Most people I know in Toronto, except our son and his buddies, have no interest in Canadian football and scarcely noticed when the Toronto Argonauts won the 100th Grey Cup this time last year. Most don’t like football at all, unless they come from the United States or have children studying in the United States. Then they think that American football is the only game worth playing. Westerners, by contrast, are passionate about Canadian football, are loyal to the Canadian Football League, and are upset by the possibility that an NFL team would muscle into the lucrative Toronto market. It’s not that Westerners love the Toronto Argonauts. They are just realistic enough to know that, without support from Toronto, national institutions, media and money languish.
What easterners do not understand is that many westerners grew up with Canadian Football and feel as strongly about the game as others do about hockey. The Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Winnipeg Blue Bombers are community owned teams, totally integrated into the identity of their regions. The first Grey Cup “celebration” which drew national attention occurred in 1949 when Calgary Stampeder fans came to Toronto for the 1949 Grey Cup and rode a horse into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel, an event they tried to replicate unsuccessfully last year.
I was an adolescent girl growing up in Vancouver when the B.C. Lions were first established in 1954. At that time I was ten years old, and I had my first crush. I was madly in love with By Bailey, the American-born fullback for the B.C. Lions. He scored the first touchdown ever scored by a Lion in August 1954. A month later, he carried the ball for the first winning touchdown ever scored by a Lion. He was my hero. I used to listen to all the Lions games on the radio, tracking the play-by-play on a piece of paper with a pencil. I learned by heart (and never forgot) all the words of the “Come on and roar, you Lions, roar” song. I was such a fanatic that when I accompanied my mother to visit a relative at the Vancouver General Hospital and they wouldn’t let me in, I passed the time watching a human chess game at the Bow Mac car lot nearby on Broadway where By Bailey was playing against some local baseball player. In retrospect, it was a pretty tawdry event.
Our cousins lived in Edmonton and were fans of the Edmonton Eskimos. The Eskimos were sweeping the boards at the time and went on to win the Grey Cup against the Montreal Alouettes three years in a row. When it’s east versus west in the Grey Cup, even diehard B.C. Lions fans will rally behind the western champion. Who will ever forget when Eskimo quarterback, Jackie Parker, picked up a fumble on the Montreal three yard line and ran all the way down the field to score a winning touchdown over the Alouettes in the last minute of the 1954 Grey Cup?
Talking about that magnificent event with my friends in Toronto is impossible; half of them weren’t even born then, or they had not yet come to Canada. Better to reminisce about “old spaghetti legs” with my plus 90-year old friend Margaret Scott. Heck, Margaret could one up me. Her father had been a director of the Montreal Alouettes, and she was actually in the stadium when Jackie Parker stole the Grey Cup from the favoured Alouettes. I loved that; Margaret had a different response.
Aware of my latent passion for the B.C. Lions, our son invited me to attend the 2004 Grey Cup in Ottawa. It was the first time I had ever attended a Grey Cup, a thrill I would never have dreamed possible growing up. This game was particularly appropriate. It was the Lions versus the Toronto Argonauts; I was cheering for the Lions, he for the Argonauts. His team won. When I returned to Toronto on the noon train the next day, Pinball Clemons and the rest of the Argonauts got onto the train as well. There was much merriment on the journey as the players carried the Grey Cup through the cars for all the fans to see. Then, I was a Toronto Argonauts fan.
At the 100th Anniversary of the Grey Cup in Toronto last year, it was the Calgary Stampeders versus the Argonauts. This time I didn’t really care who won. I was just glad that the Grey Cup was being played in Toronto and that the Canadian Football League continues to survive. In the past, there has been a defensiveness about the Canadian game, with its different rules, its predominance of American players, and its somewhat downhome ambiance. I sense that the tide is shifting. Some may disagree, but the Canadian game (with its rule that teams must make ten yards in three attempts, rather than four as in the American game) tends to higher scores, more offence, and many last-minute upsets. For the 100th Grey Cup last year, thousands of Torontonians converged on the convention centre to take part in the pre- and post-game activities. The half-time show featured Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen…clearly an effort to appeal to a younger audience. The increasing glitz, however, does not disguise the fact that the ambiance remains downhome. This is one of those very rare events when people from all across Canada come together and mingle in a friendly rivalry. Canada has few such opportunities and they need to be cherished.