Once again, the blink-of-an-eye season we call summer in Canada has come and gone, with the symbolic end to BBQ-and-pool time being the Labour Day Classic games in the Canadian Football League.
The first Classic game this season featured the always enticing Battle of Alberta, as the hometown Calgary Stampeders pulled away in the second half, downing the Edmonton Eskimos 45-24. That was the 7th win in a row for the red hot Stamps, who have to be the odds-on-favourite to win the Grey Cup come this November in Toronto.
But hold your horses. As impressive as Calgary has been, anyone familiar with the CFL knows that the season really starts on Labour Day. Just stay within spitting distance of the playoffs, and in a one game winner takes all playoff format, anything truly can happen. It’s one of the things that makes football so enthralling.
The second Labour Day game took place in Southern Ontario, as the Hamilton Tiger-Cats tussled with the hated Toronto Argonauts, dominating the Boatmen in the 2nd half, downing them 49-36. For years, this match took place on the hallowed field of Ivor Wynne Stadium in the Hammer, known as Never Win Stadium by beleaguered Argos’ fans.
These days, the big game is held in the modern splendour of Tim Hortons Field, pretty much built on top of the Ivor Wynne footprint. Home of the Tiger-Cats since 2014, it’s one of the new wave of big league football stadiums that CFL teams are glad to call home. Ivor Wynne had its many charms, but having been in operation since 1930 (albeit with many alterations and updates along the way), the grand old lady had seen better days.
The same could be said for Winnipeg Stadium, another classic CFL configured field that served as the home of the Bombers since 1953. The team moved into the new Investors Group Field in 2013.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders are the next team in line to get a new playpen to perform in. Having been at Taylor Field for seemingly forever (actually since the 1920’s), the Green Riders are getting ready to move into their new building in time for the 2017 campaign.
Elsewhere, the B.C. Lions play in renovated B.C. Place Stadium (first opened in 1983), which was given a retractable roof in 2011. The Eskimos call cavernous Commonwealth Stadium home, having done so since the late 1970’s. McMahon Stadium has been the home address for the Stampeders since 1960.
Out East, the Montreal Alouettes currently play in (Percival) Molson Stadium, which can be found on the grounds of McGill University. The story how the Als ended up back at McGill in 1998 is a tale on to itself, and played a substantial role in ensuring football remained in Montreal.
Two hours south of Montreal, the Redblacks are the latest incarnation to fly the CFL flag in the nation’s capital. The Ottawa Rough Riders lasted a long time (120 years in some form), and were successful until their final two decades. The Riders folded in 1996, and the Ottawa Renegades took their place in the Glebe in 2002, but only lasted four seasons.
There were questions as to whether or not Ottawa was a football city. Others asked whether Bytown was even a sports city. The Ottawa Senators of the NHL are the big boys in town, but they face challenges drawing when their fortunes are low. The Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League are a mainstay, but junior hockey works on a different (smaller) economic model. Triple A baseball came and went, leaving behind a criminally underused ballpark right across from the train station in the eastern part of the city.
So why would pro football work this time around in Ottawa?
Responsible ownership, a supportive league, and a renovated stadium.
Like Ivor Wynne Stadium, Frank Clair Stadium (Lansdowne Park) had seen better days. The South Stands were said to be in danger of collapsing, and that wouldn’t help sell season ticket packages.
After some legal wrangling, and calming the understandably shaky nerves of local politicians, the Redblacks began the revitalization of Frank Clair stadium, and the area surrounding it. To see the neighborhood now is a bit of a shock for a long-time Ottawa resident who hadn’t stepped foot in that part of town in 25 years.
The majority of CFL stadiums don’t elicit the same sepia-toned affection that ballparks do, and they’re not as gargantuan as NFL stadiums, huge edifices that look like some wayward spaceship from Independence Day. What happens in the more modest stadiums, on game day, is what matters. That is what builds memories, and affection, and team loyalty. And sells tickets.
In the case of Ottawa football fans, Lansdowne Park was a good place to be in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Eastern Riders were one of the powerhouses of the league, so good they could afford to let future CFL Hall of Fame quarterback Ron Lancaster go to the other Roughriders.
