Grey Cup’s hallowed history — showcase of Canada’s unique brand of football

by Bruce Cherney 

Jackie Parker, the legendary multi-role player for the Edmonton Eskimos who recently passed away at 74, made one of the most memorable plays in Grey Cup history. 

During the 1954 Grey Cup at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, the Eskimos were trailing 25-20 to the Montreal Alouettes in the late stages of the game, and Montreal had possession of the ball near the Edmonton goal line. 

Instead of handing off and keeping the play relatively safe to ensure victory, Alouettes’ quarterback Sam Etcheverry pitched out to running-back Chuck Hunsinger — apparently the play was called by Alouettes’ coach Douglas Walker. The ball was fumbled and “Ole Spaghetti Legs” Parker, a two-way player (offence and defence), picked it up and scampered 84 yards for a game-winning touchdown. The final score ended up 26-25 for the Eskimos.

While the Winnipeg Blue Bombers will not be participating on-field this year in Canada’s national football championship, the city is hosting the 94th Grey Cup on November 19 at Canada Inns Stadium between the Western champion B.C. Lions and the Eastern champion Montreal Alouettes.

When Winnipeg was announced as the host of the cup for the third time, Mayor Sam Katz said it presented “a tremendous opportunity to showcase some of Winnipeg’s best qualities — the hospitality of our citizens, the spirit of our volunteers, and the energy of a city that knows how to throw a party.” 

Indeed, plenty of Grey Cup events will be planned throughout the weekend. And the province has announced that no one will lack the opportunity to celebrate — bars can serve drinks for an extra hour to 3 a.m. from Thursday to Saturday. For those who have a Grey Cup ticket, Molson Brewery is providing free rides to and from the game using nine specially-marked Winnipeg Transit buses (for bus routes, visit or call 986-5700).

For a list of events, visit the CFL’s website at, and the city’s website

The Grey Cup, the prize emblematic of Canadian football supremacy, has had a storied and controversial history, and each year the game resurrects the fortunes of three-down professional football played in this country. 

Despite the occasional difficulty facing the CFL, fans will be glued to their TV sets across the nation, in the United States and beyond (the game will be also be televised to Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan), on November 19 to witness what has become the biggest single Canadian sporting event of the year. 

The expectat ion is that this year’s contest could duplicate the excitement of the 2005 Grey Cup, when it took double-overtime — only the second overtime game in the cup’s history —for the Eskimos to defeat the Alouettes 38-35 in B.C. Place.

The first overtime game between Winnipeg and Hamilton in 1961 was another barnburner. Bomber quarterback Ken Ploen ran down the sideline for the game-winning TD, claiming Winnipeg’s third title in four years.

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 of his receiving the next best thing in amateur sports in Canada at the time, 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, twinners 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 $54,000) from Lord Grey, the university side was surprised to see that a plaque on its base proclaimed the Hamilton Tigers 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 not to do nothing. 

This was just one of many misadventures for the Grey Cup and the championship game throughout its long history. 

In 1947, the Grey Cup was nearly destroyed by fire while on display at the Toronto Argonaut Rowing Club. It was slightly tarnished, but it survived. 

Edmonton players have been quite hard on the cup. In 1987, it was broken when a celebrating Eskimo sat on it. Tape held the neck in place until it was won by the Toronto Argonauts in 1991. It was again broken when Edmonton player Blake Dermott headbutted it. 

On February 16, 1970, the Toronto police contacted Greg Fulton, then secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Football League, and reported a strange call they had received. The caller told the police to go to a telephone booth at the corner of Parliament and Dundas streets in Cabbagetown, Toronto and look in a coin-return box. The caller said the key would fit a locker in the Royal York Hotel and in the locker would be the Grey Cup. The cup  had gone missing on December 20, 1969 from Lansdowne Park where the Grey Cup champion Ottawa Rough Riders had brought the cup for display. 

