New stadium? — since 1930 Blue Bombers have played in several stadiums

by Bruce Cherney

On June 10, 1930, the team that would eventually be renamed the Blue Bombers played its first game at Carruthers Park in the city’s North End. The Winnipeg Rugby Football Club, otherwise known as the Winnipegs, didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start since the newly-created team lost 7-3 to St. John’s Rugby Club.

Carruthers Park is just one of several venues used since organized football first appeared in the city in 1880. Major football games were contested in River Park, Wesley Park, Osborne Stadium and now Canad Inns Stadium (formerly Winnipeg Stadium.)

Last Sunday (January 14), David Asper, CanWest Global executive vice-president, unveiled a proposal to build a new $145-million, 30,000- to 40,000-seat stadium/retail complex at Polo Park.

He is asking the provincial and federal governments to each kick in $40 million towards the stadium’s construction. The city is being asked to lease rent-free the 26-acre land and facilities it has assessed at a value of $15.7 million.

While the stadium would be placed in public hands after its proposed completion in 2008, Asper said his plan also calls for the football team to be privately operated, ending nearly 77 years of community ownership.

Asper said it was essential to undergo an ownership change to a private model “in order to maximize revenue streams.”

To generate more revenue, Asper has proposed that the new partially-covered  stadium would have 24 private suites and 13 concession stands. There would also be 217,000 square feet of retail space along Empress and a 23,000-square-foot restaurant pad.

The new stadium would also house a Blue Bombers Hall of Fame and Alumni Exhibition.

In a press release, Winnipeg Football Club chairman Ken Hildahl said the feed-back from Asper’s proposal was “positive” and that it had “merit.”

Hildahl said the 11-member volunteer  Bomber board will make an extensive review of the proposal before coming to a final decision.

Actually, the Bomber board has been reviewing the prospect of a new stadium for the last few years and has come up with a number of options, including building on a new site near the Red River Exhibition Grounds in Headingley or building in St. Boniface at the site of the Bombers’ former practice field (a feasibility study for a new stadium is expected to be released by the board in a few days).

What is most evident today is that city-owned Canad Inns Stadium has seen better days and could suffer the same fate as other facilities used by the Blue Bombers in the past.

Vince Leah, in his book A History of the Blue Bombers, said that Wesley Park on Balmoral Street “had very little grass but was more accessible in contrast to River Park at the south end of Osborne Street, where football held forth in the 1920s.”

Wesley Park was swallowed up by expansion of the University of Winnipeg campus over the years, and River Park was long ago demolished to make way for housing developments.

Starting in 1930, the Winnipegs, also called the ’Pegs, toiled in Carruthers Park, which was demolished in the early 1940s.

The Winnipegs moved to Osborne Stadium in 1935, the same year that the team would win Western Canada’s first Grey Cup. The ’Pegs weren’t the first Winnipeg team to compete for the Grey Cup, but they were the first to claim the national championship.

The Winnipeg Victorias missed their opportunity to compete for the Grey Cup in 1924, when management and players couldn’t agree on what railway company they would use for their trip east. By the time they came to an agreement, Grey Cup officials said “too late,” and two Eastern teams vied for the championship. 

In 1925, the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers lost the Grey Cup to the Ottawa Senators 24-1.

December 7, 1935, was a chilly day in Hamilton when the Winnipegs stepped onto the field. It was raining steadily and the field was a morass of mud. 

According to Leah, the Tigers believed they would defeat the Winnipeg club in a cakewalk. When the Bombers left the field leading 12-4 at half-time, the Tigers and their fans were in a state of disbelief. 

In the second half, Hamilton pulled to within two points, but the game breaker came as a result of a Fritzie “Golden Ghost” Hanson kick return from the Winnipegs’ own 32-yard line.

“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 Winnipegs 18, Tigers 12.

When the Winnipegs journeyed east in 1937 to again challenge for the cup, they were playing under a new name coined by Leah in 1936.

When writing advance material for an exhibition game with North Dakota State, Leah decided to borrow part of the nickname “Brown Bomber” used by sportswriter Grantland Rice to describe Joe Lewis, the famous boxer of the era.

Leah called the blue-and-gold clad team the “Blue Bombers of Western football” to acknowledge their prowess on the field.

“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) eventually registered the name with the authorities.”

The Bombers lost the 1937 Grey Cup 30-7 to the Toronto Argonauts, but struck back in 1939, defeating the Ottawa Rough Riders 8-7.

From 1935 to 1945, the Bombers appeared in the Grey Cup eight times, winning three times. In total, the Bombers have won 10 Grey Cups, the last in 1990.

Osborne Stadium, where Great West Life now stands across from the Manitoba Legislature, was built by Charlie McFayden. 

Leah said Osborne Stadium’s end zones weren’t quite regulation and players had a tendency to crash into the end zone billboards — the estimation was that the end zones were only from 10 to 15 feet deep, while a regulation end zone is now 20 yards.  

By the early 1950s, it was becoming apparent that Osborne Stadium was no longer the football facility needed by the Bombers.

It was the coming of a special football player that emphasized its inadequacies — Jack Jacobs, who was nicknamed in the politically-incorrect 1950s “Indian Jack” Jacobs, a name he received while playing for the University of Oklahoma.

