Ah, but that's not what I'm talking about this time around. Sunday is the Grey Cup which is the Canadian Football League's answer to the Super Bowl except, you know, not really. The Super Bowl is about hype, multi-million dollar commercials and ticket prices that have people mortgaging their children to attend; the Grey Cup is about regional rivalries, grassroots fandom, affordable tickets, parades and great parties. Except in Toronto, which is sadly because that's where the Grey Cup is being held this year. Ask the average Torontonian about the big game and they'll talk about the NFL, and if you ask them about the Grey Cup they'll look at you like you're insane. There's no Grey Cup Parade this year because no one in Toronto knows that the Grey Cup is still being played.
In Saskatchewan we know. If you're born anywhere in Saskatchewan from Estevan in the south to Fond du Lac in the north you are infected at birth with a disease that – during football season – turns your blood as green as Spock's. The 'Riders are the provincial passion our only professional sports team. We live and die with the Roughriders. They haven't made it easy for us either. The 1966 team was the first time in my life that the team won the Grey Cup. I was also the first time in my grandfather's lifetime that they won the Grey Cup and he was born in 1916. Okay it isn't exactly a span of frustration like what the Chicago Cubs have put their fans through, but in some ways it was more frustrating. The 'Riders of the '60s and '70s were always so close and only got the cigar once. The 'Rider players of those teams were my idols. There was George Reed (who ran for more yards in his career than Jim Brown but never got any recognition for it because he was playing in Canada rather than "real" football) Ron Lancaster, "Gluey" Hughie Campbell, and Ron Atchison. Then came a long drought and near bankruptcy for the club before the amazing 1989 Grey Cup win, the team of Roger Aldag, Jeff Fairholms, Ray Elgard, "Robokicker" Dave Ridgway, and of course QB Kent Austin.
It's hard to underestimate the importance of the Roughriders to Saskatchewan. They're a binding force, and not just for people who live here. Saskatchewan ex-pats fill stadiums around the league when the Green & White are playing. Let's just say that my brother was not alone in BC Place stadium when he saw the 'Riders beat the BC Lions. And it's not just Saskatchewan people either. The Roughriders are Canada's team in the same way that the Green Bay Packers are really America's Team (Dallas Cowboys notwithstanding). People in Canada (outside of Toronto that is) have two teams, their own and the 'Riders. In fact, on the day of the 1989 Grey Cup I heard the Roughrider victory mentioned on a Brigham Young University basketball broadcast. The play-by-play announcer was originally from Lethbridge Alberta, and had been a 'Rider fan ever since.
Actually the comparison with the Green Bay Packers is appropriate. Both are community owned teams, both are the smallest cities in their respective leagues. Both have nation-wide fan bases and do very well in merchandising. Both teams have fans sporting "odd" headgear; in Green Bay it's "Cheeseheads" and in Saskatchewan it is (and I swear this is absolutely true) hollowed out watermelons shaped into helmets. The big difference is the history. When the Packers were founded in 1919, the then Regina Roughriders (then known as the Regina Rugby Club) had been around for nine years.
Today's Grey Cup game should be one of the best. For the first time ever the Saskatchewan Roughriders will be facing their oldest rivals, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Riders and the Bombers play each other every year in the Labour Day Classic in Regina, and then again the next weekend in Winnipeg. There's a lot of good natured give and take between the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, including a statement by former Winnipeg placekicker Troy Westwood who said that people from Regina were "a bunch of banjo-pickin' inbreds" before a 2003 playoff game; he later amended his statement saying, "the vast majority of the people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo."The rivalry is intense but this is the first time they'll face each other in the Grey Cup. When the Ottawa team was folded the Blue Bombers were moved into the eastern conference of the now eight team league to balance things out. Beating Montreal in the Eastern Division Semi-Final and Toronto in the Eastern Final Winnipeg advanced to face the Roughriders, who beat Calgary and BC. The Roughriders are an 11 point favourite in the game, in part because Winnipeg quarterback Kevin Glenn broke his arm in the Eastern Final. Glenn will be replaced by rookie quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie who has only played in a limited number of games this season. If the Roughriders win today, Kent Austin will become the first Coach in the CFL to win the Grey Cup to also win the trophy as a quarterback for the same team. And all I can say is
Go Riders Go!!!!!!!!!!