Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

They’re Ours, We’re Theirs

Small-time? Yes, but also small-town. That charm is what makes the Canadian Football League so great

By
Bruce Arthur
· More from Bruce·

For some people, all they know about the Canadian Football League comes from the time Homer Simpson watched the CFL draft, and the announcers say the Saskatchewan Roughriders scored only four rouges all last season. The show was missing the Ottawa Rough Riders, and how two teams with the same basic name were in the same eight-or-nine team league for 35 years. Oh, and one of them once drafted a dead man. If that was in there, joke-wise, you’d pretty much be covered.

CFL jokes tend to be about how this is a small-time, oddball league, and most of them are therefore true. There are Canadians who hate the league because it’s small: because it has often teetered on the edge of dissolution, because it features 18-game regular seasons with eight or nine teams, because Canadians have to play. A lot of people dismiss it, essentially, because it’s not the NFL.

And that’s one reason to love it, actually. The Canadian Football League is, at its heart, a small town. It’s been around forever, through all sorts of weather, and everybody knows everybody. It’s part of the charm. In Hamilton, the same mom and son, Barb and Steve, have been bringing fresh-baked cookies to practice since 1980 or so. They’re like family.

There are reasons for this. The CFL’s minimum salary just rose to $50,000, and not many players stray too far into six figures. The line between fans and players has never been much of a line, if only because their respective take-home (quarterbacks excepted) aren’t very different at all.

Kory Sheets, the MVP of the 2013 Grey Cup, still worked as a truck driver’s assistant in the oil fields last winter.

So Saskatchewan running back Kory Sheets, the MVP of the 2013 Grey Cup, still worked as a truck driver’s assistant in the oil fields last winter, along with two other members of the team. The guy who beat out Sheets for the league’s Most Outstanding Player award, Calgary running back Jon Cornish, was named Canada’s top athlete in December. He did his conference call while on break from his day job as an investment consultant at a bank, in a shopping mall.

The silos of bigger pro sports don’t really exist here, and the result is a league where fans and players can actually live in the same world. Milt Stegall was already the league’s all-time leader in touchdowns when his wife became pregnant with his second child, and he needed a bigger place to live. It was his final season after a stellar career as a wide receiver in Winnipeg, and a local businessman named Ernie Epp offered his basement.

Stegall was skeptical, but he checked it out. The basement was about 2,000 square feet, with a kitchen and a bathroom, and the whole family moved in, rent-free. Epp’s wife watched the kid on game days, and Stegall—a Cincinnati native who played collegiately at Miami (Ohio)—still calls them the Canadian grandparents. Ask Stegall what he misses most about the game, and he pauses. He says it’s the people who watch.

“We need them more than they need us,” says Stegall, who played parts of three seasons with the Bengals and who now does TV analysis for TSN. “I don’t know if everyone understands that, but we need them more than they need us. This is not like the NFL where they don’t need fans to show up to the games because they have the big TV contracts and the revenue sharing.

“Guys who play in the CFL, a majority of us are from small colleges, and if we did play in the NFL it wasn’t for that long, so most of us didn’t have that much notoriety until we got to the CFL. So we’re thinking, Wow, this is a pretty cool experience, being recognized.

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The MMQB is invading Canada. On Monday, Bears coach Marc Trestman wrote about his time north of the border and everything you need to know about the CFL’s rules and quirks.


On Tuesday, Doug Flutie shared his love of all things CFL, especially the wide-open offenses that are finally making their way to the NFL decades later.

“Because when we go home, the second we cross that border, we’re just a normal, everyday citizen, and nobody recognizes us as a football player or anything else. But when we come back to Canada …”

Then they’re ours, and we’re theirs. Size isn’t strength; a connection is. The metropolitan areas of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto make up about a third of the national population, and the Grey Cup works fine there, despite that embarrassing 15-year absence from Toronto after the apathetic debacle of 1992. Almost a third of the SkyDome was empty for that game, or about half the population of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

But the championship week works best on the Prairie, in the real cold, outdoors. The Grey Cup inhabits places like Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg. There, it truly matters, and the tribes all gather together, every year. It’s so damned earnest.

“The Grey Cup is a massive Canadian party, but it’s on a much more human scale,” says Peter Dyakowski, a guard for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats who also was named Canada’s Smartest Person in a CBC reality show, and has appeared on Jeopardy. “It’s the same people every year. It’s a human-sized league.” Dyakowski, for the record, has been an all-star, lives in a middle-class neighbourhood, and doesn’t shop in Hamilton’s fancier supermarkets.

