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Punt return in ‘76 Grey Cup was one for the history books

Bill Hatanaka of the Rough Riders heads downfield to score Ottawa’s first touchdown at the 1976 Grey Cup in Toronto. As Hatanaka describes it, ‘punt return left, the ball bounced once and once I moved by the first tackler, it was truly as if the seas had parted.’

John Maiola/The Globe and Mail

It was one play that gets lost in the fog and mud and booze and snow and everything else that goes into 100 years of Grey Cup history. One play that sums up the randomness of athletic endeavour that still brings us back to stadiums and ballparks and arenas.

It was random perfection, and Bill Hatanaka can still see it on this Friday morning before be begins the business day, before the responsibilities of being the chief executive officer of the $14-billion Ontario Public Service Employees Union Pension Trust kick in.

It was 1976 at Exhibition Stadium and quarterback Tom Clements of the Ottawa Rough Riders had not yet hooked up with Tony Gabriel for a touchdown pass that would go down as one of the defining moments of any Grey Cup before or since. CTV's Pat Marsden had the call of the first half that day and as the Saskatchewan Roughriders' Bob Macoritti awaits the ball, we are told that "newcomer Bob Myron is the short man in the event that Bob Macoritti does not get much distance." Marsden tells us that flags have dropped, but the words that resonate are "look at this run by Hatanaka."

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Yes, look indeed.

"Punt return left, the ball bounced once and once I moved by the first tackler, it was truly as if the seas had parted," Hatanaka said Friday. "I had clear sailing for 30, 40 yards. And what I remember is at one point looking to my right, and there was a wall of our guys, each one of them on a Saskatchewan Roughrider.

"I've taken a lot of things from my athletic career with me into the business world," said Hatanaka, a graduate of York University who spent four years in the CFL and eventually went on to Harvard's school of business management before embarking on a career that has taken him into the halls of corporate power in this country. "What that moment showed me was that at any given moment, if all the members of a group execute their roles to perfection, anything is possible."

Hatanaka's return came when he was a 22-year-old rookie, just one year after the CFL changed its rules to allow blocking on punt returns. It is still the third-longest punt return in Grey Cup history – Chris Wright of the Baltimore Stallions returned a punt 82 yards in 1995 and Jimmy (The Jet) Cunningham of the Argonauts had an 80-yard return in 1996. But Hatanaka's was the first punt return TD in a Grey Cup game.

That Rough Riders team was a special group.

"As a rookie, you looked at that roster and all you saw were leaders," said Hatanaka, who formerly served as group head of wealth management at TD Financial. "Tom Clements was a quiet leader. Condredge Holloway an extroverted leader. Tony Gabriel a leader by excellence ... Mark Kosmos a leader as a solid person, and Gerry Organ the charismatic leader."

The Rough Riders beat the Roughriders 23-20 on Clements's 24-yard toss to Gabriel with 20 seconds remaining, in front of 53,467 fans at Exhibition Stadium. It is a special game, with all the points scored by Canadians. In addition to Gabriel and Hatanaka, Organ hit three field goals and both converts, including the one after Hatanaka's major that gave Ottawa a 10-0 lead. Saskatchewan's points came on touchdowns by Steve Mazurak and Rob Richardson, both of which were converted by Macoritti, who also kicked two field goals.

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After three more years Hatanaka, all 172 pounds of him, was no longer, in his words, "able to keep a step ahead of the grim reaper." It took him five, maybe 10 years to get rid of the urge to play, particularly when the weather changed and the leaves started to fall and memories returned of those 79 yards worth of perfection.

The impact that special teams have on a CFL game are still being felt today.

Stampeders punter Rob Maver says the club has spent no more time than usual on special teams this week even though the CFL's most outstanding player, Chad Owens of the Argos, has built a reputation as a return specialist.

"The coaches have tried to keep this the same as any other week of preparation," he said. "But it's a way of controlling the game. It's not just the points you give up, it's the way the return game changes momentum and field position. Just look at what his (Owens') return did in the Eastern semifinal. They scored 31 points in the second quarter, but it was his return TD that made things snow ball."

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