Grey Cup — “one big happy family from coast to coast”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

When the Winnipeg rugby-football club went east again in 1937 to vie for the Grey Cup, they had adopted a new name that had been coined by Winnipeg sportswriter Vince Leah in 1935. Writing advance material for an exhibition game with North Dakota State, Leah decided to borrow from the late Grantland Rice who had labelled Joe Louis, the famous boxer, “The Brown Bomber.” Leah called the blue-and-gold clad team the “Blue Bombers of Western football,” to acknowledge their prowess on the field (the 1935 Bombers had a 11-0 record).

“I guess it rang a bell,” said Leah. “Sportswriters and broadcasters began calling the team the Blue Bombers as an acceptable alternative to Winnipegs ... and the club eventually registered the name with the authorities.”

Winnipeg lost in 1937, but they struck back in 1939, defeating the Ottawa Rough Riders 8-7.

A year later, T.R. Louden was incensed that Jack Bannerman of Calgary, the new Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) president, wanted the residency rule rescinded. “Are we going to let foreigners play our game while our boys are fighting overseas?” Louden of the University of Toronto asked.

Interest in football was waning at the start of the war years and teams began to drop out. The Sports Service League, a civilian body dedicated to raising funds for the military, tried to arrange a charity Grey Cup game with an east-west theme. The eastern-dominated CRU declared the western champion ineligible because of the new import rules, and decided that Ottawa and Balmy Beach of Toronto would play a two-game Grey Cup, the only such final in the history of the cup. Ottawa won the two-game series, but the western teams withdrew from the CRU in protest and Bannerman resigned his presidency.

The next year the east-west rivalry continued with the Bombers winning 18-16 over Ottawa.

The last Grey Cup game without imports was played in 1946 between the Bombers and the Argonauts. The Toronto team won 28-6.

In terms of Grey Cups, 1948 was another watershed. It was then that the Calgary Stampeders and their fans invaded Toronto. It was no longer just the Grey Cup, it was Grey Cup Week.

The Calgary fans packed the first Grey Cup train, which had a car devoted to square dancing “and enough horses to stock most self-respecting stampedes,” according to The Stampeder Story by Gorde Hunter and Keith Matthews. The party lasted from Calgary to Toronto and back again.

“Toronto had never seen anything like it. They square danced all over the place ... brought their horses into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel and had barbecues on any convenient street corner.”

“I thought the business of cowboy hats and Indians was a lot of newspaper talk,” one Torontonian said. “But these guys really meant it.”

Open flapjack meals were held at city hall and normally-staid Toronto mayor Buck McCallum rode a horse in the Saturday parade, the first Grey Cup parade ever and organized by the Calgary mob.

“It’s the best show I’ve seen here in a long time,” said the Toronto mayor.

Someone described the week-long party as football and Mardi Gras all rolled into one.

Varsity Stadium could only hold 20,000 people and demand far outstripped the number of available seats. Scalpers were charging $5 for a $1 ticket. Some single tickets were even selling for $25, an exorbitant price for the era.

The Calgary fans didn’t go home disappointed. Their Stampeders beat the Ottawa Rough Riders 12-7. Because of the Calgary fans’ boisterous participation in 1948, the Grey Cup evolved into the national party it remains to this day.

After the game, the goal posts came down and celebrants headed back to the Royal York Hotel were pieces of the posts were sold for a dollar apiece.

“This is where the politicians should be and see how the country is run — this is what Canada is all about and we’re one big happy family from coast to coast,” said fan Ragnar Staf during the Grey Cup festivities in 1948.

The first televised game was between Winnipeg and Hamilton in 1957, which the Tiger-Cats won 32-7.

By 1954, the squabbles between the rugby unions came to an end when the Canadian Football League took over the Grey Cup. Since that date only CFL teams are eligible to compete in the Grey Cup which now is emblematic of professional football supremacy in Canada.

One of the strangest Grey Cup games after the creation of the CFL was played between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Blue Bombers at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. It was the year Bomber coach Bud Grant brought in legendary quarterback Ken Ploen to replace the retired Torn Casey. With five minutes to go in the game, Hamilton’s Ray “Bibbles” Bawel intercepted a Winnipeg pass (Ploen was out with an injury by this time) and was racing down the sidelines when a foot came out of nowhere to trip Bawel who landed on his face.

Bawel had shoe polish on his football boot attesting to the incident and the Bombers were penalized half the distance to their goal line to the 21. Amazingly, the foot didn’t even belong to a Winnipeg fan, but Toronto lawyer David Humphrey who may or may not have been cheering for the Bombers. In the days following the game (lost by Winnipeg), Bawel received a watch in the mail, “From the tripper Grey Cup 1957.”

Another memorable game was played between the Tiger-Cats and Bombers in 1962. Now it’s referred to as the Fog Bowl and was played in Toronto’s CNE Stadium located along the waterfront. Cool air from Lake Ontario meeting warm inland air conspired to shroud the field in a cloak of fog that keep most of the fans in the stands unaware of what was happening at ground level.

With 9:29 remaining in the game and Winnipeg ahead 28-27, CFL commissioner Syd Halter called the game, saying it would be played the next day. When play resumed, Hamilton failed to add to their total and Winnipeg was victorious in the only two-day-long single game in Grey Cup history.

Weather has played strange tricks on Grey Cup games. Championship games have been played in mud, fog, snow, freezing temperatures and, in 1977, when the Alouettes met the Eskimos in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a Grey Cup was played on a field coated by ice.

The Eskimos were amazed, as they slip-slided away to defeat on the artificial turf, to see their opponents miraculously appear to be as surefooted as mountain goats on a cliff side. What they didn’t know is that the Alouette players had fired staples through the soles of the shoes to give them better traction. It was illegal, but by the time it was discovered, it was too late to do anything about it.

The coldest weather ever for Grey Cup was in 1981 in Winnipeg when the temperature at kick-off time was a teeth-rattling -16°C and that didn’t include the wind chill. Dubbed the “Cold Bowl,” the Argonauts defeated the Stampeders 36-21. In contrast, the Grey Cup game held in Winnipeg in 2006 was on a balmy 5°C day when the B.C. Lions beat the Montreal Alouettes 25-14.

Sunday evening’s 103rd Grey Cup game between Ottawa and Edmonton was played under relatively good weather conditions for this time of year — only -5°C at kick-off time. While the Redblacks took the early lead, the Eskimos came back to win the game 26-20.

Surprisingly, for those with short memories — or who simply want to forget a sorry episode in CFL history — the Grey Cup has even been claimed by an American team. In 1995, the Baltimore Stallions defeated the Calgary Stampeders 37-20 in Regina, the first and only time the cup was won by a team from south of the border.

The next year, the Baltimore Stallions went to Montreal and became the latest incarnation of the Alouettes and the rest of the ill-fated American teams disappeared from the CFL.