Grey Cups in 68, 69, 73, and the Clements to Gabriel last minute pass against Lancaster and crew in 1976 cemented Ottawa as a football powerhouse in Canada. Following that high water mark, they made a few more appearances in the post-season, and rode a 5-and-11 record to the 1981 Grey Cup in Montreal. Facing Warren Moon and the Edmonton Eskimos, the upstart Rough Riders led at halftime, but couldn’t contain old pro Tom Wilkinson, who came off the bench to led his Eskies to their 4th of a record 5 straight Grey Cup championships.
Local businessman Jeff Hunt, who earned the respect of Ottawa sports fans with his revitalization of the 67’s, is part of the Redblacks’ ownership group. His Midas Touch with junior hockey has extended to the CFL team. Hunt and his partners understood that they had to bring the new Ottawa football franchise into the 21st century, and that meant a new stadium.
Or at least a partially new stadium. The north side stands were renovated, while the decrepit south side stands were demolished, and a brand new edifice erected. The previously mentioned development of the underused area surrounding the stadium breathed new life into that staid section of Ottawa.
Nestled into a cozy spot next to the scenic Rideau Canal, TD Place Stadium is a welcome compliment to the neighborhood, and a perfect place to take in a game on a hot, humid August night. Wally Buono and the B.C. Lions provided the opposition on this Thursday evening, and with the exception of Calgary, it seems everyone else in the league is clawing for points. Including the Lions and Redblacks.
To paraphrase Billy Joel, it was a pretty good crowd for a Thursday, with a palpable buzz surrounding the neighborhood in the hour leading up to kickoff. Football games are an event, with only nine home games during the regular season, and a playoff game on home turf, if you’re lucky. The lead up to the game is part of the experience. In the past, there was pretty much nothing but oceans of concrete surrounding Lansdowne Park. Not anymore.
The third year franchise, who made it all the way to the Grey Cup last season before coming up a bit short against the Eskimos, draw well, though there were still good tickets available. I purchased one in the north stands, and took my seat near the 40-yard line in time for the brief pre-game ceremonies.
When the Rough Riders ruled the roost, I was usually stuck freezing on a spartan metallic bench in the west end zone, an Ottawa version of the Knothole Gang that we were all members of back in the early 1970’s at Clarke Stadium in Edmonton. Cheap tickets meant mainly kids populated those seats, their parents having dropped them off there before heading to considerably better accommodations in the main grandstands.
Our attention span at that age was perfectly suited to watching effectively half a football game. It was similar to my Santa Claus parade experiences. The marching bands always seemed to stop playing their bright brass instruments just as they arrived in front of where we had been standing and shivering for hours. The rat-tat-tat of snare drums was all we ever got for our efforts. Stuck in one end zone for the entire game, it always seemed like all the exciting plays took place 120 yards away, at the other end of the field.
As time moved on, tickets to the both the north and south stands were procured. It may only be an Ottawa thing, but there is (as I’m told it still persists) a rivalry between the two main grandstands. It was not uncommon to hear the plaintive cry of “North Side Sucks” during many of those lost years in the 1980’s. What other team’s fan base were as interested in bashing each other as watching the football game? The Southsiders fancied themselves Rider Outriders, dismissing the apparently Chardonnay sipping Northsiders as fair weather fans. And in Ottawa, come early October, the weather is often very unfair.
The Northsiders had a modicum of a roof above them; the Southsiders defiantly braved the elements. The Northsiders were made up of civil servants, teachers, and other professionals. The Southsiders were all those hairy guys you stayed away from in high school. Many proudly flew the Stars and Bars, even then a hot topic. It was in the south stands one game during my early teens where I explained to my father what that sickly sweet smell was emanating from a pack of fans all huddled together in their red flannel jackets, puffs of smoke enveloping them. No doubt blissfully unaware that the home side was yet again getting thumped. The south stands were a good time, though PG Rated. Often R Rated.
Ultimately all harmless fun, but not the image a modern, professional sports team wants to project. The reconstruction of the south stands was also a symbolic reboot of the Ottawa football fan base. Hey, we’re not going to party like it’s 1979 anymore.
