Stampeders excel as men in black

IAN BUSBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:15 PM ET

When the Calgary Stampeders run out of the helmet Monday afternoon at McMahon Stadium, it will be a mass of black jerseys sprinting to midfield.

The tradition will continue, and there will be no surprises.

However, it was a tradition born out of a covert operation.

Back on Sept. 6, 1994, the Edmonton Eskimos weren’t the only ones taken by surprise when the Stamps came out of the locker-room.

Just moments before coming onto the field, the Stampeders players found out they would have a new look that day.

After a usual warmup with the players going through the stretches and drills in their normal red home jerseys, they retreated back to the locker-room.

In their stalls were brand-new striking black jerseys with red numbers, complete with a new logo. On the shoulder were two crossed six-guns.

“It was edgy,” receiver Vince Danielsen recalled. “You could feel the energy lift in that room. We put on the jerseys and we looked different. For an athlete to get a new jersey, and that it was black, made a huge difference.

“We wore red, but black meant we were badass.”

Stamps marketing and communications director Ron Rooke came up with the idea of debuting a third jersey on Labour Day, but it took plenty of preparation and secrecy to pull it off like they did.

Equipment manager George Hopkins, who is still with the team, had Starter and the company making the nameplates agree to keep the order quiet.

Owner Larry Ryckman came up with the logo idea and two weeks before Labour Day, the new duds arrived. Hopkins brought quarterback Doug Flutie in and put him in the black jersey, making sure he could throw while wearing it.

Other than Flutie, no other player had any idea. Once the Stamps hit the field, they rolled over a stunned Eskimos team by a score of 48-15.

“They came into the locker-room and it was like kids on Christmas morning,” said Rooke, who became president of the team in 2003 but was dismissed in early 2005 and now works in radio sales.

“They strapped on the black and felt they were invincible.

“Our motto was, ‘Whatever it takes.’ We weren’t going to lose to the Eskimos. They came out in the blacks and the guys that were six feet tall thought they were 10 feet tall.”

During the 1990s, every time the Stamps put on the black jerseys, they were certain of victory.

They had a three-game win streak in the alternates when the blacks returned for the 1997 and ’98 Labour Day games. Both times, the Stamps won.

Those jerseys were worn three times during the 1998 season, as the Stamps suited up in black for the West final against Edmonton and again in the Grey Cup victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“It was almost like we had to win in those things because it had started on Labour Day,” Danielsen said. “We weren’t going to lose wearing them.”

The first time the Stamps lost wearing black was during the 2000 West final at home to the B.C. Lions.

By then, the look had taken the Labour Day Classic to a new level. Of course, there were a combination of things that started to make the annual holiday meeting with the Eskimos a must-see event.

For Rooke, it all started in the early part of 1993. When season-ticket holders weren’t renewing following a Grey Cup victory, Rooke phoned a few to inquire as to why.

He was told how much fans were sick of the Eskimos dominance on that first Monday in September. Edmonton had won seven of the previous nine games, but that wasn’t unusual as the Eskimos were the best team in the West Division.

Although the Stamps had gotten over the hump against the Eskimos in the post-season, beating them in the West final in back-to-back seasons, it wasn’t enough in 1993.

“I have relatives in Edmonton, and I can’t take losing to those guys anymore on Labour Day,” was what Rooke was told over and over.

Flutie had made his Labour Day debut in 1992, but the Stamps had come up short in a 34-21 loss. That was the last year the CFL didn’t schedule the Monday meeting in Calgary and Friday meeting in Edmonton.

So in 1993, the focus was on beating the Eskimos on Labour Day, and the Stamps rolled in with a 9-0 record.

The 6-3 Eskimos couldn’t stop them as Calgary picked up a 33-13 win, but four days later in Edmonton, the Stamps’ undefeated season ended with a 29-16 loss.

But 1993 was a turning point, as the Stamps started on a six-game Labour Day winning streak that included the most memorable performance in the history of the event.

On Sept. 4, 1995, Flutie was injured and couldn’t play.

A week earlier in Birmingham, Ala., Jeff Garcia came in for Flutie after he suffered an arm injury and led the Stamps to a 37-14 victory over the Barracudas.

No one was quite sure about Garcia, a red-headed squeaky-voiced kid from California who had thrown all of three passes during his rookie season in 1994.

Garcia came out in his first start with a gameplan of protecting the ball. Instead, he threw the lights out, piling up 546 yards and six touchdowns.

“We were shocked,” Danielsen said. “We knew from the week before he was a good player, but for him to do that on that stage turned everyone’s heads.

“We knew at the end of that season that Doug could go to Toronto and Jeff could take over. That was the game that changed everyone’s minds that Doug could be replaced in Calgary.”

During that six-year run of Stamps victories, the games weren’t all that close.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the Classic lived up to its name with excitement right until the end. The ending still burns with some of the Stampeders players who were on the turf. With time winding down and the home side down by three in overtime, the Stamps believed they had the game-winning touchdown.

With quarterback Mike McCoy relieving Dave Dickenson at the one-yard line, the Stamps offence plunged into the endzone for what was thought to be the winning score.

“The refs signalled we weren’t in,” Stamps Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Rocco Romano said. “We ran out of time and it ended.

“That was a tough way to lose. Being on the goal-line, we would have thought we should have punched it in.”

Romano doesn’t remember earlier Labour Day battles, but the one thing that does stick out is it was always heated and competitive.

“At that time, the two teams were battling for first or second place,” Romano said.

“The Labour Day back-to-back determined if we finished first or if they finished first. It made everything so elevated. It was the provincial Grey Cup.”

The Stamps have worn their alternate blacks for the past three Labour Day meetings with the Eskimos and nine times overall, compiling a 6-3 record.

On Monday, the current version of the threads — the third overall — will be retired as a new design is coming out next season.

The Stamps should look striking in black jerseys with red helmets, and Hopkins is bringing back the red pants for this outing. Eighteen years after their debut, the Stamps are still hoping for a boost from the black.

“Right now, the way things are going, the black jerseys are part of the Classic,” said Stamps GM-head coach John Hufnagel, who was the offensive co-ordinator in 1994 and remembers it fondly.

“The players enjoyed it. They ran with it.”


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