There’s a nostalgia to all this, sure, and the small town isn’t always pleasant. In this year’s labour dispute the league played hardball, and the players got small concessions on money and safety in a league with a big new TV contract, and a ninth team, and new stadiums either built, or renovated, or being built across the country. The labour fight, which didn’t cost anything but goodwill, may have signified that the recent growth in revenues is going to change this thing.

But it hasn’t, not yet. Every sport is at least partly defined by when it begins, and when it ends. Baseball begins in the spring and ends in late fall. The NFL charges into winter, and at the last minute usually escapes to somewhere warm. Hockey and basketball keep you inside all winter, and stop when you want to go outside.

And then there is the Canadian Football League. It begins with the relief of summer, and ends in late November, usually on a dark cold night, with winter yet to come. Like the CFL, winter in Canada is different everywhere. And like the CFL, we all get through it together.


Bruce Arthur is the lead sports columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. He spent 13 years at the National Post, one of Canada’s national papers, and has covered six Grey Cups.

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39 comments
kenc29
kenc29

My first game was 48 years ago when I was 5yrs old, a Hamilton Tiger Cats game and I still remember it vividly. The great green and yellow uniforms, quite vivid since I'd only seen them on a black and white TV before that, the hot dog with mustard. Walking around the stadium all by myself. Falling asleep in the car as we waited to get out of the parking lot.

Peter Parker1
Peter Parker1

Still needs to have a Canadian born quarterback star in this league.

grogseal
grogseal

The CFL is very different from the NFL in so many ways. Thank God!

unitcaptain11
unitcaptain11

Am I the only one who was getting that "redirect" error since SI changed their website?  They finally fixed it apparently.


Go BC Lions!

whyimsmrtthnyou
whyimsmrtthnyou

Perfect, Bruce, absolutely perfect.  More so than a Leafs game on Saturday night or that day when the Jays are actually competing in the AL East, the CFL is a perfect fan-friendly experience, both in the stands and on the wallet. 

pirate
pirate

"We need them (the fans) more than they need us." Beautiful, and it says it all – what's fun about the CFL and what's missing in the NFL. The NFL game is better, no doubt. But the NFL knows it doesn't need us normal fans, for the most part doesn't care about us at all. We're just the turnip they keep squeezing blood out of.

2001mark
2001mark

I believe the CFL needs to expand to Halifax (somewhere Martime) & Quebec City to feel truly complete.  


It's just tough buying in to the Grey Cup as something uber worthy when teams are better than merely 8 others.  More teams even if it waters the stars down a few years is needed to help make the season & what they're playing for matter more in sports terms.


We've got the CHL with oodles of teams, the Memorial Cup really really means something there lols.  9 team league with capable cities to spare doesn't quite cut it for me any more.

CFL_historical
CFL_historical

Speaking of this season it should shape up well... From the East we have the Montreal Alouettes with Troy Smith (Heisman winner) at the controls and Chad Johnson at receiver.... along with perennial league all-star receiver SJ Green and running back Brandon Whitaker...


Ottawa an expansion franchise the Redblacks has quarterback Henry Burris (Temple) playing with a season group for an expansion team including receiver Paris Jackson and running back Chevon Walker


Toronto has Ricky Ray (Sacramento) at quarterback a future hall of famer and Chad Owens (Hawaii) at receiver and kick returner along with former Houston Texan Steve Slaton at running back


Hamilton has new quarterback Zach Collaros (Cincinatti) coming over from the Argonauts as a free agent and CJ Gable (USC) at running back.


Winnipeg under new coach Mike O'Shea has quarterback Drew Willy (Buffalo) new to the fold and Nick Moore (brother of Lance - Saints) at receiver


Saskatchewan the defending Grey Cup champions will lean on quarterback Darian Durant (North Carolina) and receiver Chris Getzlaf with veterans Weston Dressler and Korey Sheets trying out with NFL clubs


Calgary has Bo Levi Mitchell (Eastern Washington) starting at quarterback with Drew Tate (Iowa) serving as his back-up as well as defending Most Outstanding Player Jon Cornish (Kansas) at running back. Nik Lewis the veteran returns at slotback.


Edmonton will be directed by the arm and feet of quarterback Mike Reilly with all-star Fred Stamps at receiver


B.C. will await the return of injured quarterback Travis Lulay and receiver Emmanual Arceneaux with Andrew Harris and Stefan Logan leading them at running back.


Here's to a great season!

sdrfeww
sdrfeww

I lived in Saskatchewan and ya Rider football is almost bigger than hockey cause it is the only pro sport in the Province.  I remember neighbours from our small town would get off work early on Friday to drive down to Regina to catch the games the next day.  If all teams in the CFL had that level of support.  