As the Redblacks and Lions took to the field, it was obvious that the Northsiders were rowdier than in days gone by. Perhaps all those young Southsiders grew up, and landed good paying jobs in the government, thus grabbing tickets on the North side. Or perhaps Ottawa has grown up a little bit in 25 years, and after losing two football teams in a relatively short period of time, it was now all for one and one for all.
That would be the theme of the night, once the game got underway.
It goes without saying, though we’ll repeat it here, that almost all sports fans suffer from a most acute case of myopia. In a nutshell: My team is always getting the short end of the stick from the officials, and nothing you can say will change my mind about that. That dumb down is part of being a fan, though there’s something to be said for aspiring to be an informed fan. Pro sports have always had an element of Bread and Circuses about it. Watching these games allows the average citizen to vent in ways that would be frowned upon in everyday life. It provides an outlet, a release. And boy did the Ottawa fans release a lot of pent up anger on this night.
Keeping in mind that I have been described in the past as the only person in the stands cheering for the officials, even I had some questions about a couple of the calls that went against the Redblacks. The Forward Pass Interference call is the ultimate killjoy of professional football.
Regardless of the egregious errors by the officials, a professional athlete is expected to brush such setbacks aside and sally forth. Fans don’t have to abide by that code, and they let the officials on the field (and, by extension, in the situation room) have it with both barrels. For an outdoor stadium, the faithful made a pretty impressive ruckus that didn’t die down until the dying moments of the game.
That in itself belies the oft-repeated mantra that Ottawa is a sleepy backwater town. Which it was, which is one reason it was chosen to be Canada’s capital city. And everyone loves dumping on government workers, until some service they need from the Feds isn’t forthcoming…which, of course, elicits another round of braying.
The braying on this night seemed to pump up the Redblacks, who came into this one having won only two of their first four home games. In a see-saw affair, it was the Lions that prevailed 29-23, thanks to some effective special teams work, and those fortuitous calls.
Having sat through intermittent game delays due to coach’s challenges in hockey, baseball, and now football, it can safely be said that the majority of sports fans can’t stand the delay, regardless of who made the request. Think of how many digits back home stab at the remote control to take them away from the anti-drama.
Speaking with some of the fans seated around me during halftime, it revealed the crowd was a mixture of ages and backgrounds, always a good sign for a sports team. There were the diehards such as John from Constance Bay, who has been a season ticket holder since 1991, and frequently attended Rough Rider games in the years before that. He admitted a slight surprise that the CFL chose to return to this market for a third try, but was convinced this time the town had the winning recipe. Upon finding out I cheered for the Toronto Argonauts, John motioned me forward as if to whisper into my ear.
Expecting to be told something along of the lines of don’t worry, we all makes mistakes, John instead tilted his head back and yelled ARGOS SUCK as loud as he could into my right ear. It was Keith Moon blowing up his drums and destroying Pete Townshend’s hearing. That I heard those two words bellowed at me in itself is nothing new; any Argos’ fan has heard worse during a visit to Hamilton. But my ear did ring for the rest of the night.
The reaction to John’s bellowing from the forty or so fans milling around us during halftime was, uhh, interesting. They all stopped, turned, and slowly faced me, each of them wearing a puzzled, inquisitive look on their faces. It was akin to that moment in The Walking Dead when the zombies suddenly realize you’re amongst them. When asked why I chose to become an Argos fan after living 16 years in Ottawa, I mumbled something about having to cheer for at least one team from Hogtown. When I added that at least I wasn’t a Maple Leafs’ fan, that won me a begrudging reprieve.
For the record, I became a Toronto Argonauts’ fan because of Mike Pinball Clemons. Only one of the greatest players in the long history of the CFL, and one of the genuinely nicest people you’ll ever meet. Before that, the Ottawa Rough Riders had my undying support, even during those many, many down years. Before moving to Ottawa in 1975, I was a rabid Montreal Alouettes fan, which came in handy while living in Edmonton. And before that, as a kid in Grade One at Currie Elementary in downtown Calgary, the Stampeders were my team. I knew Larry Robinson the football player well before I knew Larry Robinson the hockey player.
Having cheered for almost half the league at some point, I’ve come to the conclusion I simply am a fan of the Canadian Football League, come hell or high water. And there’s been plenty of both over the years.
