The Grey Cup — North American football’s oldest national championship

by Bruce Cherney

The football gods didn’t shine on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who failed to make the Canadian Football League play-offs this year. 

The Bombers’ last Grey Cup win was over a decade ago in 1990. 

But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some good news announced for CFL fans in Winnipeg. League officials have announced that 

Winnipeg will be the site of the 

94th edition of Canada’s Grey Cup to be played on November 19, 2006.

“Winnipeg is the right choice for the 2006 Grey Cup,” said CFL commissioner Tom Wright. “The team, the province and the city are ready to showcase the very best of the Canadian game.”

Both Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said their respective governments will be putting up $1.55 million each that the league needs as a guarantee for hosting the annual extravaganza.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to showcase some of Winnipeg’s best qualities — the hospitality of our citizens, the spirit of our volunteers, and the energy of a city that knows how to throw a party,” said Katz.

The 94th Grey Cup will be played at Canad Inn Stadium, which will be temporarily expanded for the national championship to host fans from across Canada. 

While specific details of the Grey Cup Festival will be announced at a later date, club chairman, Gene Dunn, said, “With the full cooperation and support of Mayor Sam Katz, Premier Gary Doer and our hundreds of dedicated volunteers, we are committed to presenting a Grey Cup event that all CFL fans and Canadians will enjoy.”

The last time Winnipeg hosted the Grey Cup was in 1998 when the crowd of some 34,000 people was the lowest in 23 years for the event. About 7,000 seats went unsold.

Bomber officials said the low turnout was because of the cold and the short time frame allowed for planning the Grey Cup. This time around, there are two years available for planning.

When Winnipeg hosted the Grey Cup in 1991, the stands were filled with 51,985 spectators and a profit of $985,000 was realized, but this money was turned over to the league to help struggling franchises.

Since the league is on more solid footing this time around, the Bombers should be reaping the benefits of good gate receipts.

Last year, when Saskatchewan hosted the Grey Cup, they had a profit of $2 million.

This year’s Grey Cup, the 92nd, will be played in Ottawa’s Frank Clair Stadium on November 21 at 4:30 p.m.

The 2005 Grey Cup is slated for Vancouver’s B.C. Place.

The Grey Cup, the prize emblematic of Canadian football supremacy, has had a storied and controversial history, and each year resurrects the fortunes of three-down professional football played in this country.

This football season has been little different from years past — the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats have substantially increased their fan bases under new management. A year ago, both ran into ownership problems and their operations were taken over by the league. B.C. is also thriving after years of poor attendance and finished first in the West.

Canadians en masse will be glued to their TV sets on November 21 to witness what has annually been the biggest single Canadian sporting event of the year.

The Grey Cup was originally to be a prize for hockey. But, Sir H. Montagu Allan had beat Lord Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada, to the punch.

The Allan Cup would come to symbolize excellence in amateur hockey. Faced with this dilemma, Grey had the next option of making his cup available for supremacy in amateur rugby-football. 

Perhaps because of his receiving the next best thing in amateur sports in Canada, the governor general put the commissioning of the new cup in the back of his mind. Two weeks before the championship game, he had to be reminded that a cup was to be made available to the winner. Yet, no one had placed an order with a 

silversmith, so the University of Toronto, the winners of the first Grey Cup, had to wait a few months before they had the actual cup in their hands.

And, when they received the 

cup valued at $48 from Lord Grey, the university side was surprised to see that a plaque on its base proclaimed the Hamilton Tigers the 1908 Canadian football champions even though the idea of a championship cup had only come about in 1909.

The trustees of the cup recognized the plaque as invalid but 

decided to do nothing about it.

This was just one of many misadventures for the Grey Cup — and the championship game — through its nearly 100-year history.

In 1947, the Grey Cup was nearly destroyed by fire while on display at the Toronto Argonaut Rowing Club. It was slightly tarnished, but it survived.

Edmonton players have been quite hard on the cup. In 1987, it was broken when a celebrating Eskimo sat on it. Tape held the neck in place until it was won by the Toronto Argonauts in 1991. It was again broken when Edmonton player Blake Dermott headbutted it. 

