Considering how long the venerable Canadian Football League has been around, remarkably little has been written about its turbulent history. That lack of information makes End Zones & Border Wars all that much more of a delight for fans of the seemingly indestructible league.
End Zones & Border Wars, by Vancouver Province sportswriter Ed Willes, chronicles a time, from the late 1980s into the mid-190s, when the CFL was teetering on the abyss. Ottawa went bust, as did Montreal. The B.C. Lions were in perpetual ownership chaos (the league had to run the team for a while). The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were $3 million in debt, and the Calgary Stampeders held a Save Our Stamps campaign in 1986. Toronto was a mess (some things never change).
But in the early 1990s, the CFL and some of its owners (a disreputable group that included names notorious to CFL fans, names like Ryckman, Glieberman, Pezim, and Skalbania) came up with a scheme to save the league with an infusion of cash, via American expansion. The CFL had grand plans to expand into cities that didn’t have NFL franchises, with the dream of becoming a second major football league in the U.S.
As football fans know, it was a colossal fiasco. There were some successes (the Baltimore franchise appeared in two Grey Cup games in their two years, winning one, eventually morphing into the present-day Montreal Alouettes), but the good never came close to outweighing the bad. As Willes describes in loving and often hilarious detail, the American franchises were mostly owned by seriously undercapitalized sharpies who talked a good game, but did not deliver. The old World Hockey Association had its chaotic moments, but the CFL might have topped them all. The Las Vegas Posse practiced in the Riviera Hotel parking lot; the Shreveport Pirates billeted their players above a barn full of circus animals. Games would be played in 50,000-seat building with 5,000 fans in the stands. And our course, there was the unforgettable performance of O Canada at the Posse’s first home game, a moment of ineptitude that summed up the CFL expansion experience in one song.
CFL fans will gobble up Willes’ fact and anecdote filled book. I have a few quibbles, however. Willes spends far too much time on the epic 1994 B.C.-Baltimore Grey Cup game. Yes, it was a great game, but his lengthy dissection of the game takes away the book’s momentum. The photos are a seemingly random collection of game pictures (a dozen from the ‘94 Grey Cup game alone), there are no graphics of the team logos of the failed American teams, or even the season standings. Otherwise, End Zones & Border Wars is required reading for fans of the beloved old league, a vivid retelling of the time when the CFL was in a seemingly permanent state of being third down and 30 yards to go.
End Zone & Border Wars is published by Harbour Publishing.