Nineteen eighty-four was a watershed year for the Grey Cup. It was then that the Calgary Stampeders and their fans invaded Toronto. After this invasion, it was no longer just a Grey Cup game, it was Grey Cup Week, and fun was in fashion.
To help celebrate the centennial of Canada’s national football championship, the Grey Cup Train will recreate the 1948 journey to the city on the shore of Lake Ontario. Calgary football fans who booked passage aboard the transcontinental Via special have travelled for three days to Toronto for the game on Sunday evening.
But there will be many differences between today’s train ride and that of 1948. For one, A.E. Cross and the Calgary Brewing and Malting Co. loaded hundreds of cases of beer for thirsty fans, although it proved to be insufficient to satisfy the needs of the boisterous enthusiasts intent upon cheering on “Calgary’s Galloping Cowboys,” as the Herald labelled the 1948 Stampeders. By the time the train reached Regina, a short leg in the long 3,600-kilometre trip east, all the beer had been drunk and the fans were in a state of stupor as they eyed all the empty bottles.
In 1948, Calgary fans packed all 16 cars of the nation’s first Grey Cup train. One car was devoted to square dancing “and enough horses (16) to stock most self-respecting stampedes,” according to The Stampeder Story by Gord Hunter and Keith Matthews. The party lasted from Calgary to Toronto and back again.
A Herald headline on November 26, 1948, proclaimed, Stampede Special Thunders into Toronto, disgorging 200 thunderous fans at Union Station from 17 cars. “At the drop of a 10-gallon hat, they pulled off a square dance in the station’s cavernous rounds ... there was more than one raised eyebrow among Homburg-wearing suburbanites on their way to downtown offices.”
All the fans wore “kerchiefs with ‘Stampeders’ emblazoned on them and Calgary’s red and white colours.
“One bow-legged son of the west carried a lasso with which he roped Toronto girls. One Toronto onlooker said he couldn’t figure this out because the Calgary travelling ranch had much the prettier girls.”
With an accordion providing the accompaniment, the Calgarians first sang their city’s anthem, Calgary, Where the Sun Shines All the Day, and then erupted into yet another square dance.
“A reporter asked one westerner timidly: ‘I suppose it’s ridiculous to ask who’s going to win tomorrow.’
“There was a cowboy bell and a hand like a side of western steer crashing down on the reporter’s back. ‘It certainly is, son. It certainly is.’”
The Stampeder fans were actually invigorated by the thought of revenge for a slight that had occurred 37 years earlier. In 1911, they felt that their team had been snubbed by the Canadian Rugby Union (forerunner of the CFL) when it awarded the Grey Cup to the eastern champion University of Toronto. The Calgary Tigers, which later became the Stampeders, were the western champs and had wanted a crack at the U of T, which was denied by the CRU. At the time, the Grey Cup had only been in existence for two years.
When a weak cheer arose at the Toronto train station from the back ranks for the Ottawa Roughriders, the Stampeders’ opposition in the 1948 Grey Cup, the Calgarians and the ex-pats from the western city living in Toronto, who came out to greet the train, simply ignored the “puny effort.” While their fans may have appeared less blusterous than Calgary’s, Ottawa was declared to be an 8-5 favourite to win by local bookies
When the Calgarians filed out of the train station for their hotels, they “naturally” held up all traffic on the street for 10 minutes.
“Toronto had never seen anything like it,” wrote Hunter and Matthews. “They square danced all over the place ... brought their horses into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel and had barbecues on any convenient street corner.”
“I thought the business of cowboy hats and Indians was a lot of newspaper talk,” one Torontonian said.“But these guys really meant it.”
Open pancake meals were held at city hall and normally-staid Toronto mayor Buck McCallum rode a horse in the Saturday parade, the first Grey Cup parade ever and organized by the Calgary fans.
“It’s the best show I’ve seen here in a long time,” said the Toronto mayor.
Someone described the week-long party as football and Mardi Gras all rolled into one.
Toronto’s Varsity Stadium could only hold 20,000 people and demand far outstripped the number of available seats. In fact, “no football ticket” signs hung from agency kiosks — the game was a sell-out (as is Sunday’s game at the Rogers Centre).
“One desperate individual advertised in morning newspapers that he would buy three tickets — and throw in three rail seats for Saturday night’s National Hockey League game as a bonus. Such a ply is impossible for Sunday’s game, since the NHL players and owners are engaged in a bitter labour dispute. For that matter, who would trade much-sought-after Grey Cup tickets for seats to watch the hapless Maple Leafs.
Most scalpers in 1948 were charging $5 for a $1 ticket. Some single $1 tickets were even selling for $25, an exorbitant price at the time. Those caught and arrested for scalping tickets received 10-day jail sentences under a city ordinance.
The game itself was deemed “a great show,” but it was marred by a touch of controversy. For one, Ottawa player Pete Harpuk had ignored a ball tossed in his direction in the fourth quarter thinking it would be ruled an incomplete forward pass. But after a Calgary player scooped the ball up and ran into the end zone, sealing a 12-7 victory, the officials on the field blow their whistles to signal the play dead. Instead, they ruled it a “wild lateral” and the touchdown stood.
Then there was the infamous “sleeper play’ involving 20-year-old Norm Hill, a Winnipegger playing for Calgary. Quarterback Keith Spaith completed a pass on one side of the field to Woody Strode, while Norm Hill flopped on the ground on the opposite side of the field. Hill was essentially hidden when the next play began. He sprang to his feet and before Ottawa could react he caught a hurried pass from Spaith and fell backwards into the end zone for a touchdown. The controversial “sleeper play” was banned by the league in 1961.
After the game, the goal posts came down and celebrants headed back to the Royal York Hotel where pieces of the posts were sold for a dollar a piece.
“This is where the politicians should be and see how the country is run — this is what Canada is all about and we’re one big happy family from coast to coast,” said fan Ragnar Staf during the Grey Cup festivities in 1948.
Indeed, from 1948 onward, the annual Grey Cup game has at least temporarily united all Canadians across the land.