Born in Holdenville, Oklahoma, in 1920, Jacobs, a Cherokee, played for the Cleveland Rams, Washington Redskins and Green Packers of the National Football League before coming to Canada. 

Bombers president Ralph Misener agreed to pay Jacobs the expectionally high salary of $6,000 a year to play in Winnipeg. 

In the U.S., Jacobs had primarily been a punter and running back. It was Misener’s promise that Jacobs would also be given a chance to be the team’s pivot — a position he dearly wanted to play — that sealed the deal for his services.  

It was Jacobs, who made the pass an integral part of the game.

“He would even pass on the three yard line of the enemy if it suited him,” said Leah of Jacobs.

“He was a fantastic player,” said Doug Stefanson, a football fan who watched Jacobs play at Osborne Stadium. “With Jacobs on the field, it got pretty noisy in the stadium. There was a very enthusiastic bunch of supporters.”

In 1949, the Bombers had a dismal 2-12 record, but a year later were on their way to the Grey Cup in Toronto. 

Unfortunately, this was the year of the infamous “mud bowl.” On November 25, Varsity Stadium had been soaked by heavy snow and later rain. Under these adverse conditions, both teams had difficulty moving the ball and Winnipeg’s famed passing attack was virtually non-existent. 

The game’s only touchdown came after a Jacobs punt was blocked, giving Toronto a 13-0 victory.

During his short five-year career, Jacobs passed for 104 TDs — an average of more than 20 per season — and completed 709 of 1,330 passes for a total of 11.094 yards.

The only real disappointment of his career is that he failed to lead the Bombers to victory in a Grey Cup. In the last Grey Cup game he played in 1953, Jacobs completed 28 of 46 passes for 326 yards, but the Bombers still lost to  a more powerful Hamilton team.

The growing number of fans going through the turnstiles at Osborne Stadium told the football club a new arena was necessary. The contribution of Jacobs was acknowledged when the new stadium gained the unofficial name of “The House that Jack Built.”

A new public corporation called Winnipeg Enterprises was created to oversee the construction and $500,000 was raised through the sale of debentures to build the new stadium at Polo Park. The plan called for a 15,000-seat stadium, nearly double the capacity of Osborne Stadium, with two grandstands and end zone bleachers. The stadium design also allowed for future expansion. 

The new stadium opened for the 1953 season. The last professional football game played at Osborne Stadium was in the fall of 1952 when the Eskimos beat the Bombers to advance to the Grey Cup.

“Winnipeg Stadium is what it will be called, unless they find a better name,” wrote Al Vickery in the Winnipeg Free Press.

It took several decades until a “better name” was found when a corporate-sponsorship agreement changed the facility to Canad Inns Stadium.

There has been numerous revampings of the stadium and its grounds since its opening. An adjacent ball diamond and grandstand hosted the original Winnipeg Goldeyes (1954-64) and later the Winnipeg Whips baseballs teams. The ball park was torn down in the early-1980s to make way for the Bombers’ clubhouse, but the stadium itself underwent renovations to house the Northern League Goldeyes. It was a very poor baseball facility and club owner Sam Katz built a baseball-only facility near The Forks and in 1999 moved the team to the new CanWest Global Park.

Second tiers were added to the stadium in 1971, boosting its seating capacity to 25,000 people. The seating capacity was further increased to 32,000 people in 1978.

The stadium’s seating capacity was downsized to 29,503 (temporary seating for Grey Cup events, etc., can boost seating to around 45,000 people), following a major $9-million renovation in 1999 for the Pan Am Games. 

Aging washrooms ($500,000 was spent to upgrade the washrooms in 1999, apparently with limited success), poor concessions, cramped seating (despite the 1999 downsizing), a crumbling parking lot and other structural problems are often cited as reasons that Winnipeg needs a new stadium.

It is also felt that a new stadium will help generate sorely needed revenue for the Bombers. In 2000, the football club had faced bankruptcy but its financial stability was regained through an infusion of cash from local businesses, the city and province. Hosting the 2006 Grey Cup also significantly helped the team’s bottom line.

As part of the Blue Bomber 2000 bailout package, the city provides the existing stadium to the team rent-free (the team has a 50-year $1 lease for the surrounding land and stadium), gives the team a property tax break, gives them entertainment tax revenue from ticket sales as well as all the revenue generated by concessions and parking. The city and province have also given the Bombers over $2 million since 2000.

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said he welcomes the Asper proposal, but government funds would only be committed following negotiations and a guarantee that the Bombers would remain in Winnipeg.

Speaking for the federal government, Manitoba MP and Treasury Board President Vic Toews said Ottawa is not prepared to commit any money at this time for a new stadium. He said federal investment in the province is presently earmarked for infrastructure projects such as expansion of the Red River Floodway.

“If my proposal is accepted,” said Asper in a letter to Bomber fans on the website, “your football club will have, as its new owner, someone who not only has the financial capacity and business experience, but one who shares an unremitting passion to see our Blue Bombers succeed over the long-term ...

“The team and related business development on the site will be privately owned, with access to private funding and revenue streams that will ensure it will always have the means to successfully compete in the Canadian Football League,” Asper added.