On February 16, 1970, the Toronto police contacted Greg Fulton, then secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Football League, and reported a strange call they had received. The caller told the police to go to a telephone booth at the corner of Parliament and Dundas streets in Cabbagetown, Toronto and look in a coin-return box. The caller said the key would fit a locker in the Royal York Hotel and in the locker would be the Grey Cup which had gone missing on December 20, 1969 from Lansdowne Park where the Grey Cup champion Ottawa Rough Riders had brought the cup for display.

The trophy had gone from Montreal to Ottawa to Toronto. The first two stages of its journey were planned, but the last wasn’t. Fortunately, despite the CFL’s refusal to ransom the cup, the instructions given by the mystery caller led to the recovery of the Grey Cup.

The cup has also on many occasions been accidentally left behind by victorious teams and later recovered. In 1984, after a team celebration, Bombers’ general manager Paul Robson returned to Winnipeg Arena to find the forlorn cup sitting on a table at centre ice.

The early history of the Grey Cup was tumultuous because the teams that won it tried to keep it in their grasp by hook or by crook. The University of Toronto won the cup in 1909, 1910 and 1911, and then decided they wouldn’t relinquish the Grey Cup until someone else beat them in the championship game. The problem was that the Toronto side didn’t make it to the championship game for the next two seasons. The Varsity team eventually gave the cup to the Toronto Argonauts after they were defeated by them in the 1914 final.

Western teams had their own set of problems with the winners from Eastern Canada, often involving the rules of the game.

Until changes were made in its early days, football in Canada was a hybrid of rugby and what would become true Canadian football. In football’s initial incarnation there were 14-men per side and the ball wasn’t snapped back to the quarterback, it was heeled back just as in a rugby scrum. The western teams at first played under their own set of rules, which invariably conflicted with those used in the east. Between the two world wars, the conflict in rules led to protest and controversy. Unfortunately for western teams, the powers behind football in the east were dominant and opposed at nearly every turn the progressions in the game coming out of Western Canada.

From 1924 to 1944, there were seven all-eastern finals, the West being denied a chance to play for the cup because of so-called rule infractions or mishaps.

Until 1921, only eastern teams competed for the cup, but Edmonton in 1921 and 1922 and Regina the following year couldn’t defeat their eastern counterparts. In 1924, the Winnipeg Victorias were the new great hope from the West. Although they won the right to represent the West, the Victorias never boarded a team to head east because no one could agree on which rail company to use. The executive of the club mostly worked for Canadian Pacific Railway and naturally felt this line should be used since they had free passes. The players, who mostly worked for Canadian National 

Railways, wanted to use their favourite carrier since they had 

free passes. Nothing could be resolved so the players offered to pay their own way, but the team executive declared the renegade players could not use the Victorias name nor its colours. 

An agreement was eventually reached between the feuding sides, but the ruling body in the east said, “Sorry, too late.” In the end, Queen’s University beat Toronto Balmy Beach in an all-eastern Grey Cup final. This marked a cornerstone in Canadian football history since it was the last time a university side won the Grey Cup though they remained in competition for the cup until 1935.

Because of the controversy, Winnipeg’s first Grey Cup jaunt was in 1925 when the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers lost to the Ottawa Senators 24-1.

In 1926, the Regina Roughriders were the western champs but declined to head east, one of the reasons being they didn’t want to wait around for an eastern winner to be declared. As a result, Ottawa won for the second year in a row, this time defeating the University of Toronto 10-7. Regina declined the eastern journey again in 1927, but headed to the Grey Cup the next four years in a row, losing each time to eastern teams.

It wasn’t until 1935 that a Western champ would emerge victorious, a milestone in Canadian football history. Bruce Kidd called the 1935 final No. 13 in his top-20 list of sporting events for the 20th century in a National Post article. “The Grey Cup really became a national championship when the West joined up and became competitive,” said Kidd. “That win was a symbolic coming of age for Western Canada.”

Up until 1935, Regina had been beaten seven times, Edmonton twice and Winnipeg once by their eastern rivals.

