Most people don’t realize Canada has the equivalent of its southern neighbor’s Fourth of July celebrating throwing off the yoke of the British Empire.
Actually, the Canadians have their own First of July — Dominion Day — celebrating the formation of Canada as a Dominion on 1 July 1867. Canada didn’t throw off the imperial yoke with the aplomb of its southern neighbor, but Dominion Day still counts.
While almost all Americans have heard of the Super Bowl, most don’t know that Canada has its equivalent, the Grey Cup.
Tonight, in the 106th Grey Cup — Canadian Football League’s championship game — the Ottawa Redblacks faced down the Calgary Stampeders. It’s not the Super Bowl but the Grey Cup still counts.
So tonight I committed to the Grey Cup.
When looking closer, however, I discovered the Grey Cup isn’t what it used to be.
As seen in A look back at the Miss Grey Cup pageant (Toronto The Globe and Mail, May 15th, 2018), the football festival used to include a beauty pageant.
Begun in 1951, the Miss Grey Cup pageant was an eagerly anticipated staple of Grey Cup festivities. The contestants were CFL cheerleaders between 18 and 24 and neither married, divorced or widowed. Whether virginity was a requirement is unclear.
To the dismay of lonely lumberjacks in the northern territories where men outnumber women, in 1988 cheerleader outfits were replaced with business suits. In the early 1990s, the pageant was scrapped entirely. As The Canadian Press reported at the time, “the Miss Grey Cup pageant has gone the way of the dodo bird.”
So I had to accept that my first Grey Cup would not include Miss Grey Cup.
While we’ve written extensively about the Canadian Football League in Gates-Chili’s Ernest Jackson one of a few Rochestarians who made their football mark in Canada (BELOW), I realized I’ve never watched a full game on tv and maybe not even a half. On summer nights, while bicycling on the canal path, I’ve listened to faintly staticky radio broadcasts of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats playing this unique game that has only three downs and a one point score called a rouge.
My overall lack of interest is mostly because CFL players are far below the NFL caliber. In the 1960s, CFL did play exhibition games against NFL and AFL teams. Indicative of the skill disparity, the American won every game except one. As reported in the Montreal Gazette, August 9, 1961 , the Ti-Cats soundly beat the Buffalo Bills 38 – 21.
A review of Rochester Democrat and Chronicle articles over the last 65 years reveals limited television exposure of the Canadian League in the Rochester market.
As explained by the legendary sportswriter Red Smith, in 1954 the CFL made a breakthrough by signing with NBC to air games on Saturday afternoons, competing directly against college football broadcasts on CBS and ABC. The coverage only lasted one year, thirteen games and the Grey Cup. In Rochester, interest in the CFL faded dramatically with the 1960 debut of the Buffalo Bills.
Between 1955 and 1980, only one game was televised on U.S. television, the 1962 Grey Cup, the so-called Fog Bowl broadcasted by ABC’S Wide World of Sports.
In 1963 and 1964, parts of the Grey Cup were shown on WWS, but the game was dropped in 1965.
The CFL and the Grey Cup often get little media respect. In Rochester, the 1958 Cup could only be heard on radio, WRVM, 690.
In 1974, the Cup result was listed next the World Football League scores, a fledgling summer/early fall league that lasted only one and a half seasons.
The 1979 Cup could be seen on cable tv but only on the Channel 35 French telecast.
In 1992, the Cup score was lumped with the U.S.F.L. Flag Football National Championship Tournament scores in which the Rochester Bulls came in second.
In a move that perhaps saved the CFL, in its very first year of existence, ESPN (running in Rochester on People’s Cable Channel 24) bought the CFL’s television rights and has been airing games and Grey Cups since.
During the 1982 NFL player strike, NBC — temporarily subleasing the U.S. broadcasting rights from ESPN — aired CFL games for three weeks. A series of blowout games and low ratings ended the experiment.
In 1982, Penfield’s Pete Catan and McQuaid’s Eugene Goodlow played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. However, no Winnipeg games were among the five televised.
As discussed in Bob Matthews’ Jan 16, 1994 column, the CFL expanded into the United States in hopes of landing a lucrative contract with CBS. CBS chose instead to expand its college coverage. Matthews was probably right that, for CBS, “going head-to-head [with CFL games] against the NFL or colleges would be suicide.”
The Democrat and Chronicle does note when a local player has ties to the Grey Cup, such as when former Syracuse quarterback Anthony Calvillo led the Montreal Alouettes to the 2002 championship. In 2016, Rick DiVeronica wrote a full length feature on Gates Chili grad Ernest Jackson, Cup MVP.