The trophy had gone from Montreal to Ottawa to Toronto. The first two stages of its journey were planned, but the last wasn’t. Fortunately, despite the CFL’s refusal to ransom the cup, the instructions given by the mystery caller led to the recovery of the Grey Cup. 

The cup has also on many occasions been accidentally left behind by victorious teams and later recovered. In 1984, after a team celebration, Bombers’ general manager Paul Robson returned to Winnipeg Arena to find the forlorn cup sitting on a table at centre ice. 

The early history of the Grey Cup was tumultuous because the teams that won it tried to keep it in their grasp by hook or by crook. 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. 

During the First World War, no Grey Cup games were played between 1916 and 1918. 

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. Between the two world wars, the conflict in rules led to protest and controversy. 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.

Until 1921, only Eastern teams competed for the cup, But that changed in the 1920s. In 1921 and 1922, Edmonton and Regina, respectively, couldn’t defeat their Eastern counterparts. 

In the first East-West Grey Cup of 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 


In 1926, the Regina Roughriders (now Saskatchewan Roughriders) were the Western champs but declined to head east, one of the reasons being that they didn’t want to wait around 

for an Eastern winner to be declared. As a result, Ottawa won for the 

second year in a row, this time 

defeating the University of Toronto 10-7. 

Regina again declined a journey east again in 1927, but headed to the Grey Cup the next four successive years, losing each time to Eastern teams. 

It wasn’t until 1935 that a Western champ would emerge victorious, a milestone in Canadian football history. Former Canadian Olympic runner and sports official Bruce Kidd called the 1935 final No. 13 in his top-20 list of sporting events for the 20th century in a 2004 National Post article. 

“The Grey Cup really became a national championship when the West joined up and became competitive,” wrote Kidd. “That win was a symbolic coming of age for Western Canada.” 

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 player (quarterback) coach Bob Fritz from Fargo, North Dakota; Russ Rebholz from Wisconsin; Herb Peschel from Long Island, New York; Rosy Adelman from California; Dave Narding from Sarnia, Ontario; and stellar halfback Fritzie “Golden Ghost” Hanson, a native of Perham, Minnesota, who had played college football for North Dakota State. 

According to Vince Leah, the legendary Winnipeg sportswriter who wrote A History of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the team had to wait nearly a month for the Eastern champion to be decided. The ’Pegs opted to travel to Detroit to prepare for the game and avoid Hamilton Tiger spies. 

Leah, who was inducted posthumously into the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame, said the Tigers believed they would defeat the ’Pegs in a cakewalk. 

The Tigers and their Eastern fans were in disbelief when the ’Pegs left the field at the half leading 12-4. 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 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. 

The Eastern-controlled Canadian Rugby Union, the governing body for the Grey Cup and Canadian football of the era, didn’t like what it saw in 1935, and subsequently ruled that players would not be allowed to compete unless they had lived in Canada for at least one year and had taken up residence in the city they were playing for by October 1. 

Although the CRU said the rule was to protect Canadian players, the Western teams knew it was because of the power they gained with the addition of a few imports on their rosters. 

For the 1936 season, the Western champion Regina side had five players that were ineligible under the new rules. Regina announced it wouldn’t be going east without its imports, but had a change of heart and said it would leave the five imports at home. Again, it was too late for Regina, since the Western Canada Rugby Union had withdrawn the challenge and decided to send Winnipeg (they volunteered to go) in the place of Regina. 

The controversy continued to the point that the West once again didn’t send a champion east to vie for the Grey Cup. 

When the Winnipeg club went east in 1937, they had adopted a new name coined by Leah in 1935. When writing advance material for an exhibition game with North Dakota State, Leah decided to borrow part of the nickname “the Brown Bomber” used by Grantland Rice for Joe Louis, the famous  boxer. Leah called the blue-and-gold clad team the “Blue Bombers of Western football,” to acknowledge their prowess on the field (the 1935 Bombers went 11-0). 

