Keep the “C” in the CFL

The original implementation of a quota system in the Canadian Football League, which the CFL brass is apparently considering for yet another revision, can be blamed on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — not today’s Big Blue, but the Bombers of yesteryear. In 1935, the team then referred to as the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club, journeyed east to take on the mighty Hamilton Tigers. The Winnipegs, or ’Pegs as they were nicknamed, dominated the Western Canada Rugby Football Union with a 9-0 won-loss record.

“Winnipeg’s unbeaten rugby club plowed through the snow at Osborne Stadium (where the Great-West Life building now stands) Saturday afternoon with much success,”wrote sports reporter E.A. Armstrong in the November 11, 1935, Winnipeg Free Press. “They emerged with a 7-0 triumph over the surprising Calgary Bronks and with that victory went the Western Canada championship Hugo Ross trophy, and the right of entry to the Dominion final in the East.”

Up until 1935, no Western team had been able to defeat the Eastern champions of the Canadian Rugby Union. For example, the Winnipeg Tammany Tigers lost to the Ottawa Senators 24-1 in 1925.

But as the 1935 Grey Cup game approached, there was a feeling that the history of Canadian football was about to change. “Perhaps it’s the west’s year,” speculated Canadian Press sportswriter Ray Collett. “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. Each year they have proved themselves just a bit harder to beat, just a little more powerful and able to hold the defenders. 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 the East should be aware of the increasing power of the Western Canadian teams, “and 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.”

Winnipeg sportswriter Vince Leah, who penned A History of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, said the Tigers believed they would beat the ’Pegs in a cakewalk. Yet when the half ended, the Tigers and eastern fans were in disbelief as the ’Pegs left the field leading 12-4.

In the second half, Hamilton pulled to within two points after which Fritz “Blond Ghost” Hanson picked up the ball following a Hamilton punt. “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.” 

Canadian Press sports writer Elmer Dulmnage described the epic play: “It was the blond Hanson ... his breath-taking 75-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter that finally broke every eastern hope of turning back the Manitoba assault, the 12th attempt of the west to make a national gridiron conquest ... 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.’

The final score was Winnipeg 18, Hamilton 12. 

Not only had Winnipeg claimed the west’s first Grey Cup, but they did it with a team stacked with American talent, 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; and halfback Hanson, a native of Perham, Minnesota, who had played college football for North Dakota State. 

The Eastern-controlled CRU, the governing body for the Grey Cup and Canadian football of the era, didn’t like what it saw in 1935, and subsequently ruled that players would not be allowed to compete unless they had lived in Canada for at least one year and had taken up residence in the city they were 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 their rosters. 

For the 1936 season, the Western champion Regina side had five players declared ineligible under the new rules. 

The quota system is still used in the CFL, with teams able to start 16 Americans, one quarterback of any nationality (since Russ Jackson, no Canadian has been an all-star pivot) and seven Canadians. In its up-coming negotiations with the players association, the league is proposing that the Canadian ratio be cut from seven to four.

In the 2004 book, International Sports Economic Comparisons, Neil Longley wrote: “Without the quota system, it is presumed that few, if any, Canadian players would be employed ... Relative to Canada, the United States produces a large number of talented football players ... Most American players (except the star players) are relatively easily replaced, since there are always a large number of other American players of almost equal talent, simply waiting for their opportunity. Conversely, the talent pool of Canadian players is much smaller.”

Yet, the pool of Canadian players has increased significantly since 2004, and the depth is reflected in the number of locally-nutured stars on each team. Teams such as Saskatchewan had repeatedly started more Canadians than the quota of seven with great success, although they failed due to an ill-timed penalty to win the 2009 Grey Cup.

Any move to take the Canadian out of the CFL would be disastrous to what makes the game unique. Without the Canadian players, the CFL might as well abandon its hold on three-down football and become four-down NFL lite. The Bombers’ 1935 Grey Cup win started the quota system, but the uniqueness of the game has been preserved, as have the outstanding contributions by Canadian players, past and present.