What’s with Toronto as Grey Cup host?

Toronto is a city that has pretty well abandoned the CFL. The Argonauts have a tough time attracting fans — by far, they had the lowest average attendance during the season — and this year’s Grey Cup game on Sunday has been plagued by slow ticket sales. By mid-October, only about half the tickets for the Canadian football championship between the Ottawa Redblacks and the Calgary Stampeders had been sold, forcing Toronto organizers to lower ticket prices. Despite this desperate measure, there were plenty of tickets still available at the start of Grey Cup week.

BMO Field has a seating capacity that has been expanded from its regular 27,000 to about 35,000, which is small by modern Grey Cup standards. On the other hand, more than 53,000 fans took in the 2012 Grey Cup indoors at Rogers Centre on the 100th anniversary of the championship game, when the Argonauts defeated the Stampeders 35-22.

It’s a sad state of affairs for a city that has had a storied Grey Cup history, including being the host of the first ever championship game. The city of Toronto has hosted the most Grey Cup games in Canada with 48, including 30 of the first 45 games played.

The Grey Cup was originally to be a prize awarded for hockey, but Sir H. Montagu Allan had beaten Lord Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada (1904-11), to the punch. The Allan Cup would come to symbolize excellence in amateur hockey. Faced with this dilemma, Grey — also known for the tea named after him — then had the option of making his cup available for supremacy in amateur rugby-football.

Because he was given the next best thing in amateur sports in Canada, the governor general may have forgotten to commission the making of the new cup. 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 the silversmith at Birks. Consequently, the University of Toronto, winners of the first Grey Cup over the Toronto Parkdales, 26-6, before a crowd of 4,000 (the total gate was $2,616.49), had to wait a few months before they had the actual cup in their hands.

And when they received the cup valued at $48 (now estimated at $60,000) from Lord Grey, the university side was surprised to see that a plaque on its base proclaimed that the Hamilton Tigers were the 1908 Canadian rugby-football champions even though the idea of a championship cup had only come about in 1909. The trustees of the cup recognized the plaque was invalid but decided to do nothing about it.

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 Calgary 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.”

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.

This year’s 104th Grey Cup is a rematch between the two cities, although the Ottawa team is named the Redblacks, not the Roughriders.

“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.”

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 (a far cry from this year’s version of the Grey Cup). In fact, “no football ticket” signs hung from agency kiosks — the game was a sell-out.

“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.

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 blew 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 (born in Winnipeg) 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.

“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.

Winnipeg also contested in Toronto the only game that was played over two days. The Bombers were leading 28-27 over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the “Fog Bowl” of 1962 at Toronto’s CNE Stadium when, with 9:29 remaining, the game was called because fog obscured the ball and players. The next day, no points were added and the Bombers were Grey Cup champions.

Toronto organizers have promised this year’s game will be a sell-out by the start of Sunday’s game, but having to scramble to put people in the stands for Canada’s “National Party” is a shameful outcome for a city with such a storied Grey Cup history.