Sports Column

To sit on the ice in Lake Winnipegosis, you have to be drunk, or crazy, or both

Trent Frayne November 19 1979
Sports Column

To sit on the ice in Lake Winnipegosis, you have to be drunk, or crazy, or both

Trent Frayne November 19 1979

To sit on the ice in Lake Winnipegosis, you have to be drunk, or crazy, or both

Sports Column

Trent Frayne

Looking at the Toronto Argonauts— oh, go on, it’ll feel marvelous when you stop—a visitor might conclude that football in Canada is in terrible shape. The Argos are the worst team money can buy. They are so bad that even the glassy-eyed thousands who have followed them through thin and thin for 27 fruitless years have begun to walk past the ticket windows.

Attendance fell off by more than 6,000 a game to the lowest since their park was renovated to accommodate the only team south of the North Pole (some say north of the South Pole) that’s worse than the Argonauts, the marauding Blue Jays, an assortment of young folks in baseball suits.

In the rest of Canada the state of football is not, well, unbullish—just over 24 million over-all, a 31,000 average for the 72 games. The throngs are up in four towns and down in another four of the Canadian Football League. _

Interest is as high as derü ricks in Alberta, where 5 the Eskimos and the £ Stampeders attracted slightly more than 600,000 patrons between them—an increase of 52,384 in Edmonton where the champion Esks have their new park, and 47,361 in Calgary where the onrushing Stamps have their new team (this one wins). Attendance also rose (by 19,003) in Vancouver and in Regina (by 6,786), thanks to a resurgence of “Rider Pride” for the last three home games.

The numbers were down in all four eastern outlets by a shocking but not really baffling 161,124. Ottawa was Ottawa, where nobody gets very excited about anything, and so a drop of 3,205 over eight home games was meaningless. Toronto was Toronto. Hamilton was Hamilton, where people flock to a winner and won’t touch a loser with a $3 bill. The season started abominably but swept up the steelworkers in enthusiasm when key holes were plugged halfway through. Leaving Montreal.

The Alouettës may be the best football team in the country, a statement to stand even through an acid rain of can-

celled subscriptions from Alberta. Nonetheless, the Alouettes dropped almost 80,000 in attendance at the Big Owe, the world’s most expensive ball park. From a record 435,954 in 1978, and in spite of a media rampage when linebacker Tom Cousineau was snatched from the National Football League, the numbers skidded to 356,839.

Is there a message here?

Yes—break up the Expos.

By a rude coincidence, the CFL schedule booked three of the worst teams, east or west, into Olympic Stadium for

the four home dates the Alouettes hoped to enjoy in August and September—the Argonauts, naturally, along with stuttering Winnipeg and sunk Saskatchewan. The only game to encourage a borderliner to lay down his money was a Monday nighter when Ottawa came in. Montrealers always like to watch their heroes mash the Rough Riders (they enjoy watching them barbecue the Argonauts, too, but repetition has jaded them).

Anyway, as everybody knows, this was the year of the Expos, not just above .500 for the first time in history but even a genuine World Series threat. Right to the final moment, right to the instant on Sunday, Sept. 30, when Steve Carlton, the Phillies’ superior lefthander, wouldn’t let them breathe any longer. Through all those weeks, what the Expos were doing was extracting money from the sports fans’ pockets. Where maybe 8,000 or 10,000 might have watched them totter through the final weeks in other years, now there

were throngs of 40,000 and 50,000, and what the hell did they care for the Alouettes? Or, sacré bleu, even the preparations of les Canadiens for a new assault on the Stanley Cup?

All right. So there isn’t much wrong with football that a little competitiveness in Hamilton and Winnipeg and Regina won’t stir, and chances are Expomania will level off from hysteria to mere fervor. There is, however, one thing about Canadian football that demands attention. The season now meanders through 21 weeks of summer and autumn in order that the best teams in the country and the people determined to watch them can freeze to death during November’s playoffs. Contrary to a widespread notion, there’s no real reason to delay the finals, east and west, until fans’ noses drop off, bloodless, icy blobs, and their toes turn a lifeless blue. Also, it’s not absolutely essential that the Grey Cup game turn up on the last Sunday of November. What sense does it make that fans pay $25 a seat to simulate the sensation of sitting on an ice floe in Lake Winnipegosis or to show up (a) drunk, (b) crazy, or best of all (c) both, if survival matters?

These days, the 16-game schedule starts in the second week of July and ends in the first week of November. That handles four preseason games for each team in three weeks of June and a week of July. Which means training camps open around June 1. “How can you go back any farther than that?” asks the kindly commissioner, Jacob Gill Gaudaur.

Well, the response here is, why can’t you? What’s wrong with a mid-May training camp? If teams can play exhibition games through half of June, why can’t they play ’em through all of June? Or, if that’s too big a problem, why not cut out a couple of those preseason duds, start the season sooner and get to the pièce de résistance before the blood congeals and the patient atrophies?

As for the Argonauts, forget ’em. It’s like trying to cure the common cold.