That December 7 was a chilly day in Hamilton when the Winnipeg Winnipegs, or ’Pegs, stepped onto the field. It was raining steadily and the field was a mess of mud. But, the team was ready and it was stacked with great talent, made all the better by seven new imports, including player (quarterback) coach Bob Fritz from Fargo, North Dakota; Russ Rebholz from Wisconsin; Herb Peschel from Long Island, New York; Rosy Adelman from California; Dave Narding from Sarnia, Ontario; and stellar halfback Fritz “Golden Ghost” Hanson, a native of Perham, Minnesota, who had played college football for North Dakota State.

According to Vince Leah, who wrote A History of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the team had to wait nearly a month for the eastern champion to be decided. The ’Pegs opted to travel to Detroit to prepare for the game and avoid Hamilton Tiger spies. Leah, who was inducted posthumously into the Winnipeg 

Citizens Hall of Fame and was a well-respected local sportswriter and 

amateur coach, said the Tigers believed they would defeat the ’Pegs in a cakewalk.

The Tigers and their eastern fans were in disbelief when the ’Pegs left the field at the half leading 12-4.

In the second half, Hamilton pulled within two after which 

Hanson picked up a kick on the 

Winnipeg 32.

“A ring of downfield tacklers 

converged on Hanson,” wrote Leah, “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.”

The final score was Winnipeg 18, Hamilton 12. Although statistics weren’t officially kept, sportswriters estimated Hanson alone contributed 300 yards in offence.

The eastern-controlled Canadian Rugby Union, the governing body for the Grey Cup and Canadian football of the era, didn’t like what they saw in 1935 so it ruled for the next Grey Cup that no player would be allowed to compete unless he had lived in Canada for at least a year and had taken up residence in the city he was playing for by October 1. Although the CRU said the rule was to protect Canadian players, the western teams knew it was because of the power they gained with the addition of a few imports on each team.

For the 1936 season, the western champion Regina side had five players that were ineligible under the new rules. Regina announced it wouldn’t be going east without its imports but had a change of heart and said it would leave the five imports at home. Again, it was too late, the Western Canada Rugby Union had withdrawn the challenge and decided to send Winnipeg (they volunteered to go) in the place of Regina. The controversy continued to the point that the West once again didn’t send a champion east to vie for the Grey Cup.

When the Winnipeg club went east again in 1937, they had adopted a new name that had 

been coined by Leah in 1935. When writing advance material for an 

exhibition game with North Dakota State, Leah decided to borrow from the late Grantland Rice who had 

labelled Joe Louis, the famous boxer, “The Brown Bomber.” Leah called the blue and gold clad team the “Blue Bombers of Western football,” to acknowledge their prowess on the field (the 1935 Bombers went 11-0).

“I guess it rang a bell,” said Leah. “Sportswriters and broadcasters began calling the team the Blue Bombers as an acceptable alternative to Winnipegs ... and the club eventually registered the name with the authorities.”

Winnipeg lost in 1937, but they struck back in 1939, defeating the Ottawa Rough Riders 8-7.

A year later, T.R. Louden was 

incensed that Jack Bannerman of Calgary, the new CRU president, wanted the residency rule rescinded. “Are we going to let foreigners play our game while our boys are fighting overseas?” Louden of the University of Toronto asked.

Interest in football was waning at the start of the war years and teams began to drop out. The Sports Service League, a civilian body dedicated to raising funds for the military, tried to arrange a charity Grey Cup game with an east-west theme. The eastern-dominated CRU declared the western champion ineligible because of the new import rules, and declared that Ottawa and Balmy Beach of Toronto would play a two-game Grey Cup, the only such final in the history of the cup. Ottawa won the two-game series, but the western teams withdrew from the CRU in protest and Bannerman resigned his presidency.

The next year the east-west rivalry continued with the Bombers winning 18-16 over Ottawa.

The last Grey Cup game without imports was played in 1946 between the Bombers and the Argonauts. The Toronto team won 28-6.

