It’s a safe bet that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, after a turnover laden loss to the Calgary Stampeders last Saturday, will not be participating in this year’s edition of the Grey Cup. It’s a pity that the team with 10 national championship victories will not be playing in Canada’s 100th Grey Cup. But they never really had a chance from the get-go — a perpetually injured starting quarterback, a head coach fired during the season and a multitude of on-field mistakes made the Bombers a non-threat for a return to the big game to avenge their 34-23 loss to the B.C. Lions in 2011. Any team that can claim only four wins during the regular season is not fated for Grey Club glory.
This year, the national football championship will be returning to its roots; that is, Toronto where the very first Grey Cup game was held in 1909.
The Grey Cup was originally to be a prize awarded for hockey, but Sir H. Montagu Allan had beaten Lord Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada (1904-11), to the punch. The Allan Cup would come to symbolize excellence in amateur hockey. Faced with this dilemma, Grey — also known for the tea named after him — then had the option of making his cup available for supremacy in amateur rugby-football.
Because he was given the next best thing in amateur sports in Canada, the governor general may have forgotten to commission the making of the new cup. Two weeks before the championship game, he had to be reminded that a cup was to be made available to the winner. Yet, no one had placed an order with the silversmith at Birks. Consequently, the University of Toronto, winners of the first Grey Cup over the Toronto Parkdales, 26-6, before a crowd of 4,000 (the total gate was $2,616.49), had to wait a few months before they had the actual cup in their hands.
And when they received the cup valued at $48 (now estimated at $60,000) from Lord Grey, the university side was surprised to see that a plaque on its base proclaimed that the Hamilton Tigers were the 1908 Canadian rugby-football champions even though the idea of a championship cup had only come about in 1909. The trustees of the cup recognized the plaque was invalid but decided to do nothing about it.
The early history of the Grey Cup was tumultuous because the teams that won it tried to keep it in their grasp at any cost. The University of Toronto won the cup in 1909, 1910 and 1911, and then decided they wouldn’t relinquish it until someone else beat them in the championship game. The problem was that the Toronto side didn’t make it to the championship game for the next two seasons. The varsity team eventually gave the cup to the Toronto Argonauts after they were defeated by them in the 1914 final.
No Grey Cup games were played between 1916 and 1919.
Western teams had their own set of problems with the winners from Eastern Canada, often involving the rules of the game. Until changes were made in its early days, football in Canada was a hybrid of rugby and what would become true Canadian football. Football’s initial incarnation had 14 men per side and the ball wasn’t snapped back to the quarterback, it was heeled back just as in a rugby scrum.
The Western teams at first played under their own set of rules, which invariably conflicted with those used in the East. Unfortunately for Western teams, the powers behind football in the East were dominant and opposed at nearly every turn the progressions in the game coming out of Western Canada.
From 1924 to 1944, there were seven all-Eastern finals, the West being denied a chance to play for the cup because of so-called rule infractions or mishaps. The use of the forward pass was initially considered a rule infraction by the Eastern officials. The first forward pass was a 12-yard toss in 1929 by American import running-back Jerry Seiberling playing for Calgary. It wasn’t until 1931 that the Eastern officials conceded the forward pass was part of the Canadian game.
In the first East-West Grey Cup in 1921, the Eskimos were handily defeated 23-0 by Toronto. The legendary Lionel Conacher scored 15 of Toronto’s points, leaving the game in the third quarter to put on his skates for a hockey game. A few years ago, the multi-sport Conacher was named Canada’s Athlete of the Half Century (1900-50).
In 1924, the Winnipeg Victorias were the new great hope from the West. Although they won the right to represent the West, the Victorias never boarded a train to head east because no one could agree on which rail company to use.
The club executive mostly worked for Canadian Pacific Railway and naturally felt this rail line should be used since they had free passes. The players, who mostly worked for Canadian National Railways, wanted to use their favourite carrier on which they had free passes. Nothing could be resolved, so the players offered to pay their own way, but the team executive declared the renegade players could not use the Victorias name nor its colours.
An agreement was eventually reached between the feuding sides, but the ruling body in the East said, “Sorry, too late.”
In the end, Queen’s University beat Toronto Balmy Beach in an all-Eastern Grey Cup final. This marked a change in Canadian football history since it was the last time a university side won the Grey Cup though they remained in competition for the cup until 1935.
Because of the controversy, Winnipeg’s first Grey Cup jaunt was in 1925 when the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers lost to the Ottawa Senators 24-1.
It wasn’t until 1935 that a Western champ would emerge victorious, a milestone in Canadian football history. Until 1935, Regina had been beaten seven times, Edmonton twice and Winnipeg once by Eastern squads.
December 7, 1935, was a chilly day in Hamilton when the Winnipegs, or ’Pegs, stepped onto the field. It was raining steadily and the field was a morass of mud. But the team was ready and it was stacked with great talent, made all the better by seven new imports, including stellar halfback Fritzie “Golden Ghost” Hanson, a native of Perham, Minnesota, who had played college football for North Dakota State.
In the second half, Hamilton pulled within two after which Hanson picked up a kick on the Winnipeg 32-yard line. “A ring of downfield tacklers converged on Hanson,” wrote Vince Leah, “skidding to a stop on the icy gridiron to prevent a no-yards penalty. Before the defence knew what had happened Hanson burst through the middle and raced for a touchdown.”
The final score was Winnipeg 18, Hamilton 12. Although statistics weren’t officially kept, sportswriters estimated Hanson alone contributed 300 yards in offence.
We could have used someone with Hanson’s abilities to turn the season around this year. Well, there’s always next year. But it won’t be the 100th Grey Cup. Pity.