Grey Cup a wartime morale-booster
By PETER WORTHINGTON, QMI Agency
|The Toronto RCAF Hurricanes won the Grey Cup in 1942.
Almost forgotten, or at least overlooked, in this year’s 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup, are the wartime years 1942-44, when the championship game was confined to military teams.
It seems somewhat quaint, looking back 70 years, but those wartime teams involved some of the most storied football players of their day who had enlisted for war and who, today, are enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame: Annis Stukus, Joe Krol, Brian Timmis and, of course, Jake Gaudaur, a wartime pilot who went on to become the longest reigning commissioner of the Canadian Football League (CFL): 1968-84.
Gaudaur died in 2007, a quiet man not given to vanity of excessive talk.
Rather than suspend the Grey Cup in the midst of World War II — as was done from 1916 to 1919 in World War I — military bases around the country began forming teams, many built around players who had joined up.
Even then, the Grey Cup was a national institution and wartime morale-builder.
In 1942, coached by Lew Hayman, the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes beat the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 8-5, with the game broadcast to service personnel in Britain. Some 12,500 attended the game.
Then in 1943, the Hamilton Flying Wildcats defeated the heavily favoured Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 23-14 — thanks in part to Hamilton’s legendary quarterback Krol.
The team was coached by Timmis, who was a member of the 1932 Grey Cup champion Hamilton Tigers.
Some 16,500 attended that game, played in Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.
The wartime Grey Cup winner that I remember most clearly was the Cinderella St. Hyacinthe-Donnacona Navy team of 1944 — a grab bag of high school and intermediate players who’d joined the Navy and were forged by playing coach Glen Brown into a team that believed in itself when few others did.
They weren’t given a chance. How could they even challenge the Hamilton RCAF Wildcats, led by Canada’s most famous football player, the great Krol?
In fact the Navy won that game 7-6 — the only time an eastern team has been in the final against another eastern team. And the only time Krol, who played in seven Grey Cups, ever was on the losing side in a championship game.
The Grey Cup itself, in 1944, was shipped to Naval Headquarters to be kept until the next year. But an admiral who cared little about sports sent it back. Several times, back and forth, the distinguished Cup was exchanged, eventually to reside at CFL headquarters.
So sure were Canadians that the Navy No-Names would lose the celebrated game, that fewer than 4,000 saw the game — the last time attendance at a Grey Cup game was below 10,000.
In those days, I was a 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, training in telegraphy at HMCS St. Hyacinthe, and later as a telegraphist air gunner in the Fleet Air Arm at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
My best friend at the time was another young seaman from Montreal — Mickey McFall — who played on that Navy team. McFall was a great athlete — a two-way offensive-defensive lineman, and a star at Montreal Catholic High School. He was also a Golden Gloves heavyweight boxer and star basketball player.
After the war, he got a full football scholarship at North Carolina State University, and had a brief career playing for the inaugural Montreal Alouettes in 1946.
In between, he earned a business degree.
At 18, he was the youngest person ever to play in a Grey Cup game.
For 39 years McFall had an accounting career with Bell Canada, including three years in Saudi Arabia. He lived in Oakville, and for years I intended to look him up — but never did, to my eternal regret. Only while researching this article did I learn that last year he had died. He was 85.
In the Navy, I was sort of McFall’s shadow. He was immensely strong, and was something of a peace-maker when inevitable squabbles broke out among fellow trainees — a mixture of Canadian and British sailors, all intent on being naval airmen.
We trained in Fairey Swordfish — an open-cockpit biplane left over from World War I and something of an heirloom in World War II. We were TAGs, relegated to the rear cockpit and expected to maintain communications via a Morse Code keyboard and a Lewis machine gun that pointed backwards.
McFall was proud of having played on a team that won the Grey Cup. All of us who knew him were proud of that Navy team that defied the odds.
In 1969, 25 years after winning the Cup, it was realized that the only thing players on that team got for their feat was a small crest to put on a windbreaker. By then, Gaudaur was CFL commissioner and he arranged for a Grey Cup ring be specially made for each Navy player.
A nice gesture, you say? Agreed, but it would have been an even nicer gesture if the league had paid for the rings instead of charging each player $300.
Since it was inaugurated in 1909, the Grey Cup has had colourful moments —including being broken several times, stolen a couple of times and held for ransom. But arguably one of the more unusual moments was when a gaggle of Navy recruits came together and, against all expectations, won Canada’s most prized football trophy.
In 1995, the Navy team was inducted into the Armed Forces Hall of Fame.