On July 28 and 29 of last year, me and my girlfriend decided to go into Canada for the first time in our lives. It was the culmination of a journey that took me ten years to complete, sans my battle with cancer, sans the delays and the money, and even sans a indoor football season. Two months before that, I was working as a bike salesman on the banks of the Ohio River, spending my weekends as the equipment manager of the Cincinnati Marshals, who play, now without the Cincinnati part, in the National Indoor Football League, a league that doesn’t even appear on most pro football maps. We were supposed to go in to Canada two weeks prior to the trip, when we thought the Marshals had forfeited their playoff game due to lack of an arena to play it in. But a newspaper article in the Cincinnati Enquirer dated July 12, 2006 changed everything. The article stated that the Marshals were awarded said game because of arena enforcement on the other teams side. So, it was off to St. Louis, and it was bye-bye to plans to drink from maple trees, if only for a short time.
Two weeks later, my next opportunity to go somewhere, and this time it was on.
After a five hour drive into Detroit, a meeting with an inquisitive border guard, the stepping of the feet into Canadian soil that made my welcome into Canada official, and mile after mile (or should I say kilometer) of Canadian flags, we made it into a town called Hamilton. We pulled into a street, and following the purchase of delicious Canadian lemonade, we were led to an activity the whole city went out for. The event was at Ivor Wynne Stadium in a small college campus on the shore of Lake Ontario, just 40 or so miles south of Toronto, which was to be our destination. The sport was football. It was a Canadian Football League game between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. So I buy a pair of tickets ($20 Canadian apiece) and enter what seems to be a high school football stadium ready for a Friday Night showdown.
That is when the weirdness of it all starts.
Within seconds of surveying the territory I notice a big C on the middle of the field. I notice a guy in a tuxedo chanting “Wig-E-Wee-Wee, Wig-E-Wah-Wah, Holy Mackinaw, Tigers Eat ‘Em Raw”. I notice a family atmosphere. I notice an alumni club with their own clubhouse. I notice many things I never expect from NFL teams, who just expect you to churn out big bucks for a seat and never do anything to keep fans happy.
I pay only four dollars for a Pepsi and a slice of Pizza Pizza brand pizza, which would cost twelve at your average NFL game. Mascots running around and sitting with the faithful. Everything. And it was all broadcast on a Friday night courtesy of “TSN”. In the NFL, they insist on Sunday games only and air them in God knows how many networks. In Canada, just two… the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The Sports Network. The next night, we hit a game between the Toronto Argonauts and the British Columbia Lions at Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome). After the game, the NFL expects that you leave the stadium immediately. In the CFL, bands entertain in the end zones on the field, available for all to walk on. In Hamilton, they had a big ceremony honoring the newest record holder for CFL catches, and it didn’t even hit 1000 yet. In the NFL, a 1000th catch is usually followed by the referee demanding the ball back, or penalizing you 15 yards for excessive celebration.
Why do they treat the fans so much better?
Well, that is what you get from the Canadian Football League. The league starts in June rather than September, ends in November instead of January, takes Labor Day and their Thanksgiving (second week of October in Canada) very seriously, and ends with a game called the Grey Cup. There are eight teams in all: the Tiger-Cats, Blue Bombers, Lions, Argonauts, Montreal Alouettes, Saskatchewan Rough Riders, Calgary Stampeders, and Edmonton Eskimos. The game is played the same format as the NFL only with a few tweaks to the system. Remember me talking about that “C”? Its the 55 yard line. In the CFL, the field is 110 yards long and the end zones are almost triple the size of the NFL’s. The goalpost is in front of the end zone instead of behind it. There are 12 players per side rather than 11. They play with three downs instead of four. And the most unique part is they give you one point for punting the ball into the end zone. Plus, more games; eighteen games in twenty weeks for all eight teams in the league.
The NFL mandates at least 60,000 seats per stadium and requires a sold-out stadium before the game is broadcast in the home teams market. In the CFL, they don’t care.
In 2006, the CFL was also the home of NFL refugee Ricky Williams, the suspended Miami Dolphin runner who found a loophole to sign for a season with Toronto and ultimately change the way they do things. From now on, no player under any kind of suspension from any league is allowed to play in the CFL. Now, ordinarily you have to go through twenty or so NFL security guards before you get to Ricky. But, in the CFL, all I had to do was go through twenty or so fans to get a chance to shake his hand and tell him he played a good game. After the Toronto game, we had to pack our bags and cross the border back to the United States and back to the drab routine. But it wasn’t the last time we went back for the CFL. The week before Thanksgiving across the Detroit River, we crossed into Canada again and went to the casino in Windsor. In a small corner television, we saw Montreal and British Columbia play in the Grey Cup game. A few hours later, as the Lions hoisted the Grey Cup, me and my girlfriend looked at each other and smiled, knowing that at least in one small portion of North America, sports was saved.