After 100 years, the Grey Cup shines with an endless appeal
For such a treasured national icon, the Grey Cup hasn’t always received commensurate treatment.
The Cup, the championship trophy of the Canadian Football League, has been awarded in mud (1950), in fog (1962), in a snowstorm (1996), in minus-20 Celsius wind chill (1991), has been left at hotels numerous times, has come under attack during a visit to the Canadian Forces Base in Afghanistan (2008) and has fallen apart in a postgame celebration (2006).
This Sunday, the trophy donated in 1909 by the Earl Grey, Canada’s governor general -- at a cost of $48; it is estimated to be worth about $75,000 today -- occupies a select stage when it will be awarded for the 100th time, in a game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Toronto Argonauts at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
The Grey Cup hits its centennial with nary a doddering sign about it. It is as popular as a pro sports trophy can get. Sure, the Americas Cup, established in 1851, is older, but outside of, say, Ted Turner and Thurston Howell III, who really gets worked up about a yachting championship? And the Stanley Cup, donated in 1892 by another governor general, (creating trophies seems to have been an essential part of the job then) may not even make an appearance this season.
Besides, the Stanley Cup has been won many times by American-based teams. That has only happened once to the Grey Cup, when the Baltimore Stallions, part of the CFL’s ill-fated expansion into the United States, won it in 1995.
That is part of the Grey Cup’s appeal; it is ours and, that one exception aside, always has been ours, won by teams playing a unique brand of football. Outside of Confederation and a Mountie clutching a beaver, few things are as inherently Canadian.
Even if that was not the case, though, the Grey Cup would score high marks among Canadians because it serves as the grand national party, a last release before everyone hunkers down to prepare for Christmas. Many people attend the game regardless of its location and the teams involved so they can party in the days before kickoff, a bacchanalian atmosphere that probably had its start in 1948 when a horse was ridden into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.
For those who can’t be in the host city atop a horse, there is always television. Last year, 11 million people watched some of the Grey Cup telecast and 4.6 million watched it all. The chances are many people did so at a house party.
The CFL has made an impressive comeback from its nadir in the mid-1990s, when the league looked as if it would collapse financially. A thrilling Grey Cup game in 1996, Toronto defeating Edmonton 43-37 in a driving snowstorm in Hamilton, helped spark that rebound.
There were grumblings this season the CFL had stagnated but an exciting game Sunday followed by changes in the immediate future should wash away those complaints. There will be a new stadium in Winnipeg next season and one in Hamilton the year after that. Ottawa will return to the league for a third stint in 2014, the CFL wisely coupling its entry with renovations to Frank Clair Stadium. That makes for a nine-team circuit, though, and the re-acquaintance with a bye week in the schedule. While it would be lovely to add a 10th team and overall balance, the league knows better than to overextend itself for such gratification. The CFL has regarded Atlantic Canada longingly for years but that is only puppy love until a decent stadium is built and solid corporate support steps forth.
After 100 years, it is sorely tempting to say there will alway be a Grey Cup. If the trophy can make it this far, through two world wars, a country that was coming of age and untold league crises, the next 100 years will be a cinch, right? Let’s hope so.