This Sunday would have been one of my favourite Sundays of the year.
It would have been Finals Sunday, when the Canadian Football League decided its Eastern and Western champions. The winner would have gone to the Grey Cup in Regina, which would have made for a great, if likely frosty, party.
But no finals this year.
No Grey Cup game.
No CFL season at all.
Of all the awfulness of 2020, one of the worst aspects of it for me has been the loss of an entire Canadian Football League season. Football, Canadian style, is one of my few pleasures. And to have it taken away from me, and from all the football fans of the country, was the cruelest blow of a terrible year. (To anyone who might have lost their job due to COVID-19, or became sick from it or worse, my apologies. That’s just me.)
I’ve been a fan of the Edmonton Eskimos (yes, they will always be the Eskimos to me, snowflakes) for decades. I was born into it, you might say: my family name is engraved on the Wall of Honour at Commonwealth Stadium as original season ticket holders, although it is mistakenly under the name of my brother, who was decades away from even being born.
Sure, I like the Oilers, but I love the Eskimos and the league they play in that survives, often despite itself. My support of the team has almost cost me my life, twice. OK, mild exaggeration. It only seemed like I was going to die. But stay with me …
My first brush with Eskimo-inspired death was in 1973, when I was just a pup of 17 years. The Eskimos had been a team of famous ineptitude for many years before the 1973 season. They had last won the Grey Cup in 1956, the year I was born. They made one championship appearance in 1960 – a loss – then sank into a quagmire of incompetence. The Eskimos failed to make the Grey Cup game for 12 seasons leading into the 1973 season, an especially ludicrous stat considering they were playing in a nine-team league. You would think in 12 seasons, you would even accidentally make the big game. But no.
However, in 1973 the finally-respectable Eskimos were hosting a Western Conference final, against the dreaded Saskatchewan Roughriders and quarterback Ron Lancaster, the ‘Little General’ whose specialty was playing a lousy game until he needed to win it, which he usually did. I was there in a jam-packed Clarke Stadium, in the cold and, an oddity for Edmonton, fog. Dense, London-style, horror movie fog. It was so thick for the first half of the game that the only way you could tell if a pass had been completed was to listen to the reaction of the fans on the other side of the field. I remember watching a couple of guys lugging a mammoth, old-school, two-ton TV camera down to field level from the press box just to give the fans something to watch.
It was cold. Good God, it was cold. The low temperature that day was -22C, the high only -11C. It was one of those days where no matter how many layers of clothing you wore, no matter how many socks you wore, the cold wormed its way through to your very marrow. The combination of the cold and a truly thrilling game left me shivering uncontrollably, fighting off what I imagined was hypothermia. The Eskimos won 25-23, with a patented Lancaster last-second drive snuffed out by an interception right in front of us. I almost died from the cold (OK, again maybe a slight exaggeration), but it was worth it. (The Esks lost the Grey Cup game that year, and the less said about the game, the better. I remember nothing about it. I have the fortunate ability to completely forget losses.)
My next brush with an icy death was in Calgary, two years later. The Eskimos were playing in their third straight Grey Cup game (losing the previous two) in the first Grey Cup game played on the Prairies, in Calgary. I shelled out a staggering $20 for a ticket (as I recall), only to witness a game of almost unendurable awfulness. (The highlight was a female streaker who danced around the field during the national anthem. That was as close to a naked woman as I had ever been. You can barely see her in this YouTube clip of the entire game, at about the 35-minute mark.) It was cold, of course, but it wasn’t the temperature that almost did me in. It was the wind, howling at 150 km/h (as I recall), giving a windchill of -275C (again, that’s what it felt like; it was actually -25C). I was ill prepared for the cold.
No touchdowns were scored, giving me and 32,332 other people no reason to jump out of our seats to get the blood circulating again. With the Eskimos leading the Montreal Alouettes 9-7, the Als sprang to life and got the ball deep into Edmonton territory with their only substantial play of the game. I remember thinking, as Don Sweet took to the field to kick a 19-yard chip shot game-winning field goal, that I nearly died just to watch the Eskimos lose! But the snap was bobbled, the kick went wide left, and the Eskimos escaped with the win. I could finally jump to my feet, although it was a struggle with frozen knees locked into place.
You don’t risk your life for something you don’t care about. And it’s not just the Eskimos, it’s the league.
It is Canada’s only true national sports league, with teams in six of our 10 provinces, and with any luck a Maritime team in the near future (assuming there is a future). It has a glorious, sometimes crazy history that predates the NFL by decades. And, just like Canada, it has survived often in spite of itself.
I am fully aware that a lot of sports fans, young people in particular, disparage the CFL as second rate, played by Americans not good enough for the NFL. In Canada’s three biggest cities, the CFL barely registers; in Toronto, the team would be a distant fifth in fan support, even behind the third-rate soccer offered up by Toronto FC (which plays in an American league, of course). But for me, the fact the CFL survives at all is a Canadian miracle. We are besotted with all things American in this country, and I feel we have to cling to every last vestige of Canadiana lest we become just a second-tier USA.
So this Sunday, I will sadly flip around the channels, catching the occasional glimpse of an NFL game that I have no interest in, mourning what should have been.