November 25th, 2020

Inside the CFL: All that could have been

By Graham Kelly on November 21, 2020.

My beautiful wife Lorena and I were planning to enjoy the sights and culinary delights of Hamilton this week, culminating in the playing of the 108th Grey Cup between the hometown Tabbies and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I covered Grey Cups 1974-77 and 1979 through 2019 for the News, a 40-year streak ended by COVID-19.

Tonight I will be snug in my bed while visions of Grey Cups dance in my head.

The last time Grey Cup play was suspended was 1919, generally believed to be because of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Not so. McGill University declined post-season action because of mid-term exams. The Toronto Argonauts wouldn’t participate in an Eastern Final without McGill. The Canadian Rugby Union cancelled the big game.

All 44 Grey Cup games I attended were meaningful in their own way. My first in 1974 in Vancouver was staged in a torrential down pour, 1975 in Calgary was incredibly cold, -30C with the wind chill. The temperature at game time in 1991 in Winnipeg was -19C. Argo quarterback Matt Dunigan played with a collarbone broken in several places. Rocket Ishmail electrified the frozen crowd with brilliant returns, as Toronto downed Calgary 36-21. The first Cup played in Saskatchewan, 1995, was notable for a wind that made the Regina Cyclone of 1912 seem like a gentle breeze. Baltimore beat the Stampeders 37-20, spiriting our beloved trophy south of the border. The year before Lui Passaglia and the Lions repelled the U.S. invasion in a thriller at B.C. Place, downing the Baltimore Stallions 26-23.

For me the most memorable Grey Cup and the best ever played was 1989 at the SkyDome in Toronto, when the Saskatchewan Roughriders engaged the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. After losing the Grey Cup to Ottawa in 1976, the darkest day in Saskatchewan sports history, a football drought set in. As Joseph told the pharaoh in Genesis, “Seven years of great abundance will be followed by seven years of famine…”

Joseph was a piker. Try 11 years of feast and famine. Children grew into adults wondering why their team was never allowed to win. Little heads began to wonder if contrary to the bedtime stories their mothers told them, Ron Lancaster, George Reed and Ed McQuarters never existed. Grey Cup? Finding the Holy Grail would have been easier. Only one Grey Cup pennant flew forlornly at Taylor Field, representing their sole victory in 1966.

In previous Cup appearances, the Riders were a power house. In 1989, they finished third before winning the semi-final in Calgary and knocking off the 16-2 Edmontonians up north. Expectations were low and Hamilton was favoured. Rider Coach John Gregory demurred but played the prophet.. “I felt good about the game before it ever started. I was positive we were going to win. At the press conference the day before, I said the game would come down to a last-second kick and there isn’t anybody I’d rather have kicking the ball than Dave Ridgway.”

It was bombs away with Saskatchewan’s Kent Austin and receivers Ray Elgaard, Jeff Fairholm and Don Narcisse versus Mike Kerrigan, Earl Winfield and Tony Champion. Hamilton led 13-1 after 15 minutes but Austin wasn’t worried. “We had enough weapons to put points on the board. Offence in the CFL is a matter of tempo. Once we got a couple of first downs, we had an unbelievable second quarter.”

They scored 21 points. Hamilton replied with 14 to lead 27-22 at the half.

The Westerners outscored the Cats 14-3 in the third stanza. Hamilton tallied two TDs in the fourth quarter, Ridgway replied with a brace of FGs making the score 40-40. With their final possession, Austin got his team to the enemy 26. With two seconds left, Ridgway took the field. The snap was back, Glen Suiter put the ball down, the kick was away. For a split second the great domed stadium was silent. As the ball flew toward the goal posts, the crowd roared. When it split the uprights, all Saskatchewan fans including our sons who were there, followed the ball onto cloud nine.

Saskatchewan 43, Hamilton 40.

Pressure? “I just don’t see living in this province if I missed it,” said Ridgway later.

The 1980s had been a difficult decade for Saskatchewan and the win was just the tonic the province needed.

No matter how desperate the times have been for the CFL, the Grey Cup has been its salvation. May it be so again when play resumes next year.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 48 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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