilles, France before the 2017 season.
The aim of the trip was to help boost the military personnel’s morale but Black said it was the armed forces officials who provided the inspiration.
“They’ve leaving the comforts of everything we have in Canada behind to help spread Canadian values and ideals around the world,” Black said. “But they’re walking into totally unknown situations and sacrificing all the comforts and safeties we have so we don’t have to go through that.
“You never think about that until you go over and see it for yourself and really appreciate it. We’re not even at war right now and we have people who are doing these things to help us. You’ve got to be grateful for that.”
Winnipeg head coach Mike O’Shea also has military ties. The four-time Grey Cup champion (three as an Argos player, another as a Toronto assistant coach) and Canadian Football Hall of Famer’s father, Michael, served with the Royal Air Force as a navigator-bombardier in a de Havilland Mosquito during the Second World War before emigrating to Canada.
“My dad didn’t talk a lot about the war, but if you asked sometimes he’d tell some stories,” O’Shea told Ed Tait, the Bombers’ director of content, last year. “He came to this country before I was born, but his pride in Canada was obvious.
“People that serve, without even talking about it, just exhibit a certain amount of pride for their country. It’s why they serve and it’s one of those things that resonates with me.”