The last Grey Cup held in Toronto wasn’t terrible.
How’s that for high praise?
Between the scantily-clad, chocolate sauce-covered beauties arrayed like edible sweets -- alas, they weren’t -- on the buffet tables of then-Argonaut co-owner David Cynamon’s mansion, and a sensible stab at localizing the Grey Cup parties in a relatively confined area of the overall urban blight, the weekend of Canada’s 2007 Grand National Drunk actually felt sort of like it was taking place in a city that cared.
The illusion soon passed, of course.
But for a few days, Toronto, the town that would close the blinds if the Argos were playing in its backyard, actually warmed to the CFL a little, thanks in large measure to the ready-made army of green-clad partygoers who follow the Saskatchewan Roughriders unto the ends of the earth -- or have already moved there.
The matchup, otherwise, looked like a nightmare for a city with a confirmed superiority complex: two teams from the mysterious Land Beyond The Lakehead -- Winnipeg and Saskatchewan -- playing a Banjo Bowl for the 4th Earl Grey’s tankard.
Five years later, the CFL’s luck is running somewhat better -- so much better, indeed, that this week, Toronto is certain to be poked and prodded, its temperature taken and its pulse-rate recorded by the national media, looking for signs that Hogtown might be persuaded to love the Canadian game again, given optimum conditions.
Well, nearly optimum.
If Saskatchewan had won the West, it might have been a slight improvement on the Calgary Stampeders, who can bring a mess of flapjacks and stetsons and cowgirls and could yet spirit a horse into the lobby of the Fairmont Royal York for old times’ sake, but have nowhere near Rider Nation’s sheer numbers behind them.
On the bright side, they’re a much better team.
Everything else has worked out about as perfectly as could be.
The Argos are risen from the dead, thanks to the generosity of the Edmonton Eskimos, who gifted them Ricky Ray in a deal that always reeked to high heaven -- one that ultimately got GM Eric Tillman fired in Edmonton, and which still feels, at least in the Alberta capital, like an inside job aimed at getting the host team into next Sunday’s championship game.
The league, and its corporate sponsors, have blanket-covered the nation with 100th Grey Cup advertising, an amazing cross-country Grey Cup train journey, commemorative Canada Post stamps .. in short, they have pushed every button imaginable short of telling Torontonians that it’s their duty as Canadians to get on board the bandwagon.
It didn’t used to be this hard.
“I remember when I first came down [to Toronto from Ottawa] they hadn’t won in such a long time,” said Bob O’Billovich, now Hamilton’s football operations chief, who coached the Argos in their last home-field Grey Cup in 1982 (they lost to Edmonton in a deluge at old Exhibition Stadium), “but once we got to be winners and did it on a consistent basis, the fans came back and we had pretty darned good attendance most of the time I was in Toronto. I think that’s what it’s going to take.
“Right now, it’s similar to when I got there. The Toronto sports teams weren’t winning and the Argos were one of them. So when we started winning, we were the only winning sports franchise in the city.
“I think the fans are there, if you can just get them on board with a few successful years back to back. The Argos made strides this year. Getting Ricky Ray in there was a big boost. If they could win the Grey Cup, it would help a lot.”
The market, at the moment, truly is at low ebb.
The Blue Jays may have traded for enough players to compete again, but they haven’t made the post-season in 19 years. The Raptors have hitched a ride on the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment wagon, seeming to be carried along despite a series of awful seasons by proximity to the almighty Leafs, who are 45 years into their post-Stanley Cup rebuilding plan -- and currently are not playing at all, which in some quarters is considered a net gain.
The grand plans to entice the Buffalo Bills to move north have not met with much success, only a backlash over the astronomical cost of tickets. And Toronto FC, which plays the beautiful game unbeautifully in a moderately-sized stadium that was specifically designed to exclude the Argos from ever being a tenant, is reaping the karma of its selfish roots and joining the rest of MLSE’s sports properties in the athletic toilet.
So yes, you could say the table is set for an Argo team to recapture a little respect from the citizenry.
The Grey Cup, at least, has never lost it, although the 1992 edition -- Doug Flutie and the Stampeders beating Matt Dunigan and the Blue Bombers at SkyDome -- suffered greatly in the afterbuzz of the Blue Jays’ first World Series title.
“I’m not surprised it’s still going,” said Hugh Campbell, whose ’82 Eskimos won their fifth straight Cup the last time the Argos hosted.
“There were times when the league was in pretty bad shape, but you know, when I started, Toronto used to have 40,000 a game. What happened, in my opinion, is some guys wanted NFL and they kind of poisoned the water there. And even media guys who were covering the Yankees or the White Sox one day and the Argos and Saskatchewan the next had trouble making it sound like a big deal.”
When the 100th edition was awarded to Toronto, there was plenty of opinion on the side of giving it to a city that had real passion for the CFL, preferably outdoors, where many of the most memorable Grey Cups have been played in foul conditions.
“Oh, no, no, no,” said B.C. general manager Wally Buono, a few days before his Lions lost Sunday’s Western final 34-29 to Calgary.
“I’m glad it’s played in Toronto. It should be played on a national stage. The tradition is the fans wearing their colours, having fun, it’s where the francophone can see the anglophone, where the rural can meet the urban, where the rich and the poor can be at the same party.”
For all its challenges in Toronto, the Grey Cup has a homely charm to it that has never been lost.
“Unfortunately, when you make big, big money, and it is big corporations, you get shielded (from your fans),” said Buono, “and that protection isolates you from the people who help pay your salaries and support you and give you the reason why you’re playing.
“Whereas the CFL doesn’t distance itself. It’s still very close to its fan base. Economically, yes, the fan economics and player economics are fairly similar. But because of that, the ties have stayed close.
“The CFL endures, and it prospers, because we have a pride in the Canadian football game. And it’s not Canadian because Canadians play in it. It’s Canadian because it’s the only (major professional sports league) played entirely within our own boundaries. The NHL never has been that.
“Most companies aren’t. Most brands aren’t.”
The CFL brand, in Toronto? It’s under construction.
Ground-breaking continues this week.
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