Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The importance of the Grey Cup

I’m in Calgary to cover the Grey Cup, and will be providing plenty of material on it all week. First off, though, I thought I’d address the importance of this event.As a writer covering both the CFL and NFL, and one who frequently writes for an American audience, I’ve faced my share of skepticism about the league and the Grey Cup over the years. Detractors of the CFL often try to diminish it by direct comparisons to the NFL, and on that playing field, the CFL can’t compete; it doesn’t have the resources to pay the NFL’s massive salaries or stage anything on the scale of the Super Bowl. Those detractors are missing the point, though.

The CFL isn’t trying to be the NFL, and the Grey Cup isn’t trying to be the Super Bowl. Instead, both offer compelling alternatives. Despite having only eight teams, the CFL has a devoted following across the country, and it delivers exciting action that often goes down to the wire week in and week out. The three-down game makes for an interesting product dominated by passing where few leads are safe. There’s no “three yards and a cloud of dust” here. In fact, the NFL’s rediscovery of passing-oriented offences in the past few decades can partly be attributed to the influence of the CFL. Key figures such as Warren Moon and Marv Levy got their start north of the border, and many other American players and coaches started adopting CFL methods. Even with recent moves towards the passing game in the States, the Canadian product is still much more pass-heavy. This season was more notable for rushing offence than many, and even featured one team (the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) daring to operate out of the I-formation instead of the shotgun, but aerial attack still prevailed. The game’s still very different up here, and that’s a good thing. An NFL Lite approach wouldn’t be anywhere as interesting.

The same holds true for the Grey Cup. The game itself, and the festival around it, are not trying to be watered-down versions of the NFL’s Super Bowl Week. Instead, the league has taken their own approach, putting on an event that’s more about history, community and fans than anything the NFL can offer.

The Grey Cup has a long and proud history dating back to 1909, and was originally awarded by the Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey. It’s been competed for and won by everyone from the University of Toronto Varsity Blues to Queen’s University to a team representing the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Toronto base, and was even won by the oddly-named Toronto Balmy Beach team in 1927. If you’ve been to Toronto, you know the beaches there are usually anything but balmy. The Cup even travelled south of the border in 1995, when the Baltimore Stallions beat the Calgary Stampeders. Oddly enough, Baltimore later moved to Montreal and became the latest version of the Alouettes, so they’ll be competing for the Cup again this week. The Alouettes have never faced the Saskatchewan Roughriders before in the Grey Cup, but the two cities have squared off; the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association club beat the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in 1931.Those kind of odd historical notes give the trophy, and the game, its own unique feel. The CFL’s embraced that history and is putting on an event that’s all about the fans. It’s not the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t have to be; as Dave Naylor of The Globe and Mail wrote, this might just be more fun.

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