Top 10 greatest Grey Cups

Paul Friesen

, Last Updated: 2:42 AM ET

Don't know a designated import from a designated driver?

It doesn't matter, chances are pretty good you'll be watching at least part of this week's Grey Cup game.

As the most-watched, Canadian sports event on the calendar most years, a few million people from coast-to-coast annually tune in to see what all the fuss is about.

And more often than not, the Grey Cup game delivers, keeping us interested until the final gun.

Oh, there've been a few dogs in the storied history of the Canadian Football League championship. When you've staged 93 of these things, there are bound to be some stinkers along the way.

But unlike the Super Bowl, its counterpart down south, the Grey Cup often lives up to its hype as the ultimate game of the year.

That's why picking the top-10 Grey Cup games of all time proved to be as difficult as completing a long bomb against a prevent defence in the last minute of play.

We don't shy away from a challenge, though.

So we enlisted the help of three veteran CFL observers: CBC-TV's Don Wittman, who covered 35 Grey Cups, from 1961 to 1995; TSN's Brian Williams, a former CBCer who worked some 25 championship games; and former Winnipeg Tribune sports columnist Jack Matheson, the best sportswriter these parts have ever seen, who began his 35-year Grey Cup career with the 1953 game.

Collectively, Wittman, Williams and Matty have covered some 100 Grey Cups, about as expert a panel as you could hope to find.

Coming to a consensus wasn't easy, and we're sure you'll debate some of our choices as vehemently as we did.

Here they are, nonetheless: the top-10 games in Grey Cup history. No. 1 was unanimous. After that, it was pick 'em.

Note that our list has a slight Winnipeg slant, for which we make no apologies. All three of our panelists, after all, hail from this city.

Besides, the game's here this year.

10 1961, at Toronto: Winnipeg 21, Hamilton 14 (attendance: 32,651)

OK, we're being homers here.

This might not have been one of the greatest games, but it certainly contained one of the most incredible winning touchdowns you'll ever see, by Bomber quarterback Ken Ploen.

And it came in overtime, the first time the CFL championship needed extra time to determine a winner.

"That was just an ordinary football game -- a typical Winnipeg-Hamilton game," Matheson says. "Kenny made a helluva play in the overtime. A typical Ploen play."

Avoiding tacklers as if he were Gumby, Ploen ran the ball down the sideline for the winning score.

It was Winnipeg's third title in four years.

9 1954, at Toronto: Edmonton 26, Montreal 25 (27,321)

You won't find a crazier ending to a championship game, at least not without throwing a marching band into the mix.

It appeared Montreal had it locked up, as Wittman recalls it.

"Chuck Hunsinger fumbled and Jackie Parker picked it up and ran it back 90 yards for a touchdown," Wittman says.

It remains the longest fumble return in Grey Cup history.

Sam Etcheverry's three touchdown passes also tied a championship game record for Montreal.

How would you like to be the Als' Red O'Quinn, who caught 13 passes for 316 yards, both still records, only to see his team give the game away at the end?

8 1981, at Montreal: Edmonton 26, Ottawa 23 (52,478)

Who'd have guessed that an apparent mis-match between a 14-1-1 power like the Eskimos and an also-ran like 5-11 Ottawa would produce a CFL classic?

That's exactly what happened at Olympic Stadium in '81.

And it's the type of storyline that puts this game high on Williams' list.

"It was Hugh Campbell over George Brancato at Montreal's Olympic Stadium," Williams remembers. "The Rough Riders had a dreadful regular season. They were supposed to get blown away. And they played such a great game. They led at the half. And the Eskimos came back to win it. It was a great game, a great crowd at Olympic Stadium."

Edmonton came back from a 20-1 deficit, avoiding the biggest upset in Grey Cup history.

A historic footnote to this one: it's the last time Ottawa played in a Grey Cup.

7 1976, at Toronto: Ottawa 23, Saskatchewan 20 (53,467)

Clements to Gabriel -- anyone who saw it won't soon forget one of the most exciting plays in CFL history, and the play that lifted the '76 game to legendary status.

"That's a memorable one. The play I'll always remember in Grey Cup is Tony Gabriel's catch," Williams says. "Against all odds. It's burned into my memory."

It certainly burned Saskatchewan fans.

"It looked like Saskatchewan had that game wrapped up," Wittman recalls.

Gabriel and Ottawa quarterback Tom Clements unwrapped it in dramatic fashion, pulling off their heroics in the final 20 seconds.

Anyone remember the names Bill Hatanaka or Gerry Organ, who scored the other Rough Rider points?

Nope. This one was all about the end.

"It stood out because of the way it finished," Matheson says.

6 1958, at Vancouver: Winnipeg 35, Hamilton 28 (36,567)

Often considered the most exciting Grey Cup until the 1980s shootouts, this is the first game that came to mind for Matheson, the elder statesman of our panel.

"It was just an outstanding football game," Matty recalls. "The start of the Bomber dynasty."

Two first-place teams -- Winnipeg was 13-3, Hamilton 10-3-1 -- went at it, just five days after playing their division finals.

The Bombers had actually played a two-game, total point semifinal, plus a best-of-three final, making the Grey Cup their sixth game in 22 days.

Predictably, their starting quarterback, Ken Ploen, was hurt, forcing Jim Van Pelt into action.

"He was a hell of a quarterback, too," Matheson says. "He could have played for anybody in the league."

Sure enough, Van Pelt brought the Bombers from behind, scoring two touchdowns and kicking two field goals, while Norm Rauhaus recovered a blocked kick for another Winnipeg major.

5 1987, at Vancouver: Edmonton 38, Toronto 36 (59,478)

Just another west-coast nail-biter, with another last-minute, game-winning kick, this time a 49-yarder by Edmonton's Jerry Kauric.

