Happy 100th birthday Grey Cup 2012 .. at least the CFL is a league of our own

Nov 20th, 2012 | By | Category: In Brief

GANATSEKWYAGON, ON. NOVEMBER 20, 2012. I can’t say that I have ever been a big fan of either the Canadian Football League or the Toronto Argonauts.

Years ago, back in the 1950s when I started to read seriously, I subscribed to the US-based Sport magazine. And an article from that time and place has stuck in my mind : “Canadian football – big league or bush?”

As I recall, the article just presented the two sides of the story – by different alleged authorities – and never came to a definitive conclusion. But even all these years later, it seems to have left some scepticism about the Canadian Football League in my mind.

In the fall of 2012, however, the strange fact that the Toronto Argonauts will be facing the Calgary Stampeders in the 100th anniversary Grey Cup game, this coming Sunday, November 25,  right here in Toronto, is a rare ray of bright light on the local sporting calendar. (Of course, there is the Blue Jays’ big deal with Miami and beyond, etc, etc : but that is all about some speculative future.)

I also came of age, more or less, at a time when the Grey Cup game was regularly held in Toronto (where I grew up and still live today).

Grey Cup festivities outside the Front Street entrance to the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, 1956.

Going down to the Royal York Hotel the night before the big game, to watch the visiting alcoholics from Western Canada make life in the old hogtown more interesting (still in those days only Canada’s second largest city, after Montreal) was a rite of passage, about which I still have a few agreeable memories.

So I find myself looking forward to the big 100th anniversary game this year – even if, in a continental perspective, it may not quite match the local excitement of a Friday night championship high school football final in Texas.

(And even if I am also embarrassed when I read “Grey Cup bet: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi offers Toronto Mayor Rob Ford a weighty wager.” I  pray daily someone will tell the weighty Mayor Ford that Calgary is not on the Pacific Ocean, or the shores of Lake Winnipeg.)

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The history of the Grey Cup itself is enough to raise some eyebrows on the subject of Canadian football. According to Wikipedia : “The trophy was commissioned in 1909 by Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, Canada’s Governor General [in the days when British aristocrats appointed in the UK still filled this office], who originally hoped to donate it for Canada’s senior amateur hockey championship. After the Allan Cup was donated for that purpose, Grey instead made his trophy available as the national championship of Canadian football … The Grey Cup has been broken on several occasions, stolen twice and held for ransom.”

For its first three and a half decades, the Canadian football that competed for the Grey Cup was  not exactly a professional activity. The University of Toronto Varsity Blues won the first three Grey Cups. Queen’s University (at Kingston, Ontario) won the Cup three times in the 1920s.

The Toronto Argonauts themselves descend from the Argonaut Rowing Club, on the city’s west-end  Lake Ontario waterfront. Their local rivals came from the Balmy Beach Canoe Club, on the east-end waterfront (which still exists today, not far from my own house). And ”Toronto Balmy Beach” won the Grey Cup twice – in 1927 and 1930. The banners are still proudly displayed in the clubhouse auditorium, adjacent to the popular bar.

It was not until after the Second World War that Canadian football (and the Grey Cup) began to acquire something that vaguely resembled professional status. As another Wikipedia article explains:”From the 1930s to the 1950s … the eastern Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU or Big Four) and Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) gradually evolved from amateur to professional leagues.” Finally the Canadian Football League “ was officially founded on January 19, 1958, and it is the second oldest and continuously operating gridiron football league in North America.”

The 15 Grey Cup winners from 1945 to 1959 begin to suggest the modern story: Toronto Argonauts, Toronto Argonauts, Toronto Argonauts, Calgary Stampeders, Montreal Alouettes, Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Rough Riders, Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger Cats, Edmonton Eskimos, Edmonton Eskimos, Edmonton Eskimos, Hamilton Tiger Cats, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

It is often enough said that the CFL nowadays is a unifying force in Canadian popular culture. And I think myself there is at least something to this argument. To give it real weight and heft, however, Halifax and Quebec City should have teams as well. And, given all the both unhappy and happy realities of Canadian life, I would personally support using federal tax dollars to help bring these additions on board.

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Some will also say that there is a nice symbolism about the perhaps (and hopefully) increasingly more feisty Canada of today in having Calgary and Toronto compete for the 100th anniversary Grey Cup this year.

Others will point out that, based on regular  season standings, it should be Vancouver (ie BC Lions) and Montreal in the 2012 Grey Cup classic. In some technical ways I would agree with this myself. But I have nonetheless been very pleased to see the Toronto Argonauts somehow make it to the 100th anniversary big game.

I similarly support the concept of local patriotism. And having spent virtually my entire life in Toronto, I naturally enough want to see the Argos win the Grey Cup once again. (Let Stephen Harper cheer for the Stamps.)

At the same time, like others from this part of the country I am a Canadian first, in my own mind, at least, if no one else’s. And I won’t really be too disappointed if Calgary wins. Because after all – as we are never very disappointed to hear here back east –  a lot of people who live in Calgary nowadays are originally from Toronto anyway. (And btw, as much as it pains me to admit it, PM Harper, a notable case in point, has actually got off a clever line in this context : “The good thing about the Grey Cup is that a Canadian team always wins!”)

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