Mick Kern on how the CFL kicks off the Canadian summer

CFL

Toronto Argonauts fans during a CFL game at BMO Field on June 25, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Toronto defeated Hamilton 32-15.

Photo by John E. Sokolowski/Getty Images

Summer is fleeting in pretty much every part of Canada, so we hold on to what little sunshine comes our way.  Popular opinion holds that summer unofficially gets underway with the Victoria Day weekend in late May.  I’m here to say Canadian Summer begins with the first kickoff of the Canadian Football League.

There is not much sweeter than spending a pleasant summer night in the stands, cheering on the home side as they fight for precious yards on the 110 yard gridiron.  The First Day of Summer 2017 was on Thursday, June 22nd, as the hometown Montreal Alouettes, and their new quarterback Darian Durant, edged his former team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 17-16.

The footprint of the CFL campaign perfectly mirrors the changing of seasons in the Great White North.  It all begins while spring is still deciding whether or not to become summer.  The first chunk of games play out on the aforementioned summer nights, and sizzling summer days.  Things really get going in early September, with the various Labour Day Classics reminding us that we don’t need the American stamp-of-approval to be interesting and enthralling (though we love the fact ESPN2 shows CFL games).

Then, as the leaves begin to turn colour and the cold winds work their way down from the frigid north, the CFL playoffs arrive, where battling the conditions is as much a part of the game plan as battling Tiger-Cats, Lions and Redblacks.  The biggest day of the year, Grey Cup Sunday, still packs them in, whether in the stadium, or in bars and basements.  And once the victorious team hoists the Big Mug, that pretty much signals the official start of winter.  That, and the Santa Claus Parade.

We’ve just begun another entertaining CFL season.  Sure, there are attendance problems in Toronto, sure some of the quarterbacks have played musical chairs, and sure it’s not the NFL.  But none of that is news to CFL fans, amongst the most die-hard sports fans on the planet.

Having grown up out West (Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton), I can tell you the CFL still matters to many, many people.  In an age where professional athletes are about as far removed from the paying public as can be, the CFL still understands the value of community.  The grass roots matter.

And, frankly, they have to.

This is not a league that can just open the gates an hour before game time, and assume enough people will turn up to justify keeping the lights on.  While some tickets can be pricey, the CFL is still a relatively affordable product, and with only 9 regular season home games, it’s still an event.

Witness the recently concluded home-and-home series involving the Calgary Stampeders and Ottawa Redblacks.  The rematch of the already-classic 2016 Grey Cup has people asking for more.  Two weeks ago, in the nation’s capital, these two teams once again played to a tie.  Then last week, at McMahon Stadium in Northwest Calgary, it was one of those edge-of-your-seat, last pass wins game that the CFL, and only the CFL, can serve up on any given night.  For the record, the Stamps won 43-39, and folks are already anticipating a rematch in the 2017 Grey Cup, to be held this November in Ottawa.

In any sport, in any league, winning sells.  But not every team can win, so grassroots marketing and community involvement is crucial to the CFL.  All of those things did not happen in the league’s biggest market, and as a result, the Toronto Argonauts play in a nice, new stadium, in front of friends and family.  Thankfully the good ship Argo is now under the stewardship of former Alouettes’ brain trust Jim Popp and head coach Marc Trestman.  These two have a number of Grey Cup rings on their fingers, and if Week One is any indication, the Argonauts will be a factor in the East this season.  They knocked off their eternal rivals, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, 32-15.  Week Two didn’t fare as well for Toronto, who were beaten 28-15 by the visiting B. C. Lions.

Will a resurrected Argonauts team inspire people to make the drive down to BMO Field?  It’ll help, and TV numbers in the important Southern Ontario market will also be up.

Make no mistake about it; while the CFL is still reliant on the gate, their relationship with TSN has been beneficial for the league.  TV still matters, even in the age of cord-cutting.

New stadiums also help, not that the die-hard football fanatics of Rider Nation needed any more incentives.  Legendary Taylor Field now exists in the collective consciousness of CFL fans, while the Saskatchewan Roughriders have moved over to the swanky, new Mosaic Stadium.  The rival Winnipeg Blue Bombers crashed the party, taking the opener 43-40.

So who will we see battle for the Grey Cup in late November?  Many expect a rematch of the Stamps and Redblacks, though others say CFL coaching legend Wally Buono will have his Lions troops ready to surpass Calgary, and represent the West.  Will there be another playoff cross over this season?  Last year, the Edmonton Eskimos travelled to Hamilton, and beat the Tiger-Cats.

The beauty of football is the structure of football.  As a fan, you have all week to replay the previous weekend’s games in your head, call in to phone in shows, and set yourself up for the next game.  Then Thursday hits, and the games begin anew, and the cycle continues.

And the Canadian Football League continues.  Almost as old as the country of Canada, who turned 150 on July 1st, the CFL continues to makes summer that much better.

A reminder that we talk about the CFL every Monday at 12 noon Eastern (9 am Pacific) on “Inside The CFL” on SiriusXM Canada Talks Channel 167.

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