The fun started much earlier, though, with a 115-yard missed field goal return by CFL great Henry Gizmo Williams to open the scoring.

From there it was non-stop action, the final tally more than 800 yards in total offence.

"That one ranks right up there," Wittman says.

Gilbert Renfroe teamed with Danny Barrett to lead the Argos attack, hooking up with Gil Fenerty for a 61-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the first of three straight touchdowns for Toronto.

But quarterback Damon Allen, who came off the bench to replace Matt Dunigan, led the Esks to the comeback, and took home the game's offensive MVP award.

4 1962, at Toronto: Winnipeg 28, Hamilton 27 (32,655)

It's never happened before, and it may never happen again: a Grey Cup game that took two days to play.

That, more than anything, makes the '62 game a classic. Plus, it's got a name that'll last forever: The Fog Bowl.

"That was weird -- you couldn't see a damn thing," Matheson said. "Especially from the press box. I don't know if it was a good game or not. I didn't see it."

So we looked up a report from the web-based Canadian Encyclopedia, and here's what we found:

"...the fog rolled in from the cool waters of Lake Ontario like mustard gas over a battlefield. On the field, a really fine game was underway. Garney Henley of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats ran for two touchdowns, Bobby Kuntz another. Leo Lewis of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers answered with two touchdowns of his own and tossed another to Charlie Shephard. Most of this was lost to the fans in the stands and to television viewers, including those in the United States who were watching on Wide World of Sports."

CFL commissioner Sydney Halter finally stopped the game with 9:29 to go, Winnipeg leading 28-27.

The game resumed the next day, nobody scored and the Bombers had their fourth title in five years.

Former Eskimos great Jackie Parker, who drove 17 hours from his home in Tennessee to watch the game, summed it up best: "That was the best ball game I never saw."

3 1994, at Vancouver: B.C. 26, Baltimore 23 (55,097)

The CFL was at the height of its U.S. experiment -- and Canadians were bound and determined to prevent those damn Yankees from taking our Cup.

That's why the atmosphere at B.C. Place on Nov. 27, 1994, was different than it had ever been for a Grey Cup.

The Lions were not only the home city's team, they had the entire country behind them.

If you'd written a story-book ending, how would it have gone?

"Playing at home and having the opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal on the final play," Wittman says, describing exactly what happened that day.

Down 20-10 midway through the third quarter, the Lions outscored the Stallions 16-3 down the stretch, the winning points coming off the toe of hometown favourite Lou Passaglia -- with no time on the clock.

This was no aerial circus, though.

B.C. head coach Dave Ritchie's crew relied on running backs Sean Millington and Cory Philpot, also known as Thunder and Lightning.

The duo pounded out 194 yards along the ground, a shocking total, given the supposed advantage held by the all-import Baltimore defence.

It was a victory for Canadian football, albeit short-lived.

Alas, a year later the Stallions captured the Cup, after all.

2 2005, at Vancouver: Edmonton 38, Montreal 35 (59,157)

Not everyone will agree with this one, but give it some time to age and last year's game will take on the shine of any of the classics.

It had all the ingredients: a packed house at B.C. Place, two quarterbacks on top of their game and the requisite dramatic finish.

For just the second time in 93 years, the game went into overtime, where the Eskimos Sean Fleming finally wrapped it up with a 36-yard field goal, giving Edmonton its second title in three years.

If that wasn't enough, there were six lead changes and a record 96-yard kickoff return by Edmonton's Tony Tompkins.

The significance of this game went beyond the action on the field, though.

"More than excitement, it ranks in importance, (proving) the Grey Cup can come back to Vancouver and be successful," Williams says. "Because the last time it was in Vancouver, in '99... the army had to fill the seats. They couldn't sell it out. I found last year significant... for the fact the game was a sellout in one of the two major English markets."

Next year, the other one gets its chance.

We can only hope Toronto gets a game half as good as this one.

1 1989, at Toronto: Saskatchewan 43, Hamilton 40 (attendance: 54,088)

"That might have been the best football game I've seen," Matheson says of the '89 classic, an opinion echoed many times over the years.

A Tiger-Cats team that went 12-6 had its hands full with a Roughriders franchise that went 9-9 that year and had just one Grey Cup victory in its history, and that was 23 years earlier.

That didn't matter, at least not after Hamilton jumped out to a 13-1 first-quarter lead.

The two teams would trade touchdowns and highlight-reel plays for the next two quarters, setting the stage for one of the most exciting finishes in CFL championship history.

Just when it appeared the Roughriders might have their long-awaited sip of champagne, Hamilton quarterback Mike Kerrigan found a leaping Tony Champion in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 44 seconds left.

No problem: 'Riders quarterback Kent Austin simply drove his team into position for the game-winning field goal, a 35-yarder by Dave Ridgway, with two seconds on the clock.

"The most exciting one I watched," Wittman says. "The way the teams just kept going back and forth, and scoring. There were a number of outstanding catches. And then it came down to a Ridgway field goal. It was just a wonderful, wonderful game. For so many reasons."

Williams' lasting memory of this one came from the face of the losing coach, Hamilton's Al Bruno.

"I'll always remember the look on Al Bruno's face when that field goal went through," Williams says. "Disbelief. Shock and disbelief."

With a southern Ontario team taking on 'Rider Nation, which has fans across the country, there was no shortage of noise in the SkyDome, either.

"It was deafening. Just deafening," Williams said.

Put it all together, and you've got the greatest Grey Cup game of them all.

Paul Friesen is the Winnipeg Sun's sports columnist. He can be reached at 632-2788 or by e-mail at pfriesen@wpgsun.com.


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