If it snows, the Eskimos will win. If it rains, then it'll be the All-Wets." That was the smart tip last week as football fans from all over Canada converged on La Belle Province for Sunday's 65th annual Grey Cup game—that elderly, spry, sub-Arctic ancestor of the Super Bowl. The site was Montreal's 68,511-seat Olympic Stadium, and the contenders were the Edmonton Eskimos, champions of the Canadian Football League's Western Conference, and the Montreal Alouettes, their Eastern counterparts.
Well, it snowed and snowed, and then snowed some more.
Eskimo hopes surged, but then the snow stopped and game day broke clear and a frosty 16° F. Though there was no rain to fulfill the tipsters' prophecy, the Eskimos might just as well have stayed in their igloos. Edmonton, which had yielded only one point in its two previous games, coughed up a season's worth as the All-Wets crushed the Eskimos 41-6. Edmonton hardly helped itself by committing nine turnovers, five more than Montreal. It was scarcely an esthetically pleasing 60 minutes of football, but then Americans ought not to be too scornful—after all, there hasn't been a really well-executed Super Bowl since the Namath Jets did in Baltimore nine years ago.
Once an American's eyes got adjusted to the outsized field and alien rules of Canadian football, it became clear that the Alouettes were head and shoulders the best football team in the north country. Montreal Quarterback Sonny Wade, a veteran from that Virginia powerhouse, Emory & Henry, completed 22 of 40 passes for 340 yards (and only one interception) to win the Most Valuable Player award. Placekicker Don Sweet, a native of Vancouver who played at Washington State, hit on six of seven field goals to tie the CFL game record in that department and accounted for two "singles" on other kicks. That won him the Outstanding Canadian Player honors. The Montreal defense, playing a heads-up mix of zone and man-to-man coverage, held Edmonton Quarterback Bruce Lemmerman (you, of course, remember him from San Fernando State and, very briefly, the Atlanta Falcons) to a paltry 74 yards on five for 22 passes. In fact, the total Edmonton offensive production amounted to only 102 yards. Montreal amassed 424.
December 5, 1977
To some extent, the frozen AstroTurf led to the general sloppiness of play—the north end zone, all 40 acres of it, was slick as a hockey rink. If Guy La-fleur had been playing for Edmonton and had remembered to bring his skates, it might have been a ball game.
For all that, very few fans went away totally disappointed. Championship games generate a mystique all their own and confer a sense of status on all who attend, win or lose. They also drain bank balances with lightning speed, and with the top ticket at the Big O, as Montrealers call the Olympic Stadium, going for $24, including a $3 service charge, this game set a revenue record for Canadian football.
As the triumphant Als skittered and slid back to their locker room, fans cascaded onto the field to rip at the red-white-and-blue goalposts (Alouette colors, not traitorous pro-Americanism) or to take long belly whoppers on the frozen sections of the field. And CFL Commissioner Jake Gaudaur presented the Grey Cup to the winning co-captains. Actually, it wasn't the real Grey Cup, but a replica. That venerable trophy, which over the years has been lost and found again, and used as a champagne goblet, has been honorably retired to the Canadian football museum in Hamilton, Ontario.
As if the snow—Quebec's first blizzard of the season—weren't enough, Montreal's transportation workers did their own dirty best to foul up the festivities by calling a strike for Grey Cup weekend. One of the prime assets of the Big O is that the Metro runs straight to the door. Until this year the Alouettes played all their home games at the Autostade, a remotely located stadium with poor parking facilities. Attendance in the old days, even when the Alouettes had a winning team, rarely exceeded 20,000. This year, though, the Als packed them in, hitting over 60,000 for half of their eight-game home schedule. But neither snow nor strikers could dim the enthusiasm of the True Believers. The Big O sold out.
