Scene and heard: Rocky's road

AL RUCKABER -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:38 AM ET

Al Ruckaber, the first sports editor of the Calgary Sun, covered the Calgary Stampeders and Canadian Football League for 24 years until his retirement in April 2003.

Today, Rocky, as he is known to many, will be inducted into the media section of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

We tracked him down at his home in Powell River, B.C., and asked him to share his favourite Grey Cup memories with us.

- - -

In April 2003, I retired from sports writing after nearly four decades of working in the 'toy department.'

For the final 26 years of that joy ride, I had worked for the Calgary Sun and its predecessor, the Calgary Albertan.

For 24 of those years I was the football beat writer covering the Stampeders and the Canadian Football League.

On retirement, I received what I believed was the absolute, ultimate reward for years of covering the CFL. The Stampeders' then- president Stan Schwartz and vice-president Ron Rooke, presented me with a personally inscribed 2001 Grey Cup championship ring. It was believed to be the first one presented to a media member covering the Stampeders.

It is, and will always be, my most treasured possession. I never believed anything could top it in my sportswriting career.

Until now.

Today I am being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, media section, by the Football Reporters of Canada.

This is indeed the ultimate honour, one that cannot be surpassed. I am extremely humbled to be included in the Hall of Fame among media legends, such as Jim Coleman, Trent Frayne, Jim Hunt, Eric Bishop, Annis Stukus, Ken Newans, Hal Walker, Ted Reeve and so many other deserving inductees.

Words can only vaguely express my feelings on the induction. It was something I only dreamed about during my nearly quarter of a century covering the CFL.

This afternoon, as part of the induction, I will be given a seat in the press box for the annual Grey Cup. It will likely be my last time. When I get into the press box, I know memories will begin to flood back -- all those Grey Cups of the past I covered.

A '70S PARTY LEGEND IS BORN

The 1978 game in Toronto was the most memorable because it was the first Grey Cup I covered. That was the year the Edmonton Eskimos began their amazing five-year reign as champions, defeating the Alouettes 20-13. There were more than 54,000 people in attendance -- the most people I'd ever seen in one place at one time in my life.

That was also the time I came of age as a legitimate Grey Cup media party reveler. I learned very quickly you work like a dog all day and get your copy in before deadline. Then, at night, it was time to party.

In those days, it was the old 'ya gotta play hurt' philosophy in the media.

TWO OF THE BEST -- '81 AND '89

In those earlier years, two of the most exciting Grey Cups ever were played -- 1981 and 1989.

In 1981, the lowly Ottawa Rough Riders were facing the powerful Eskimos, who were in the midst of their five-year Cup dynasty. The Eskimos were prohibitive favourites yet the Rough Riders, led by QB J.C. Watts, battled the Eskimos right to the end. Dave Cutler needed a field goal in the dying seconds to pull out a 26-23 victory for the Eskimos.

At the 1989 affair, regarded by many as the best Grey Cup game of all time, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats battled in an offensive marathon that was decided on the last play of the game. Dave Ridgway kicked the winning field goal for a 43-40 Roughriders victory.

TOUGH TIMES IN 1991

But, my most vivid Grey Cup memories were of the Stampeders.

One was a sad memory.

In 1991, the Stampeders, under second-year head coach, Wally Buono, had qualified for the Grey Cup for the first time since 1971. And they hadn't won since then.

At that time, I had already been covering the Stampeders for 13 years, the vast majority of which was an exercise in futility. The Stampeders had been very bad throughout the 1980s and had changed head coaches, general managers, presidents and other administrators on an almost yearly basis.

Finally, after 20 years of frustration, the Stamps had made it. Sadly, I never got to see the game. During the Grey Cup week in Winnipeg, I received a phone call from my mother telling me my beloved father, Bill, had passed away.

I immediately flew home to Medicine Hat to be with my mother and family.

The Stampeders wound up losing the game 36-21 to the Toronto Argonauts but I had lost much more.

STAMPS BREAK DROUGHT -- 1992

The Stampeders would get back to the Grey Cup the very next year -- and this time the mighty curse was lifted. In 1992, the Stamps won their first Grey Cup in 21 years, easily defeating Winnipeg 24-10 at Toronto's Skydome.

In the winners' dressing room after the game, my most vivid recollection was of long-time Stampeders' equipment manager, George Hopkins.

There was perhaps no one individual more overjoyed with the Stamps' Grey Cup victory than Hoppy.

He'd been the longest-serving member of the Stampeders' organization, dating back to the late 1970s. I'd made a point of interviewing Hoppy after the game in the champagne-soaked locker-room. I believed if anybody deserved that day, it was Hoppy.

TRULY GOOFY COFFEE CAPER

Perhaps the most exciting Stampeders Grey Cup victory I covered was the 1998 affair. The Stamps defeated Hamilton 26-24 on a Mark McLoughlin field goal on the last play of the game at Winnipeg Stadium.

How can I ever forget that game? Just as the whistle had blown for the opening kickoff, my Calgary Sun compatriot, Eric Francis, reached for my coffee cup to move it. It spilled all over my computer, immediately frying the hard-drive. It was truly a panic point.

Somehow among the other Sun writers there, including Jim Taylor and Randy Sportak, I managed to jump from computer to computer and file my six stories.

ONE LAST TIME -- A 2001 UPSET

Then came the classic 2001 game at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The Stampeders, who'd stumbled through the season with an 8-10 record, had barely qualified for the playoffs.

Then they began a fabulous run through the West semifinal and final, to qualify for the Grey Cup against a talented, powerful Winnipeg Blue Bombers team.

The Bombers were heavy favourites but the Stampeders pulled off one of the major upsets in Grey Cup history, winning 27-19.

That would be the last time I would cover the Stampeders in the Grey Cup.

GIVING THANKS

As I look back over all those years on this humbling day of my induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, I think of all the great people with whom I've had the honour of working over the years. That was particularly so at the Calgary Sun. Class people such as: Publisher Guy Huntingford, one of the fairest, most honourable administrators for whom I've ever worked; assistant managing editor, Martin Hudson, who was my last sports editor before I retired and who is the possessor of the most off-beat and unique sense of humour I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing; Dave Veitch, the present Sun sports editor, a good man who was always there to support me; and good guys such as Dan Toth, Ian Busby, Eric Francis, Randy Sportak, Jim Taylor and Scott Fisher, with whom I worked for many years.

And on the national media front, there were many friendships established over the years. Fine fellows such as Graham Kelly, who sat beside me in the McMahon Stadium press box throughout all those years and was my sounding board and confidante, Darrell Davis, J. Paul McConnell, Terry Jones, Alan Maki, Perry Lefko, Murray Rauw, Bob Hughes, Mark Stephen, Bill Powers, Cam Cole, Ron Barnett and so many more.

To all of these people, I say thank you. I am a better person for having known you all.

After today, I take my leave of the press box and return to my retirement home in the beautiful little city of Powell River, B.C., where I have a heritage home overlooking the ocean and a 30-ft. sports cabin-cruiser.

I leave knowing I have realized my ultimate goal -- entrance into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

It's all good. As good as it gets.


Videos

Photos