FOR THE CANADIAN Football League, it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. In a remarkably disaster-free 2004 season, the CFL got a good bounce even from its one notable blunder of the year. On-field officials mistakenly called a no-yards penalty on the last play of an Oct. 22 game between the Calgary Stampeders and B.C. Lions, costing the Stamps a victory, highlighting some glaring shortcomings in the league’s officiating.
But thanks to the post-game controversy— Calgary fans were furious, and the team’s brass petitioned the league to have the result overturned, to no avail—TV networks rebroadcast the play for days. And what a play. The Stampeders exploited one of those quirky rules left over from the CFL’s rugby roots and made it work. With no time left on the clock and trailing 19-17, Calgary quarterback Khari Jones threw a short forward pass to receiver Mike Juhasz, who promptly punted the ball deep into the B.C. end. The surprised Lions were slow to react, which allowed Stampeder receiver Sulecio Sanford, who was behind Juhasz when the ball was kicked, to race downfield, scoop up the loose ball and dash into the end zone for what should have been the winning touchdown. It was daring, unpredictable, thrilling to watch— and 100-per-cent Canadian. “It was the perfect call by the coach, the perfect kick, everything worked out perfectly,” Sanford said.
More than four million fans will tune into the CFL’s championship game this week, hoping for a little more of that gridiron magic. It isn’t because of marketing or luck. It’s because it’s the 92nd Grey Cup, a national sporting event with more history than the Stanley Cup finals. Even occasional fans recall classic Cups, like the 43-40 barnburner between Saskatchewan and Hamilton in 1989 that the Roughriders won on the final play of the game. Games are often marked by the extreme conditions in which they were contested, like the 1962 game that was stopped midway through by an impenetrable fog that descended on the field in Toronto; it was completed the next day. Then there was the 1996 thriller between Edmonton and Toronto, played in a blizzard that dumped more than a foot of snow onto the frozen turf in Hamilton. Who knows what’ll happen this Sunday?
CFL football has a peculiar and appealing Canadianness, which plays well in an era when Canada is becoming more politically distinct from our southern neighbour. Hockey, baseball and basketball are all continental sports, says David Mills, a history prof at the University of Alberta, whereas the three-down game is unique. “CFL football has remained largely unchanged, whether it’s the single point on missed field goals or the bigger field,” Mills adds. “The game is just different.” The CFL also lives in places other pro sports ignore. “It thrives in smaller cities like Regina and Winnipeg,” Mills says. “It’s a magnificent way to build a sense of community, and a team gives that community a real identity.” And whereas the Super Bowl will never be played in Green Bay, the Grey Cup reinforces the point that every CFL team, no matter how big its market, plays on a level field. This week it’s being hosted by Ottawa, next year it’s in Vancouver and in 2006 it’s in Winnipeg. That inclusiveness, says commissioner Tom Wright, is the CFL’s great strength. “Hockey may be our national game,” he says, “but the CFL is our national league.”
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