Occasionally, the CFL and the Grey Cup find their ways into popular culture. In 2012, Canadian Justin Bieber was booed during his Grey Cup halftime performance. On August 7th, 2015, Michael Sam played linebacker in his one and only game for the Montreal Alouettes, making Sam the first publicly gay player to appear in a regular season North American professional football game.
Tonight, I gave the CFL a full shot. Besides the skills gap between the NFL, I generally don’t like the CFL game with its wider and longer field and three downs resulting in a minimized running game. The wider and longer field lends itself to “big play” scoring passes, often with breakaways after catches.
Because short plays — like screens and passes to running backs — are not often used, there are not as many sustained drives. Instead, teams shoot for the long score to take advantage of the larger playing field.
Hence, the CFL averages 10 – 14 more points per game than the NFL with far more passes than runs. But I am a football purist who prefers taut defensive struggles and powerful running games. The 4 downs of the NFL add more variety and strategy to play calling as teams move more slowly and methodically up the field.
The first quarter was watchable. In what feels like gimmick football, the rules allow too many men in motion. But the wider field and three downs has its own drama as the game is boom and bust. Most drives ended on the strange sounding two-and-out. But others verged on big plays with qb’s easily scampering out of the pocket and wide outs seamlessly separating from defenders.Emphasizing the foot in football, punts are frequent in the CFL (a good thing for a defensive purist). At halftime, the score is Calgary 21 – Ottawa 11. Except for Alessia, my interest was flagging. Without superstar players, the Grey Cup is a gray facsimile of the Super Bowl.
As the 4th quarter opened, Calgary held a 24 – 14 lead.In the 4th, Calgary kicked a field a field goal and Ottawa scored a safety making the final: Stampeders 27 – Redblacks 16. Calgary avenged two consecutive Cup losses.
The 4th quarter was exciting and the crowd was really into it after three hours of drinking in the cold Manitoba air. But my imagination was not really captured. I kept thinking this might be really interesting if it were NFL players rather than second and third tier wannabees and Canadian natives placed on the team for fan appeal. I fantasized as to how Bill Belichick and Tom Brady would tackle — and probably master — the different rules and dimensions of Canadian football.
Gates-Chili’s Ernest Jackson one of a few Rochestarians who made their football mark in Canada December 3, 2016
As reported in the Democrat and Chronicle, last Sunday, Gates-Chili High School graduate Ernest Jackson caught the winning touchdown in the Canadian Football Leagues’ Grey Cup. Jackson — who was also runner up in the season MVP voting — joins the list of former Section V players who made a mark north of the border.
The most successful Section 5 player in the CFL was Le Roy’s Vincent “Boomer” Scott whose teams won Grey Cups in ’53 and ’57, and enshrined in the Canadian Hall of Fame in 1982. Section V Hall of Famer, McQuaid’s Eugene Goodlow did well in both the CFL and the NFL. Section V Hall of Famer, Newark’s Tom Burgess was a starting CFL quarterback for many seasons. Nicknamed the Sledgehammer, Penfield’s Pete Catan had success in Canada. Catan is considered a prominent Serbian-American athlete. In 1984 and 1985, Catan would play in the United States Football League with the Houston Gamblers.
Jackson’s recent heroics aside, the Canadian Football League has a very limited presence in the Rochester sports consciousness, past and present. A journey through the D & C digital archives finds few full length articles on the league or its players, indicating a pretty low level of local interest in the Canadian game.
In a 2009 D & C column, Bob Matthews states the obvious reasons for the limited interest and the unlikelihood that a CFL team could ever succeed in Rochester (Rochester was considered for a CFL franchise in the early 90s): the NFL and the Buffalo Bills.
Obviously, Rochester fans go the Buffalo to watch the Bills and Sabres, and some will travel to Toronto to see the Blue Jays or Raptors. But a junket to Toronto’s Rogers Center to see minor league, foreign football — the Argonauts — is rare indeed.
Given western New York’s proximity to Canada, in the 1940s and 50s there was more interest in the Canadian League. The NFL was still in its early stages and the CFL was able to attract quality players.
Some speculate that in the late 1950s and the early 1960s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger Cats could have been champions had they played in the NFL. Up until 1961, the two leagues played exhibition games, using mixtures of the differing rules. Hall of Famer Vincent Scott played in the CFL in the 40s and 50s.
Ultimately, the formation of the Bills and American Football League in 1960 — and then the merger in 1970 — doomed the CFL to a minor league status.
As described by the AFL Internet Network, many top CFL payers switched to the AFL which offered bigger markets and higher salaries, including Cookie Gillchrist, Wray Carlton and Ernie Warlick who joined Buffalo. After 1960, at least according to the D & C archives, local interest in the CFL dropped precipitously.