It’s often overstated, but the CFL does play a part in helping stitch this often disparate country together. The Grey Cup Game still serves as a Homecoming for the Nation; I have attended five and it is something every sports fans should experience. My chequered history of CFL allegiances is probably not all that uncommon, considering the transient nature of today’s employment picture.
Sitting to my left was an older gentleman who has lived in Ottawa since 1967, having relocated from Vancouver. Yet there he was, all these years later, resplendent in his bright orange B.C. Lions jersey, even though his wife sported a Redblacks top. Further questioning revealed she was actually a Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan. Comic Con has nothing on CFL fans; they are the most loyal in North American pro sports because they have to be. Having had their league declared dead on numerous occasions, the CFL fan sports the thickest skin of the bunch, unmoved by NFL snobs and U.S. disinterest. If anything, CFL fans wear it as a badge of honour.
Back over to my right, John from Constance Bay was sitting amongst a group of friends who were having a great time emphatically gesturing each and every Ottawa first down, though they did it while sitting down. There’s not a lot of room in those stands for constant ups and downs. Mike from nearby Richmond was one of those friends. The match against the Lions was the first time he had been at a CFL game in Ottawa since the city hosted the 1988 Grey Cup. Which featured the Lions in a losing performance against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Mike didn’t remember any of those details; he admitted to not remembering much of anything about the game, but that was 28 years ago. It wasn’t the passage of time that eroded Mike’s memory banks, it was the passage of certain beverages that long ago balmy November evening. Which bring up the question…which other North American sport romanticizes the imbibing of alcoholic beverages as much as football does? Beer is a big part of all sports leagues, but football fans have ritualized it in ceremonies such as tailgating. Where everyone hangs in the parking lot hours before the game, often in a truck, and proceeds to barbeque meat and drink beer.
To witness this in action before a Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2011 home playoff game on a frigid Sunday was awe inspiring. The communal warmth generated by the huddled fans and the ubiquitous portable BBQ’s combined to put up a defiant wall against the January cold.
The CFL has taken a few tentative steps towards establishing their own tailgating culture, but restrictive provincial regulations tend to squeeze the sense of fun and spontaneity out of the entire thing. Having said that, Calgary Stampeders fan put on a pretty fair facsimile of a pigskin tailgate.
Football is not alone in embracing this most American of activities. In baseball, Milwaukee Brewers’ fans also throw a mean tailgate, as a visit to Miller Park during the summer of 2013 revealed. But I’m under the impression that Milwaukee sports fans are like that in general; ready to have a good time regardless of the occasion, with arguably the best food in sports, and secure in the knowledge that at least they’re not in Chicago. Even considering the stalwart Brew Crew fans, tailgating is associated with football.
At least they’re not in Toronto could be the cry of the Ottawa faithful. After seeing their beloved Senators kicked around by the Maple Leafs in every playoff series those two teams had ever played, any chance to dump on The Centre of the Universe is gleefully seized upon.
They may cheer for the Redblacks, or the Lions, or the Tiger-Cats, but they can all agree on one thing. They hate Toronto.
John from Constance Bay got the final boot in when he asked if I had season tickets for the Argonauts. When I told him I had seriously considered the idea, but passed on it owning to my 12-year-old son’s busy sporting schedule, John smirked and said that’s alright, nobody goes to the games.
Which is untrue, yet closer to the truth than the Argos, and the league, would care to admit. They’ve tried seemingly every trick in the book to lure fans in to see a game, but keep coming up with the same 16 to 18 thousand fans. In some cities, that would be almost enough to keep the lights on. In the largest city in Canada, that number doesn’t cut it.
The Argonauts thought they were moving on up when they abandoned the historic, yet much maligned Exhibition Stadium after the 1988 season, transferring operations to the Skydome, the It Girl of sports parks when it opened in 1989. It had a retractable roof, when that was still a novelty. People actually stayed to watch the roof close. It had the Toronto Blue Jays of the American League, a baseball team that was then at the height of its powers. It was all Big League, and in a city that constantly craves that stamp of approval, it meant the Argos had to be at the Skydome.
Now known as the Rogers Centre (most of the stadiums all carry corporate names, but for ease of recognition, we’ve used the names they are still mostly called by fans), life wasn’t all bad during the 27 years the Argos played there. They won five Grey Cups during that time span, including the 100th Grey Cup, a game that was played in Toronto.
