What’s more Canadian than the CFL? It’s a question that sounds like it should be followed up with a punchline, maybe something about beer and maple syrup. Maybe it would lead to a complicated joke about the Governor General. Or maybe we would fall back on the most obvious answer and just say hockey.
Stephen Brunt has certainly considered the matter. One of Canada’s best regarded sports writers, Brunt is a commentator at Sportsnet and most recently the author of 100 Grey Cups: This is Our Game—its publication coinciding with this Sunday’s 100th Grey Cup game. Brunt doesn’t try to sum up what role the Canadian Football League plays in our national identity, but by celebrating the Cup’s history and reassessing the above question for a wider and more meaningful scope he makes one thing clear—Canada simply can’t be separated out from the Grey Cup.
Though today it’s the CFL’s championship trophy, the history of the Grey Cup goes back further than 100 years. (Sunday will mark the 100th time that the trophy has been played for.) “The CFL or the NHL,” Brunt tells me over the phone, “I can tell you which is more Canadian.” Hockey is thought of as Canada’s game, but the CFL isn’t about to open a head office in New York. As a league, it’s more distinctly Canadian than the NHL. Brunt, however, isn’t so interested in a positive or negative comparison between the CFL and the NHL, but more to the point seems fascinated by the organic way in which the Grey Cup has become a part of Canadian sports, both culturally and historically. How it started like that, and continues to be so. The CFL is obviously a big and important part of the identity of the Grey Cup because the league is the reason why the Grey Cup has lasted for all of these years.
Even when it seems that much of the CFL season can slip past unnoticed by many Canadian sports fans, somehow the championship game seems to capture the nation’s enthusiasm. Or, as Brunt says, “Even if it was only the Grey Cup, it would be huge.” With its rituals and homegrown identity, the Grey Cup is an annual sports phenomenon that’s even terrifically successful by the numbers—something we don’t always or easily associate with football in Canada. And yet football as we know it in North America, Brunt argues, owes a lot of its history to Canada.
“The Super Bowl was invented in a boardroom in the ‘60s,” Brunt says, contrasting the corporate scale and style of American football with its necessarily more modest Canadian version. The Grey Cup was created as a measure of championship football well before the CFL, or any organized league, existed in North America. As documented in the book, the first time the game of football played in a form that would be recognizable to us today was in 1874, between teams from Harvard and McGill University. Then, by 1909, His Excellency Earl Grey had established the trophy known as the Grey Cup, “for the Amateur Rugby Championship of Canada.” The rules of the game that we watch today evolved and solidified. The teams that have competed for the cup over the years have changed just like the game has. Sometimes the Grey Cup saw the University of Toronto Varsity team against the Parkdale Paddlers, sometimes it saw service teams playing each other during the Second World War. Now it sees Rough Riders or Alouettes or Tiger Cats. However it happens though, the history of the Grey Cup doesn’t have an overarching story to it anymore than Canadian history does.
But what does make the CFL and Grey Cup uniquely Canadian is how rooted the league is in the cities, or “hometowns,” in which our version of football is played. Regardless of where the Cup is played, or where it’s being watched, hometown pride travels. Here, Brunt makes a case for the Grey Cup being more than simply the fun and unpretentious entertainment it appears to be. Rather, he presents it as an event that uniquely captures the hometown side of sports. Fans from Saskatchewan are known to travel anywhere in the country for games. Calgary fans are credited with creating the first Grey Cup party in Toronto in 1948. And then there are the fans of the Grey Cup itself, the game being a ritual they love being part of.
My favourite picture included in the book features Pierre Trudeau at the 1969 Grey Cup kicking a football, wearing cleats, as well as a cap and scarf rumoured to have been knit for him by Margaret. This Sunday, when the 100th Grey Cup gets underway, when the Calgary Stampeders meet the Argos in Toronto (by the way, Brunt predicted Toronto and BC would face-off in the championship) do you think we’ll get a similarly priceless photo of Stephen Harper?