A case could be made—and 22 million Canadians are only too delighted to make it—that the Grey Cup beats the Super Bowl all hollow, both as a championship game and as a spectacle. Certainly when it comes to historical resonance, raucous hijinks, pregame hoopla and just plain wide-open, non-stop football, the Canadian game is No. 1. "In terms of national impact," says Minnesota Viking Coach Bud Grant, the only man to lead teams into both the Grey Cup and the Super Bowl, "the Grey Cup is far greater."
The Grey Cup got its start back in 1909 when Earl Grey, tea entrepreneur and Governor-General of Canada, donated a $48 silver cup for "the amateur rugby football championship" of the nation. Just as American football was exclusively a college sport back in the days of Walter Camp, Pop Warner and Percy Haughton, so it was in Canada. The dominating team of those early years was that of the University of Toronto, whose Varsity Blues won the first three cup games.
In 1935 the Grey Cup became a professional show with the importation of American players. Until 1948, however, the game and its attendant foofaraw were rather staid. In that year, though, a war party of Calgary Stampeder fans took Toronto by storm for the big game. They knocked good gray Toronto on her ladylike ear. Replete with chaps, spurs. Stetsons and cow ponies, they conducted ox roasts and hot-cake orgies on the street corners, even galloped their steeds through the lobby of the Royal York Hotel. The tone was set.
Last week in Montreal, even though Calgary was not playing, Stampeder fans were everywhere—belting banjos and bluegrass in the elevator banks of downtown hotels, guzzling hooch in the saloons and bo√Ætes and generally raising a good-natured brand of Holy Ned. There were thousands of other celebrants—Montrealers in their outlandish habitant toques, Eskimo-lovers in yellow-and-green hard hats (Alberta is oil country), even a couple of quasi-Sasquatches in kelly-green and buttercup-yellow suits, spooking the jeunes filles in the lobbies. Though snow was pelting down the afternoon before the game, the Grey Cup parade went off as scheduled, with floats flouncing and bagpipes skirling through the icy canyons of downtown Montreal. As Canadians have long observed, the Grey Cup serves as a kind of northland Mardi Gras—a final blowout before the deadening dark of winter sets in.
But for all the hilarity and high spirits that permeated this year's game, another form of darkness hovered over the Grey Cup's future—the specter of Quebec separatism. If the province finally does pull out of the national federation—and many astute observers feel that it is bound to happen, even if only gradually and nonviolently over perhaps the next 10 years—it could not only spell the end of Canada as a whole but, almost certainly, the end of Canadian football. Already there is talk of Montreal getting a National Football League franchise in the next expansion, and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau is outspoken in his desire for one. Few football men on either side of the border doubt that the city, with a population of just over two million, could support an NFL franchise. But of the other eight teams in the CFL, only Toronto and, perhaps, Vancouver could turn the trick. Most of the CFL franchises are sickly, if not downright moribund. Canadian television pays peanuts compared to the U.S. networks—last year's Grey Cup, for example, generated only $245,000 in TV revenue—and even with a 16-game season, gate receipts cannot begin to pay off expenses, although CFL players earn less than half what their American cousins do.
If any Canadian team does jump leagues, it would logically be Montreal. But that decision lies in the hands of Sam Berger, the 77-year-old Ottawa lawyer and football aficionado who bought the team for a CFL-record $1.5 million in 1969. Many Canadians thought at the time that it was a bum gamble. After all, the Als had not even played in the Grey Cup since 1956. But Berger's bucks and determination paid off: Montreal has made it to the Grey Cup four times—1970, '74, '75 and now '77—losing only the 1975 game.
"The Montreal franchise was sick and going to die," Berger says. "Buying it was my contribution to Canadian unity. Even in 1969, people were leaving Quebec. I decided I was going to set an example by moving into the province." If Berger means what he says, then it would seem unlikely that Montreal will soon be matched against the Colts or the Cowboys. But, as the man says, money talks—perhaps even more loudly in fractured and inflation-frazzled Canada than south of the border.
If so, its first utterance will no doubt be: "Welcome aboard, Als."