In terms of Grey Cups, 1948 was another watershed. It was then that the Calgary Stampeders and their fans invaded Toronto. It was no longer just the Grey Cup, it was Grey Cup Week.

The Calgary fans packed the first Grey Cup train, which had a car 

devoted to square dancing “and enough horses to stock most self-respecting stampedes,” according to The Stampeder Story by Gorde Hunter and Keith Matthews. The party lasted from Calgary to Toronto and back again.

“Toronto had never seen anything like it. 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 flapjack 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 mob.

“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.

Varsity Stadium could only hold 20,000 people and demand far outstripped the number of available seats. Scalpers were charging $5 for a $1 ticket. Some single tickets were even selling for $25, an exorbitant price for the era.

The Calgary fans didn’t go home disappointed. Their Stampeders beat Ottawa 12-7. In the process, the Grey Cup had become the 

national party it remains to this day, attracting more TV viewers than any other single sporting event.

After the game, the goal posts came down and celebrants headed back to the Royal York Hotel were pieces of the posts were sold for a dollar apiece.

“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. 

The first televised game was between Winnipeg and Hamilton in 1957, which the Tiger-Cats won 


By 1954, the squabbles between the rugby unions came to an end when the Canadian Football League took over the Grey Cup. Since that date only CFL teams are eligible to compete in the Grey Cup which now is emblematic of professional football supremacy in Canada.

One of the strangest Grey Cup games after the creation of the CFL was played between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Blue Bombers at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. It was the year Bomber coach Bud Grant brought in legendary quarterback Ken Ploen to replace the retired Torn Casey. With five minutes to go in the game, Hamilton’s Ray “Bibbles” Bawel intercepted a Winnipeg pass (Ploen was out with an injury by this time) and was racing down the sidelines when a foot came out of nowhere to trip Bawel who landed on his face.

Bawel had shoe polish on his football boot attesting to the incident and the Bombers were penalized half the distance to their goal line to the 21. Amazingly, the foot didn’t even belong to a Winnipeg fan, but Toronto lawyer David Humphrey who may or may not have been cheering for the Bombers. In the days following the game (lost by Winnipeg), Bawel received a watch in the mail, “From the tripper Grey Cup 1957.”

Another memorable game was played between the Tiger-Cats and Bombers in 1962. Now it’s referred to as the Fog Bowl and was played in Toronto’s CNE Stadium located along the waterfront. Cool air from Lake Ontario meeting warm inland air conspired to shroud the field in a cloak  of fog that keep most of the fans in the stands unaware of what was happening at ground level.

With 9:29 remaining in the game and Winnipeg ahead 28-27, CFL commissioner Syd Halter called the game, saying it would be played the next day. When play resumed, Hamilton failed to add to their total and Winnipeg was victorious in the only two-day-long single game in Grey Cup history.

Weather has played strange tricks on Grey Cup games. Championship games have been played in mud, fog, snow, freezing temperatures, and in 1977, when the Alouettes met the Eskimos in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, a Grey Cup 

was played on a field coated by ice. The Eskimos were amazed, as they slip-slided away to defeat on the artificial turf, to see their opponents miraculously appear to be as surefooted as mountain goats on a cliff side. What they didn’t know is that the Alouette players had fired staples through the soles of the shoes to give them better traction. It was illegal, but by the time it was discovered, it was too late to do anything about it.

Surprisingly, for those with short memories — or who simply want 

to forget a sorry episode in CFL 

history — the Grey Cup has even been claimed by an American 

team. In 1995, the Baltimore Stallions defeated the Calgary Stampeders 37-20 in Regina, the first and only time the cup was won by a 

team from south of the border. 

The next year, the Baltimore Stallions went to Montreal and became the latest incarnation of the Alouettes — a recent real success 

story — and the rest of the ill-fated American teams disappeared from the CFL.

While the American teams are gone, future Grey Cups may see cities such as London or Halifax 

vying for the national championship. Expansion may not happen immediately, but it’s the next logical step for the CFL and is being seriously discussed by league officials. An expansion to Halifax would truly make the CFL a coast-to-coast football league.