Eugene Goodlow’s CFL career in the early 80s drew attention. After McQuaid, Goodlow played for two seasons at Kansas. After a coaching change, Goodlow decided to turn pro, but at the time was ineligible for the NFL draft. Instead, Goodlow starred for three seasons in the CFL. In 1982, Goodlow was drafted by the New Orleans Saints. Back in those days, fans gathered at Midtown Plaza to follow the results of the NFL draft. In the early 80’s, Penfield’s Catan — that noted prominent Serbian-American athlete — starred in Winnipeg.There was also coverage of Tom Burgess’s CFL career in the late 80 and early 90s. Burgess had starred at Newark High and then Colgate University.
While Burgess did not make the Canadian Hall of Fame, he had a solid career, including named the 1989 Grey Cup Most Valuable Player on Offense.
The only real possibility for the CFL to capture Rochester’s football imagination would be our own franchise.
From 1993 – 1995, the CFL expanded into U.S. markets. As Bob Mathews wrote in a few columns (one in response to a loyal fan of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats), Rochester was considered as a site, but the proposed downtown stadium (now Frontier Field) was too small for CFL standards. Having the Carrier Dome, Syracuse was probably a better New York State option.
But the CFL expansion in the United States failed. As described in Bob Matthews 2009 column (above), there was some renewed talk about CFL expansion, including Rochester as a site. Matthews thought the idea was “so ridiculous it is barely worth a mention.” I agree with Matthews’ conclusion that a CFL team would find itself in mid-sized market already saturated with minor league teams.
The CFL did make the news when Doug Flutie left the Toronto Argonauts to play for the Bills. The CFL always makes the news when the NFL is considering moving a team or expanding to Toronto or when the Bills are considering playing more games in Toronto.
The August 13th, 1995 article “Toronto rolls out the red carpet in quest for NFL” describes how most Canadian fans excitedly embraced the Bills – Cowboys exhibition game played in Toronto, the “American Bowl.” The article also pointed to another Bills-CFL connection; then-coach Marv Levy had coached the Montreal Alouettes from 1973 – 1977.
At the same time, some CFL Toronto Argonauts fans protested the American Bowl. Diehard CFL fans rightfully fear NFL expansion into Toronto, the CFL’s largest market. A full time NFL team would probably doom the Argos, making it that much harder for the CFL to attract top flight talent.
In 2006, letter writer Kevin Yost made a valid claim that if the Bills ever left western NY, the CFL could perhaps successfully expand to Buffalo (or maybe Rochester, I’d add). Or if the Bills ever moved to Toronto, the Argos could replace them in Buffalo.
Personally, I am not a big fan of the CFL’s style of play. Over the years, I have watched games on tv (and even listened on summer evenings to the Tiger Cats on the radio) hoping to prefer the Canadian style to that southern behemoth, the National Football League. Rooting for the CFL is a little like rooting for Finland against the Red Army during the winter war in 1940.
Ray Marks, the Tiger Cats season ticket holder who wrote to Bob Matthews in 1998, said the CFL’s advantages are more razzle-dazzle plays, more passing and more scoring. Marks also says a positive of the CFL is the season starts in early July, “exposing fans to sunshine instead of frostbite.”
Alas, for me, Marks’ reasons are reasons not to like to CFL. Because the CFL field is wider and longer and because teams have only three downs to make a first down, the game is primarily a passing game. The wider and longer field lends itself to “big play” scoring passes, often with breakaways after catches. Because short to medium runs are not often used, there are not sustained drives, instead teams shoot for the long score. The result is a higher scoring game than the NFL.
But I am a football pursuit who generally prefers taut defensive struggles and powerful running games. The 4 downs of the NFL add more variety and strategy to play calling as teams move more slowly and methodically up the field. The narrower field also keeps scoring down, maybe 10 – 14 fewer points per game than the CFL.
Also, Marks says an advantage to the CFL season is that it begins in late June or early July and ends around Thanksgiving. While its understandable why a Canadian League would want to avoid outdoor play during the worst parts of a northern winter, sitting from the vantage point of my tv, I would prefer watching those outdoor games in the most treacherous of conditions.
Right now, there is not so much appeal for me to tune into a pass-happy, too-high scoring, minor league played indoors (if at the Rogers Center) on a summer day or evening. In keeping with its name — Canadian — maybe games should be played outdoors in the middle of winter in Saskatchewan.
NOTE: the 2007 article on the Section V Hall of Fame selections of Vincent Scott mentions that fellow inductee Scott Virkus also played the Canadian Football League. In 250 years of calling you out, we saw the spot where Scott hit a softball over 500 feet.