Ice hockey may be Canada’s national obsession, but for 100 years the Grey Cup has thrown a massive party, a gridiron celebration that unites a country often divided by language and cultural sensibilities.
The Grey Cup, the name of the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) championship game and the trophy awarded to the winner, is to be carried onto the Rogers Centre turf by Royal Canadian Mounted Police today and hoisted high by either the host, Toronto Argonauts, or the Calgary Stampeders.
The game will be broadcast in 187 countries, but with just eight CFL teams spread across the country, the league maintains a folksy, small-town charm.
Unlike the Super Bowl’s media day where National Football League (NFL) players are instantly recognizable to the throngs of reporters, the CFL’s lower-key version requires members from the competing teams to wear name tags.
Still, millions of Canadians gather around televisions each year in late November to watch and cheer a game where many could not even name a single player.
Even Queen Elizabeth II took a moment to observe this year’s game, which marks the 100th Grey Cup.
“It is with great pleasure that I extend my sincere best wishes to all Canadians as they prepare to mark the 100th Grey Cup — a trophy first donated by the Earl of Grey,” she said in a statement. “In this way, the link between the Canadian Crown and Canadian football is particularly meaningful — especially in this year when the 100th Grey Cup coincides with my Diamond Jubilee as Queen of Canada.”
Sometimes referred to as the Grand National Drunk, most fans are guaranteed a fun weekend, but the Grey Cup has also evolved into something much more than a massive fraternity party.
The East-West rivalry that provided the original foundation for the championship game has faded, the great divide grayed by a doomed expansion to the US and a forced realignment of the league by failed franchises.
Geography may point to Winnipeg as the gateway to the West, but on the CFL map the Canadian Prairie city is part of the East Division, the Blue Bombers filling the hole left by collapse of the Ottawa Rough Riders.
While the CFL has spent much of its existence lurching from crisis to crisis, the Grey Cup has remained a treasured sporting institution, important enough to Canada’s national identity that in 1974 parliament introduced the Canadian Football Act to keep the World Football League from setting up shop in Toronto.
Decades later there is a new threat appearing with Toronto eyeing an NFL franchise.
“Our game is in good shape and so is our business,” CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said on Friday. “In this year of the 100th Grey Cup, we have strived to not only honor our history, but also build our future. I can say with confidence: The state of the CFL is strong and our future is bright, indeed.”
While the CFL has struggled to be relevant, particularly in Toronto, where the Argos are an afterthought behind the National Hockey League’s Maple Leafs, Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays and the National Basketball Association’s Raptors, the Grey Cup remains a quintessential bit of Canadiana.
“The Grey Cup has become a cultural sign post,” said Stephen Brunt, author of 100 Grey Cups: This is Our Game.
“In a lot of ways it is even more powerful than the [NHL’s] Stanley Cup final, because it’s 100 percent Canadian content,” Brunt said.