It used to be so much better, eh? The Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football League, the Super Bowl of the North. Remember when the folks from Calgary brought the stampede to Toronto, riding horses through the halls of the Royal York Hotel? It really used to be something, the moneyed East vs. the agrarian West, regional jingoism ringing clear and loud.
But in the days before Sunday's Grey Cup, the atmosphere in host city Montreal was one of doom and gloom. Attendance in the CFL had been slipping and there was red ink on many a club ledger. Montreal even appeared to be losing its own team, the Concordes, until, in a press conference Friday, board chairman L. Edmond Ricard announced that it would continue operations. Meanwhile, the local media chided the populace for its apparent apathy over the Cup.
On Sunday, though, 56,723 fans who showed up at Olympic Stadium were treated to a rousing contest worthy of the wild and woolly good old days as the British Columbia Lions beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 37-24. As befits the wide-open CFL style of play, Lion quarterback Roy Dewalt threw touchdown passes of 84, 59 and 66 yards.
The Cup offered a classic matchup of contrasting teams and cities. Hamilton is a blue-collar steel town on the rebound, the Pittsburgh of the North, with a history of ferocious defensive teams and defensive legends. "People compare our defense now to the great ones of the past," said Hamilton defensive end Grover Covington. "We're like the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. The people in Hamilton appreciate defense, and in a lot of ways we reflect the city."
In 1983 owner Harold Ballard had ordered that the team's equipment be put into moving vans and threatened to switch the TiCats to Toronto if he couldn't get a new deal on Ivor Wynne Stadium and concessions. It was largely a bluff, but the city fathers negotiated, and the team stayed. The TiCats still lose money, still play in the smallest and most decrepit facility in the CFL. But like the people of the city, the TiCats have survived. After a 1-6 start they finished 8-8 to squeak through to the East Division title and qualify for the Cup. It was the worst record ever for a division winner.
Conversely, Vancouver is a beautiful, temperate and cosmopolitan city. The Lions play in the space-age downtown dome called B.C. Place, replete with facilities that would make some NFL organizations envious. The Lions, 13-3 and West champs for the third year in a row, were fast, flashy and supported with unparalleled fervor. "We're very fortunate," said B.C. coach Don Matthews. "But we have to be very aware of what's happening in the rest of the league."
There was speculation in Montreal that the league office was quietly hoping for a Hamilton victory Sunday, which might rekindle interest and the level of play in the East Division. All four East teams are privately owned, and all are ailing. In the West, all five teams are publicly owned, and three of them—the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Edmonton Eskimos and B.C.—are financially healthy.
But the Lions shattered the East's bid for a moment of glory with a mad bombing attack right out of a Daryle Lamonica playbook. With an injury to wide receiver Mervyn Fernandez, a sure NFL prospect after his contract expires next season, Dewalt relied on two former San Diego State Aztecs, Ned Armour (three receptions, 151 yards, two touchdowns) and Jim Sandusky (six for 135 yards, one TD). Dewalt, one of the few drop-back passers in the CFL, found Armour with an 84-yard touchdown bomb on B.C.'s second possession. Armour leaped high above cornerback Less Browne, wrestled for the ball and slipped away for the score. After two field goals by Lui Passaglia, B.C. led 13-0 early in the second quarter.
But Hamilton came back, in its graceless but effective water-buffalo fashion. For former Idaho quarterback Ken Hobart, a USFL and CFL itinerant, the best play is one that breaks down between the huddle and the snap. He turns order into chaos and makes it work, doing nothing particularly well except putting points on the board. "I almost cut that guy because he was such a lousy practice player," said Hamilton coach Al Bruno.
Hobart lofted a Joe Kapp Special to Ron Ingram for a 35-yard jump-ball touchdown to make it 13-7. Six minutes later he reverted to his specialty: running for his life. Hobart, who had gained 928 yards, third in the CFL and a league record for quarterback, scrambled 61 yards to key a go-ahead TD drive.
On B.C.'s next possession Passaglia, in to punt, ran for a first down when Hamilton threatened to block the kick. Then, with 1:20 left in the half, Dewalt found Armour over the middle for a 59-yard touchdown. Passaglia added a 24-yard field goal with five seconds left after a fumble by Hobart, to make it 23-14.
By then, Dewalt had 289 yards passing (he finished with 394) and had shredded the Hamilton secondary that had broken the league record for interceptions with 46. Nothing could have been sweeter for Dewalt, who threw his third touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. He is often booed in Vancouver, and he was not named to the CFL All-Star team despite leading the league in pass completions (301), passing yardage (4,237) and touchdowns (27).
"It's been a very difficult season, despite our record," Dewalt said after the Cup triumph. "I guess right now I'm thinking about some of the bad times. Maybe that's strange, but it makes this time right now feel even better." Said Covington, "The only way to beat him is to get in his face. It amazes me he's not an All-Star. As far as I'm concerned, he's the best passing quarterback in the league."
The TiCats scored twice in the second half, but this was Dewalt's day. As for the CFL, the cloud over the Grey Cup has lifted temporarily, but there's surely stormy weather ahead.
With two touchdown catches, the Lions' Armour put dents in the Tiger-Cat secondary.
Hamilton lost the game but was strong in the rooting wars.