Manitobans can be forgiven for being envious of our neighbours to the west. After all, Regina is not only hosting the 101st Grey Cup, but the Saskatchewan Roughriders will represent the West in the national football final against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this year had the dubious distinction of sporting the worst regular season record in the CFL at 3-15.
But for all the futility of the past season, there is one fact that remains — Winnipeg was this nation’s first western-based team to win the Grey Cup. Many western teams had tried for 12 years, including Regina, but the Winnipeg Football Club (the team name was the Winnipegs, or the ’Pegs, since Blue Bombers hadn’t yet been adopted) was the trailblazer. And it didn’t come easy, as the ’Pegs took their opportunity to uphold western pride extremely seriously, and prepared for the Grey Cup game in a way never before witnessed in Canadian football history.
“Perhaps it’s the west’s year,” speculated Canadian Press sportswriter Ray Collett in 1935. “Time after time the football monarchs of the prairies have travelled east in their courageous efforts to bring the Earl Grey trophy from its time-worn resting place ... Time after time they have returned empty-handed, licking their football wounds, frustrated once again in a quest that has become mania in the west.”
Collett wrote that “there will be plenty of easterners willing to give (the) ’Pegs an even chance to do what no western team has done before. A line bristling with power, a backfield with terrific plunging might and some brilliant runners — plus a well-groomed forward passing offence and defence, tells the story. Oja, Marquardt, Mogul, Kushner, Kabat, with Fritz and Eddie James riding the plunger engine, and Rebholz and little Fritzie Hanson to round the ends — they are boys to watch.”
The western final was weeks earlier than the eastern final, so the Winnipeg team headed to Detroit — away from prying eyes — to prepare for the championship game. Two players were sent to scout the eastern final and reported back to coach Fritz to perfect a defensive scheme to stop the vaunted Tigers’ attack. Winnipeg also played an exhibition game against Assumption College to ensure they remained in game shape.
“Unbeaten and untied ... this year, the Winnipeg Rugby club is a much discussed aggregation in eastern Canada today,” wrote Winnipeg Free Press sportswriter E.A. Armstrong. “Having watched Hamilton Tigers out fumble the Sarnia Imperials in Toronto Saturday afternoon, on a perfect gridiron, this observer is left with only one bewildering question: ‘How much effectiveness, if any, have the ’Pegs lost as a result of the unforced lay-off since November 7.’”
After a week of practice, ’Pegs manager Joe Ryan declared: “The boys are about ready to blitz one another’s heads off and for two pins they’d masticate me, too. It’s a good sign. The players are in fine condition ... right now they are in what you might call ‘fighting trim.’”
Free Press sports writer Bob Moir in a November 28, 1953, article, recounted the drama of the 1935 Grey Cup: “It was December 7, 1935 ... It was Fritzie Hanson’s touchdown in the third quarter of the 1935 Grey Cup final which led (the) Winnipegs to an 18-12 victory over the Hamilton Tigers. Nine thousand persons ... sat in on the turning point in Canadian football. The stage was set for the most electrifying run in Canadian football history.”
Canadian Press sports writer Elmer Dulmnage witnessed and described the epic play: “It was the blond Hanson, former North Dakota State college star, who dominated a thrilling struggle with sensational sprints through the broken field ... A towering impregnable wingline backed by burly Bert Oja, and a well-equipped backfield that carried every attacking weapon except the punt, provided the 145-pound Hanson with great support. But Fritzies’ twinkling toes (“Twinkle Toes” was a nickname he carried from that point onward) were the deciding factor. The most deadly tackling squadron in the east ... was helpless to do anything about Hanson. They flung themselves in his path — or what looked to be his path.”
He wrote that the Winnipegs were struggling to maintain their lead, “when the North Dakotan made his climaxing moves, a lightning-like stab that brought the crowd up howling for the little man who moves faster than any in the Canadian sport.”
Prior to the run, the Winnipegs had been pushed back to their 30-yard line by Hamilton punting. “Then (Huck) Welch punted a low ball that bounced along into Hanson’s arms. Two tacklers were on the little man, who sidestepped them. He swung over to centre and started to run. Down the middle of the field he raced so fast that not a single hand was laid on him.”
Vince Leah, author of A History of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, wrote that Hanson was surrounded by a ring of Hamilton tacklers, “skidding to a stop on the icy gridiron to prevent a no-yards penalty. Before the defence knew what had happened Hanson burst through the middle and raced for a touchdown.”
Newspapers reported telegrams came from across Canada congratulating the Winnipegs. “The game was over not a second when the first tidal wave of exulting enthusiasm engulfed the city. On it rolled, touching, it seemed, everyone ... They yelled. And after all, when a rugby team, in winning the Canadian championship, does something that no western aggregate has ever done before, it’s something to yell about” (Free Press).
Trent Frayne in a November 24, 1990, Globe and Mail article, wrote that Hanson was the nation’s first football hero and the Winnipegs’ gave the Grey Cup its national presence. He discounted the claim that when the Calgary Stampeders’ and their fans’ arrived in Toronto in 1948 — sporting 10-gallon cowboy hats and a Wild West attitude — it marked the beginning of the Grey Cup as a national event. “In truth, the year that turned everything around was 1935, when Hanson and his playmates invaded Hamilton, he brought off a one-man show. So it was the pivotal year because it marked the first time the West had won. Overnight, a quasi-national event of modest repute swept 2,000 miles west all the way to the foothills and eventually became, in the enduring words of former Globe and Mail sports columnist Dick Beddoes, the Grand National Drunk we know today.”
Bruce Kidd, the famous Canadian runner and author, named the 1935 Grey Cup as one of the greatest Canadian events of the 20th century in a National Post article. “The Grey Cup really became a national championship when the West joined up and became competitive,” wrote Kidd. “That win was a symbolic coming of age for Western Canada.”
It’s a legacy that may not take the sting out of having to watch the Grey Cup game this Sunday after suffering through a dismal season, but Manitobans should remember with pride that their team was the first western side to win the “Big Game.”