REGINA – Two years after it was scheduled to be held, the Grey Cup game is back in Saskatchewan and, for the first time, being staged at Mosaic Stadium, the Canadian Football League’s “Cadillac” of stadiums that is a monument to the importance of the sport in these parts.
The fact the Roughriders failed to reach the 2022 playoffs in what was an all-around disappointing season for the Grey Cup hosts – finishing fourth in the CFL West Division with a 6-12 record – takes a little of the shine off this year’s party, but a prairie Grey Cup is pretty much fail-safe.
It’s also the first full week-long Grey Cup Festival since 2019, when Canadian football fans gathered in Calgary for the league’s annual championship, unaware of the many challenges that lay ahead with the onset of a global pandemic.
The 2020 Grey Cup had been awarded to Regina, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the entire CFL season that year as well as the playoffs and championship game. The Roughriders moved into Mosaic Stadium three years earlier, but the facility has never hosted a Grey Cup – the team’s former stadium, Taylor Field, had been the site of the last national championship played in Regina in 2013.
There were certainly times in 2020 and 2021 – when the league resumed play during the pandemic with a shortened 14-game schedule – where it was fair to wonder if the CFL was going to survive. The fact that it did is reason to celebrate, even if the road ahead lies beset with challenges, both within the league’s control and beyond.
This year’s participating teams – the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts – represent the extremes when it comes to traction in their markets, be that with fans, business partners or the media.
The Blue Bombers are second in their market to the National Hockey League’s Jets but not by a whole lot. Their attendance is strong, there is Bomber merchandise all over Winnipeg and it’s hard to think of a time people have felt as good about the two-time defending Grey Cup champions overall as they do today.
They have a hands-on president in Wade Miller, a former player with both the Bombers and University of Manitoba Bisons who has built the most dominant CFL franchise since Warren Moon was winning Grey Cups in Edmonton during the early 1980s.
The team is run by a board of volunteers, each keenly aware of how much the Bombers matter to Winnipeg.
On the other side you have the Argonauts, a team that annually finishes last in league attendance and whose aging fan base has shrunken home crowds to less than 15,000 for most dates. (Full disclosure, I am an Argonaut season-ticket holder.)
Their players are mostly anonymous to the average sports fan in Toronto, where seeing Argo gear among the general public tends to be rare. The Argos also compete in a market that is home to the NHL’s Maple Leafs, the National Basketball Association’s Raptors, Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays, as well as Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC.
The Argonauts’ owners — Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment — wanted the CFL to merge with the XFL two years ago and their commitment to the Argos is a matter of debate among ardent fans.
The gap between the two teams on the field is considerably less than off of it, but it’s still advantage Bombers.
Since Zach Collaros became their quarterback in October of 2019, the Bombers have barely lost. They roll into Sunday’s 109th championship game healthy, rested and humming, ready to crush the Argonauts en route to their three-peat.
The Argos, meanwhile, have never been mistaken for the best team in the CFL this season and their 11-7 regular-season record included six wins over sub-par teams from Hamilton and Ottawa.
That said, they’ve enjoyed some close contests with the Blue Bombers over the last two seasons, including Winnipeg’s only loss in 2021 that didn’t involve resting starters.
Toronto’s quarterback – McLeod Bethel-Thompson — divides opinions and probably has as many detractors as devout fans. And the Argos have Andrew Harris, arguably the greatest Canadian running back ever to play in the CFL and a key part of both Winnipeg Grey Cup runs, now wearing double-blue.
For Grey Cup history between these two teams, you have to go back to the 38th Grey Cup in 1950 that was played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, dubbed the Mud Bowl.
But in terms of moments than changed CFL history you only need to go back to October of 2019.
That’s when then Argos GM Jim Popp negotiated a contract with Collaros whom Toronto had acquired from Saskatchewan a few weeks earlier.
Collaros hadn’t dressed for Toronto while healing from a head injury he suffered while playing for the Roughriders. But Popp was betting on him to be the Argos starting QB in 2020.
He scheduled a meeting with Argos president Bill Manning to get the deal approved. But when he got there, Manning fired him and the Collaros contract was never signed or registered to the league.
Three days later, the Argos new management team traded him to Winnipeg. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, the Bombers this week are poised and ready to do what no CFL team has done in 40 years – win three consecutive Grey Cup championships (Edmonton won its fifth straight title in 1982).
Only a determined and often overlooked Argos team stands in their way.
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