My first Grey Cup was 1973 — and I knew I’d never want to miss another.
They called it the Grand National Drunk back then and it was. But at my first, it took awhile to get to that point.
You see, the Edmonton Eskimos hadn’t been to a Grey Cup game since 1960. And there they were in Toronto, where the Grey Cup had been a major event ever since 1948, when a train-load of Calgary fans came East and showed staid ol’ Trawna how to party.
I’d pounded the typewriter to produce more paragraphs than I’d ever written in one week, including filing a long list of predictions from anybody who was anybody (including, if I remember the year correctly, a Playboy centrefold by the name of Barbi Benton who made the scene). I’d made trip after trip to the telegraph office to file copy when it was getting late on Friday night and, finally (there were no Sunday papers then) I was ready to be part of the party.
One last call to the sports department to confirm the arrival of my copy, and look out Grey Cup, here comes the 25-year-old kid from Lacombe.
“Got everything?” I inquired.
“We’re good,” said the sports editor. “But front page hasn’t seen your Miss Grey Cup story yet.”
Miss Eskimo had won Miss Grey Cup!
I hadn’t covered the event. But with Edmonton finally in the game again, Miss Eskimo winning Miss Grey Cup was apparently front page news. It was midnight in Toronto and I had to begin an exhaustive search to find her.
That first year I became acquainted with the official motto of the Football Reporters of Canada, that there are two things you don’t want to take to the Grey Cup:
1. Your wife.
2. Your team.
3. Not in that order.
Nine of my first 10 Grey Cups featured my team. But I did manage to do significant research on the Grand National Party part of proceedings, to be considered something of an expert on the subject over the years, I suppose.
Maybe not in the same way as the late Tiger Goldstick of CFRN TV, who had an amazing consecutive Grey Cup streak of scrapping with somebody and showing up the next day with his hand bandaged.
Or the late Hal Walker, of the Calgary Herald, who did double duty as host of the Schenley Suite and understandably didn’t make it through many Grey Cups without somebody having to take on the responsibility of writing his column.
For the first few Grey Cups in Toronto, it was a sensational scene, as was the case in Vancouver, when ex-Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Bud Grant was taking Minnesota Viking teams to Super Bowls. He would go out of his way to tell media members that, yes, it was quite a party, but that it couldn’t really compare to a Grey Cup in Canada.
When I came in, it was East vs. West in a much bigger way than it is now.
Fans were given ‘Turncoat’ cardboard football cutouts with ‘West’ printed on one side and ‘East’ on the other, which they wore all week. Even if your most hated rival won the West that year, fans from other cities went to the Grey Cup to support them as their own. It wasn’t so much a geographical division as a very real part of Canadiana which still exists but was worn proudly on your person, back when fans didn’t wander around wearing team sweaters and costumes.
There would be years when Vancouver and Toronto became Grey Cup party poopers, including the saddest scene of all in Toronto in 1989, when Saskatchewan fans flooded to the Centre of the Universe and experienced so little Grey Cup atmosphere that they’d go back to their hotel rooms and take off their green paraphernalia.
But if the Grey Cup experience wasn’t quite what it once was for a while there, it was Prairie folk who brought it back.
That was the case when the rootin’, tootin’ Calgarians made the scene in 1948 and kept returning with or without their team, with the chuckwagons, free flapjacks and sausages grilled on the streets and horses in hotel lobbies. It was Grey Cups in Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary and especially Edmonton that brought it all back.
The first Grey Cup ever held in the Prairie provinces was in Calgary in 1975 and it wasn’t such a success that somebody said ‘Gee, we gotta hurry back here and do this again and again.’
It was c-c-c-c-cold. I remember scraping the windows in the press box at -15 C, inspiring one press-box inhabitant who had brought along a flask of Schenley anti-freeze to wonder aloud if he should pour it on the windows so he could watch the game, or drink it so that it didn’t matter.
But that Grey Cup played well in Edmonton. The 9-8 win over Montreal was the Eskimos first Grey Cup victory since the three in a row in 1954-55-56.
Another Grey Cup wasn’t awarded to a Prairie team until 1984 in Edmonton. That was the one which inspired the idea of doing it again and again.
(I always felt I played my own part early in the week toward achieving that success. At the time, Edmonton had ridiculously early bar closing hours and the Schenley people didn’t want the police to show up at their suite. The light bulb came on and I took a dozen scribes, broadcasters, football executives and even a kicker over to the police station where they signed us in and welcomed us in fine Grey Cup spirit to experience their 24-hour bar.)
Next thing you knew, we were going to Winnipeg and even Regina, places nobody ever thought there would be a Grey Cup.
In the last 20 years, 11 of the games have been on the Prairies and they’ve all been among the most successful — Winnipeg in 1991, Calgary in 1993, Regina in 1995, Edmonton in 1997, Winnipeg in 1998, Calgary in 2000, Edmonton in 2002, Regina in 2003, Winnipeg in 2006 and Calgary and Edmonton back-to-back in 2009-2010.
One of the most successful was the Party In Your Parka Grey Cup here in 1997, when Montreal decided they couldn’t properly play host to the game and Edmonton had nine months to give birth to the event.
The Eskimos expected to be in the game but lost the Western Final at home to Saskatchewan. Riders’ GM Al Ford purchased an ad in the Sun thanking Edmonton for the experience.
“It was a first-class event run by first-class people in a first-class city. This spirit in which Edmonton embraced Rider Pride was overwhelming. The volunteers and organizing committee of Grey Cup ‘97, the Eskimos organization and the citizens of Edmonton all made our stay in Edmonton memorable.”
Don Wittman, the late CBC sportscaster who called the play-by-play of 25 consecutive Grey Cup games, made this comment after that Party In Your Parka Grey Cup: “Of all the Grey Cups I’ve been to, the two held in Edmonton rank right at the top. I’d have to rank the two in Edmonton as 1-2.”
The late Jim Hunt, who wrote a column in the Edmonton Sun saying there should never be playoff games on the Prairies, reminisced about that one, too. “I was covering my 49th Grey Cup in Edmonton and while the game was anti-climactic, Edmonton gave us one of the great Grey Cup weeks ever.
“The best two Grey Cups I’ve ever been to have been in the West — Edmonton and Regina. And as for that one in Edmonton, there’s never been a better one.”
John Tory, CFL president at the time, agreed. “A Grey Cup has never been done any better. A Grey Cup has never been that successful financially and it was absolutely first-class. If you had to print a handbook on how to run a Grey Cup, the first three chapters would be Edmonton.”
In 2002, Edmonton had to top it. And did. With a halftime show featuring Shania Twain singing and somebody winning $6.49 million in a live-and-in-person special 6/49 Lottery drawing —and the Eskimos becoming the first Prairie team to make it into a home Grey Cup game — it was pretty much built in.
Other than that one fake punt decision by Eskimos coach Tom Higgins and the home team losing the game, it was once again reviewed as a wonderful week.
“We expected to make two million, hoped to make three and ended up making almost four,” announced CEO Hugh Campbell.
There have been a string of exceptional Grey Cup hostings since then including outstanding jobs by both Toronto and Vancouver, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the reviews are like when it’s over.
Again it’s virtually built in as fans from near and far, having experienced previous Grey Cups, sold the game out by the start of training camp, breaking the Labour Day week sellout record set by Calgary. The Eskimos have budgeted to make $5.3 million on this one and plan on an even better show.
Fans, including several sportswriters, will return home with stories to tell.