Evolution of the Banjo Bowl

KIRK PENTON -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET

It was Halloween 2003, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were gearing up for their Nov. 2 playoff date with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Bombers placekicker/punter Troy Westwood gently nudged a couple of reporters doing interviews and said 'Come see me when you're done."

Westwood's words that afternoon were a treat to some and a trick to others. It all depended upon which side of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border you lived.

"I had referred to the people of Saskatchewan as a bunch of banjo-picking inbreds," Westwood said that afternoon in the Bomber locker-room. "I was wrong to make such a statement, and I'd like to apologize.

"The vast majority of the people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo."

And with that, the CFL's best rivalry was re-ignited.

David Asper, the local media mogul who also sat on the Winnipeg Football Club board of directors in 2003, had been trying for a while to come up with an idea for a home-and-home series between the Bombers and Roughriders.

The Labour Day Classic was set in stone for Regina, and the WFC was trying to find something to complement that clash the following week in Winnipeg.

"The concept behind it was to create a signature game and to ensure that we had the back-to-back (games)," Bombers president and CEO Lyle Bauer said. "I mean, we'd love to have the Labour Day game here, but I'm not sure the 'Riders would be enthralled with that.

"As a matter of fact, we've talked about that at a board table, and they pretty much get ready to leave the league."

Added Asper: "We were still very much in the turnaround (financially) of the football team at that point, and we needed to create some excitement."

Asper, in fact, had already researched several U.S. college football rivalries and the fun and games that surround them.

"And then, out of the blue, Troy shot his mouth off," Asper said.

Asper walked into Lyle Bauer's office one day the following spring and said, "We're calling it the Banjo Bowl."

"Are you serious?" Bauer responded.

"Yes, I'm serious," Asper said.

Not only that, but Asper's newspaper, the National Post, would donate $10,000 to the United Way in the city of the winning team.

And with that, the Banjo Bowl was born.

Many folks in Saskatchewan weren't too pleased with Westwood's comments or the Banjo Bowl itself, and some of them are still upset about it today.

"It doesn't show a quality league to me, a family league," said Steinbach resident and Saskatchewan native Jeff King, 38. "It's brutal the comments I get at the game. My mom would want to leave."

Which is too bad, because it raises money for charity and injects cash into both provinces' economies.

"It is all in good fun," Bauer said. "I mean, I'm from Saskatchewan, and I don't play the banjo, right? And my mother and father weren't brother and sister. And it's the same with (GM) Brendan (Taman).

"It's a lot of fun. It's a heated rivalry, and it's two community owned teams that have great similarities and have fabulous fans. We're great partners certainly at a league level, but we're unbelievable competitors.

"It's good. That's what the game's all about."

The Roughriders didn't think calling it the Banjo Bowl was good fun, however.

"The league said yeah, that sounds like a good idea," Asper said, "and the Riders organization, in particular I think it was (GM Roy) Shivers and (coach Danny) Barrett, got their knickers in a knot."

So Asper said he commissioned -- at his own expense -- a survey of fan attitudes towards the Banjo Bowl in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"What we found was that, not surprisingly, the fans are football fans," he said. "They accept it as a friendly, fun rivalry and did not take offence to the name Banjo Bowl."

To appease the Roughriders organization, Asper said, he agreed to call the inaugural game in 2004 the National Post Charity Banjo Bowl.

"My attitude was I don't really care what the Riders think," Asper said. "We wanted to have them believe that we were kind of together, so Year 1 we gave (Charity in the title) to them.

"In Year 2 we dropped it."

The first Banjo Bowl was played before 27,160 spectators at Canad Inns Stadium on Sept. 12, 2004, and the Bombers won 27-24.

Banjo Bowl II, played last Sept. 10, was won 19-17 by the Roughriders and witnessed by an overflow crowd of 29,653.

To this day, it's the only time the Stadium has been sold out since Oct. 12, 2002, and it bodes well for the future of the Banjo Bowl.

"It's starting to become and take on a life of its own, which is exactly what I had hoped would happen," Asper said. "Whether the Bombers win or not, a United Way is a beneficiary.

"So it's good for the fans, it's good for the community, and it's good for the football team, because people are starting to get excited about it and want to be at that game."

As the third annual Banjo Bowl approaches, Westwood still shakes his head when he reminded that there is an annual CFL game named after something he said.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "Maybe when I'm 50 years old or whatever I'll be sitting in the stands at the Banjo Bowl. It's pretty cool.

"It's a lot of fun, and a lot of people are just embracing the rivalry. It kind of faded there for a while when we were in the East for a long time. It's just good to see the fans really embracing the rivalry again."

Westwood had actually called the people of Saskatchewan banjo-pickin' inbreds in August 2003, just before the Labour Day Classic, but apparently no one - not even Bomber fans - found it funny.

"It went completely ignored," he said.

So he fine-tuned it a bit and ran it by his old punting buddy, Bob Cameron, before relaying it to the media.

"It was actually a comment that I had had in my head for a while, and I told Cameron about it," Westwood said. "He said, 'I wouldn't say that.'

"But I just thought it was so funny that I couldn't keep it to myself anymore."


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