“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 in the last 15 minutes of the game when Roy “Red” Storey came off the bench and had arguably the greatest individual performance in a brief span of time. Storey ran for 190 yards and scored three touchdowns, leading the Argonauts to a 30-7 victory.

But Winnipeg struck back in 1939, defeating the Ottawa Rough Riders 


A year later, T.R. Louden was incensed that Jack Bannerman of Calgary, the new 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 Second World War 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 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 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. After this invasion, it was no longer just a Grey Cup game, it was Grey Cup Week, and fun was in fashion. 

The Calgary fans packed all 16 cars of the nation’s first Grey Cup train. One car was devoted to square dancing “and enough horses (16) 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 pancake 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 fans. (This year’s Grey Cup/Santa Claus parade runs downtown on Saturday at 3:50 p.m. Food donations for Winnipeg Harvest will be collected along the route.) 

“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. Most scalpers were charging $5 for a $1 ticket. Some single $1 tickets were even selling for $25, an exorbitant price at the time. Those caught and arrested for scalping tickets received 10-day jail sentences.

The Calgary fans didn’t go home disappointed. Their Stampeders beat Ottawa 12-7. In the process, the Grey Cup had become the national party it remains to this day, attracting more TV viewers than any other single Canadian sporting event. 

After the game, the goal posts came down and celebrants headed back to the Royal York Hotel where 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. 

Time magazine, when explaining the Grey Cup to its American readers in a November 26, 1973 article, entitled Canada’s Super Cup, said: “The Grey Cup, to be sure, is no ordinary contest. It is both the Super Bowl of Canadian football and the occasion for a weekend of national celebration. The partying, like Canadian football itself, is wide open.”

The first nationally-televised live game was between Winnipeg and Hamilton in  1957 (a local telecast started in 1952, although only three-quarters of the game actually was on the air in Toronto since someone had ripped out the sideline cable and it took 29 minutes to repair), 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 time only CFL teams are eligible to compete in the Grey Cup. It had 

become a professional football trophy rather than an amateur trophy 

as originally envisioned by Lord Grey. 

One of the strangest incidents during a Grey Cup game after the creation of the CFL arose between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Blue Bombers in 1957 at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. 

It was the year Bomber coach Bud Grant brought in legendary quarterback Ken Ploen to replace retired Tom 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 to 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 and referred to as the “Fog Bowl.” This unique game was played in Toronto’s 35,000-seat 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 kept 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. 

Because of the lateness of the year and the fact most games are played 

in open-air stadiums, weather has 

periodically played strange tricks on participants and fans. Championship games have been played in mud, 

fog, snow and freezing temperatures. When the Alouettes met the Eskimos in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 1977, the Grey Cup was played on a field with a thick coat of 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 sure-footed as mountain goats on a cliff side. What they didn’t know is that the Alouette players had fired staples through the soles of their 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. 

Perhaps the best Grey Cup game was played in 1996 at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium with a -10°C temperature, 40 km/h winds and heavy snowfall creating blizzard-like conditions. The field was a mass of white with only the sidelines and yard markers revealing a fleeting trace of green as sideline crews attempted to give the impression to the players that there really was a playing surface beneath the snow. 

The teams may have slid their way across the field, but it was a whale of a game, with Toronto eventually beating Edmonton 43-37. Over 3.4-million TV viewers tuned into the game (the record is 2002’s 5.2-million viewers).

“The Grey Cup  is about the defeat of winter as much as other teams,” said sportswriter Dick Beddoes years ago. “Once a year we get together and spit in winter’s eye.”

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 — a recent real success story — and the rest of the ill-fated American teams disappeared from the CFL. 

It’s the annual Grey Cup that always comes to the rescue of the CFL, allowing fans to forget some of the on- and off-field shenanigans of the past season. For a solid week, excitement builds to a fever pitch and the final product on the field is invariably spectacular and easily meets fans’ expectations.