Not because I’m a gambler looking for action in the lean months; ok it’s a little to do with that. Not because I’m a rabid fan, as I’d fail a quick quiz on some of the idiosyncrasies of the game. I hope that there’s a CFL season because I fear a lost season would put in question the league restarting at all, and a part of Canadian history will be lost forever. As a guy who will watch the Grey Cup as my one kick-off-to-final-whistle CFL game each year, I like to see it in the background at bars, hear it in conversations friends are engaged in, and make bets on it even if I’m not watching it. Its absence would be bigger than the three hours time slot I set aside on a Sunday near the end of November.
Much like a rarely frequented restaurant on my rotation that doesn’t re-open after this viral home detention concludes, I would miss the CFL. Not for the game itself, but for all the memories it triggers. The Labour Day Classic. Don Lancaster. Don Whitman. Signage for the old Western Express Lottery. A box, yes a box, of 2-packs of Old Dutch Chips served aside a homemade onion powder and sour cream dip. Hawkin’s Cheezies. A flat of Pick-a-Pop. Schneider’s hot dogs on the grill…….or as we say in Canada, on the Barbecue. North of the border, BBQ is the appliance we cook on, not the entire genre of picnic style cuisine. Just like the way we spell Labour Day, these are things that are uniquely Canadian, just like the CFL.
When I think of the Canadian Football League, the images in my head are of attending friends’ parents’ Grey Cup parties where the whole neighbourhood would show up. Sliding screen doors onto prairie decks, raised above the lawn at a height that allowed views of seemingly endless latticework and cedar fencing in three directions. Someone’s dad setting up a cardboard display on a makeshift easel displaying the 10 x 10 grid of 0 - 9 digits. At the end of each quarter a winner of a nominal prize, or perhaps a bottle of Crown Royal for the final score, peeking out of the familiar purple pouch. In Squares you hope to draw a 0, 3, or 7 as those are the likeliest ending digits of a football score, at least in the NFL. But in the CFL you’re not that much of a dog with a 2, 4, 6, or 8 as in the CFL there’s all sorts of ways to land on an even number.
In the 70’s, I picture my grandparents and great uncles sitting around a family cabin watching their Blue Bombers, or Stampeders on a rabbit-eared television that was only capable of pulling in CBC or CTV on a static-blemished picture. The commercials for local restaurant chains like the Salisbury House in Winnipeg, or a now defunct retailer like Consumer’s Distributing, Eaton’s, or Woodward’s.
In the 80’s my parents would get together with neighbours in Vancouver and rent a hotel suite in Granville Island in order to watch the Western Conference final. Imagine that now. The playoff game wasn’t on television because the broadcasters blacked it out unless the stadium was 100% sold out. These weren’t empty stands, there were still 50,000 people in attendance, but available tickets wasn't the concern of young parents. Convenience was. So a hotel room with an Eastern satellite feed, homemade snacks, and an area for kids to jump around not disturbing the view of the game worked perfectly.
In the early 90’s there was that strange time when the CFL lured the Rocket Ismail, the celebrated projected number one pick of the NFL to a team owned by John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, and Bruce McNall. In the mid-90’s,
my roommates and I lived in an apartment that was close enough to BC Place to hear the crowd roar as a big play occurred. The ebullient cheer under the stadium’s original inflatable roof served as a 5-second forewarning that Chris Cuthbert’s voice on our television was about to hit that muppet-like pitch. “TOUCHDOWN…..Memphis!” Wait, what? Memphis? Yes, Memphis. Or Shreveport, Sacramento, or San Antonio. The league had expanded into the States. In 1994, I had a part-time job as a camera assistant during CFL games and other special events. I stood on the field behind Passaglia as he kicked the winning Field Goal with nothing left on the clock to win the Championship in 1994. In ’95 the Baltimore Colts….err, the Baltimore CFLers became the only team outside of Canada to ever hoist the Grey Cup.
In ’96 the league retracted to only Canadian franchises, and some time after that interest in the league started to wane. My theory is that not the game, but the production value of the U.S. broadcasts, replete with action movie graphics, boisterous announcers and former superstars of the NFL started to draw the attention of younger viewers. Like Burton Cummings sang in the Guess Who’s hit, American Woman, “Coloured lights can hypnotize”. The CFL product remained the same. But the difference in the spectacle had greatly widened. Toronto won a couple of baseball titles. The NBA expanded into Canada. There was a lot of choice for sports entertainment in the big cities.
COVID-19 has disrupted or delayed every sports league on the continent so far. At some point the NFL, the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball will start their hype machines back up. I hope the CFL is only experiencing a delay as well and that it doesn’t need the defibrillator to be revived.