But as time ticked on, it was clear that the marriage between the Argos and the old Skydome just wasn’t working. Part of the problem was perception, which matters… a lot…in Toronto. The Buffalo Bills of the National Football League took centre stage when they played a series of regular season games at Rogers Centre, and the prime tenant, the Toronto Blue Jays, suddenly got hot again, and post-season baseball games pushed the Argos to play a couple of home games in, gulp, Hamilton.
The talk of putting a grass surface down for baseball necessitated the search for a new home for the beleaguered Argonauts. Many plans were discussed, but in the end the team ended up back at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, the home of long since demolished Exhibition Stadium. The Toronto FC, a soccer club in the MLS, played out of pint-sized BMO Field. Much to the chagrin of soccer fans, the place was expanded recently, and the Argonauts opened up the 2016 CFL season as co-tenants.
The NFL stumbled somewhat in Toronto, though one gets the feeling they’ll eventually be back. The Canadian Football League could survive without a Toronto-based franchise, but it doesn’t want to. Turnstile numbers are not what everyone hopes they can be, but television numbers on TSN are considerable in the gigantic, ever important Southern Ontario market. The all-sports cable network, now owned by Bell, invested heavily in the CFL, and their Friday Night Football brand has been a success. TSN needs a CFL team in Toronto, and the discussion ends there.
The B.C. Lions were in town on the last day of August, fresh off that win in Ottawa. The Argonauts had marquee quarterback Ricky Ray back for this one after missing a month due to injury, and the old pro struck early and often, finding the end zone early in the opening quarter. A half decent crowd made a lot of noise, not Ottawa noise, but more than usual. In part it was out of necessity, as the Canadian National Exhibition roared all around the stadium. That TD would be the highlight of the night by the home side.
The Lions were the slightly better team on this evening, giving their QB Jonathan Jennings plenty of time to work in the pocket. Still, it took a literally last second field goal by Richie Leone to give the visitors a 16-13 win. Of course the Double Blue faithful were convinced the officials were against them. Must be an Ontario thing.
The refigured BMO Field is the perfect size for a CFL team. Not too big, and not too small. Granted, Goldilocks had plenty of seats to choose from on this night, but it’ll be a great spot to host the Grey Cup in November.
There’s nothing particularly notable about the stadium from an architectural standpoint, but again, it’s what happens on the field that will dictate the building’s success. So far the Argos haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain, finding it difficult to pick up a W on home turf. The seats we had on the 20-yard line afforded us a great view of the entire field, something that was a luxury at the Skydome. The gently sloping grade of the seats there meant that if you sat too close to the field, you spent most of your time watching the game on the Jumbotron.
The future consumer is the 12-year-old of today, and my son Alex accompanied me to the game. He sat besides a pair of similar aged brothers from nearby Ajax, and before long, all three of them were up with the rest of the rowdies, screaming at the ref and yelling that most Toronto, that most CFL, of all chants. AARRRGGOOOS!! I’ve attended games in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, and Ottawa, and it never fails that one fool somewhere always picks the right moment to bellow out the cry of the Canadian loon.
Despite the loss, Alex said he enjoyed himself, and could we go again soon? This is what the CFL wants to hear. Now if I could get them to embrace my idea of adding on a CFL option to the yearly Madden NFL video game, a brand new audience would be opened up to the league.
And that’s the key. The diehards will continue to come to the games. How does one get the fickle sports consumer to drop some bucks and come out and see a game in a city such as Toronto?
Exposure. Constant exposure. And a winning team. With exciting players. The CFL brain trust does a very good job on the first point. The other two points are a work in progress.
As for opening up new horizons, Alex and I discovered during our trip to San Francisco this past July that ESPN2 carries some of the TSN broadcasts of the CFL. It was an absolute delight to spend a sunny Sunday at picturesque AT&T park, watching the home town Giants clash with the Washington Nationals…and then retire to our hotel room, and flip on the Argos-Redblacks game. A bit of Canadiana thousands of miles from home.
Toronto won 23-20.
The halls of the Intercontinental Hotel shook with the cries of AARRRGGOOOS!!