TORONTO - The difference between Chris Rudge and any ordinary uber salesman, is that Rudge wants, needs, craves what he’s selling, too.
And what Rudge always seems to be selling are these enormous chunks of authentic, sports Canadiana which help unite us as a nation.
Whether it was winning a Mann Cup in 1969, coaching Canada’s national lacrosse team or boiling kettles full of Shopsy’s hotdogs underneath the stands at old Exhibition Stadium, Rudge has been living the Canadian sports dream for most of his 64 years.
For the past seven, he was Mr. Olympics — CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, the folks as responsible as anyone for last February’s massive, Team-Canada medal haul at the Vancouver Winter Games.
But if you think convincing amateur sports-shy corporations to support amateur athletics is tough, planning for the biggest Grey Cup party in Canadian Football League history in a city that never sleeps, except when the Argonauts are playing, is especially daunting.
Rudge was hired Friday by Argos owner David Braley to chair and organize the 2012 Grey Cup Festival, and, while he’s at it, invent a way make the Argonauts a sports brand that matters again.
Done properly, Braley, who also owns the B.C. Lions believes a Grey Cup game in Toronto could have a $120-million impact on the GTA and province of Ontario.
The record for a Grey Cup game, so far, is about $83 million, generated from the 2005 event in Vancouver. The Lions expect to make it an even $100 million when they host the 2011 Cup.
But know this. Rudge is extremely competitive — even when he’s trying hard not to be. Asked Friday if he had big plans for the 2012 Grey Cup Festival, he appeared coy.
But, when it was suggested that the largely successful 2007 Grey Cup in Toronto might be a challenge to replicate, Rudge switched his game-face button to ‘on’.
“It’s not pressure. What it tells me is that the opportunity is probably bigger than we think,” he said. “Look at what goes on in music in this town. This is the third largest theatre city in the world. Only London and New York are bigger.
“Is there any reason that during Grey Cup week we couldn’t have a rock concert every night at Nathan Phillips Square? Blue Rodeo one night, Barenaked Ladies the next night, a band from Quebec the next night?
“Is there any reason we can’t shut down a large portion of Yonge St., and have the world’s biggest touch football game going on up and down Yonge Street, and paint it green?
“The ideas are out there and we want to talk to as many people as possible so we can make this a party everyone wants to be in ... so everyone will be afraid to be out of town in case they miss something.”’
Rudge is slick, too. He knew his Friday audience extended beyond the Westin Harbour Castle’s Regatta Room, that evening’s television newscasts and the Saturday morning newspapers.
So, he addressed the crowd in French as well as English, the only speaker to do so — understanding that if you’re selling Canada, you damn well better be inclusive.
As for selling out the 52,000-seat Rogers Centre for the game, for his next trick Rudge will make a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s selling the Argonauts that may require some Copperfield and Henning-like magic.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ll sell out the bowl for the Grey Cup,” Rudge said. “We did that in 2007 and we’ll build on that and the excitement will be there. But I don’t think we should be satisfied with that. If the excitement around the CFL is to continue to grow I don’t see why this community can’t embrace the Argos in ways they used to in the past.
“I think if we can create a compelling reason for people to come to a wonderfully entertaining experience at the Rogers Centre, there’s no reason we can’t have bigger crowds there for the Argos.”
Rudge, who will work out of the Argos downtown offices, said, as a boy, he used to hitch-hike down from Malton, to work as a cook at Argonaut games. The Boatmen were a big deal then — led by Hall of Fame running back Dick Shatto, Cookie Gilchrist, Jim Rountree and Tricky Dick Thornton.
“Now, it doesn’t require a lot of talent to cook 500 hot dogs at once in a pot,” Rudge explained. “But what was special is that every now and then there would be a break in the action and I could sneak out to the sidelines and I could see the Argos — Shatto, Gilchrist, Rountree ... You can imagine what that was like for a kid my age at the time.
“I had to hitch-hike down there and I had to hitch-hike home at night, but my god, what a thrill it was.”
The difference today is, most 14-year-olds living in Malton or anywhere else in the GTA, would have trouble naming one Argo.
Rudge thinks he can change that.
Those Vancouver Games-leading 14 Canadian gold medals says he at least stands a chance.