ScottSlonim
ScottSlonim

Sounds like the CFL is better than the NFL! 


JimMacKenzie
JimMacKenzie

When the Riders play ANYWHERE, look in the stands. You will see a disturbing amount of green jerseys. That's because Rider fans may move elsewhere in the country, but the vast majority of them stay true for their entire lives. And just TRY to find a watermelon in a grocery store within ten miles of the stadium. They have all been bought up and carved into helmets.
(I don't bother with the melons because I made my own Rider viking helmet. Much less squishy...lol)


And you can buy Rider gear at the duty free shop in DUBAI.

Bulbaczar
Bulbaczar

I've been loving the Canadian coverage, but this is my favourite so far. Beautiful description of our game.

cflsteve
cflsteve

AWESOME!  I am  huge CFL fan from the States. It is high time that everyone sees just how great the level of play is in the CFL. There is a reason why the CFL has endured even longer than the NFL.

As alternative leagues have come and go in the US the CFL has stood throughout the years in North America. 

People in the US do not realize how important the CFL is to the gridiron football landscape in North America and how important it is for the NFL to have another league with such high quality.

Do not overlook the Canada's University system as well. For the CFL it has supplied players for years and now the NFL is well aware and have it well on its radar when it comes to bringing talented rookies to the NFL.

Bauer53
Bauer53

Great Job Bruce, you summed things up quite nicely.   MMQB should do a feature on Pigskin Pete in Hamilton.  

bobbysamd
bobbysamd

Long live the NFL. It's the greatest football in the world, but I love the CFL because it's different and a whole lot of fun. I wish more CFL games were on stateside cable. One day I'd like to travel to Canada to see a game.

Apollinarus
Apollinarus

That's a great picture and it says a lot about the CFL. Pictured here are Chris Getzlaf, a homegrown Saskatchewan boy and the most outstanding Canadian of the 2013 Grey Cup game and fans like real actual everyday fans like you and me. As a matter of fact directly kitty corner to where this picture was taken I was standing watching this happen from the west side upper level section 203. That's the thing about Grey Cup is that regular people can afford to go. There is not lottery. If you want to go then you put a down payment on a ticket or buy it outright as fast as you can. My Grey Cup tickets were about $350.00 a piece.

I can speak for Roughrider fans having been one now for 40 years. Our love of football in Saskatchewan nearly rivals our love for hockey and the #1 team here are the Riders. Most people in the province own some kind of Roughrider T-shirt, jersey, jacket, hat... Actually you can buy just about anything with a Roughrider logo on it, and Saskatchewan people do!

Personally I would rather be at Mosaic Stadium watching the Riders play than most any other sporting event. If I had the choice between going to the Super Bowl or watching the Riders play in the Grey Cup it would be no contest. I'd be watching the Riders. No other team in any other league can get me as excited, nervous, angry, disappointed or, most importantly, happy as the Riders can.

ZombiePatriot
ZombiePatriot

What is great about the CFL is the accessibility to the Grey Cup.  Last year on Grey Cup Sunday I went down to the Fan March to make my way to the stadium for the game.  During the walk I was tapped on the shoulder and handed a wrist band which allowed me to carry the cup (one of hundreds of people).  So, I now have a lasting memory of getting to march down the street, to the stadium carrying the Grey Cup the day the team I cheer for won (there was also a professional photographer so I was able to download a free photo of the moment).


As to the game it was one I doubt will ever be repeated as the crowd for the championship seemed to be 95% Roughrider supporters and when the Riders had won nobody except the odd random Tiger Cat fan moved.  It was also eerily silent as those in attendance stood and absorbed the moment.


I feel lucky to have access to both the NFL and the CFL.  And to those who may poo-poo the CFL as an inferior league I encourage you to take some time to understand the differences and the beauty of both games.  If you are such a big football fan that you are thirsting for more maybe it is time to sit and enjoy some CFL.


Go Riders!

GovA
GovA

Fantastic article Bruce. Nailed it

smittywyo
smittywyo

everyone should take in a CFL game, a group of us from Wyoming travel up to Regina each year to see the Riders play. The 

atmosphere is great, the beer is good, and you can't beat the poutine. The US television deal sucks with so many sports channels you would think someone would take the whole schedule. Last year one game on ESPN2 had more ratings then a MLS game for the week ratings. With so many US college players up there time for a little more recognition from here in the states.

Markwwnb
Markwwnb

Add one more thing to the CFL's list of greats: great coverage by great, committed journalists. I still don't understand why some of these CFL players bust a gut (and often their heads) playing football year after year for so low a salary but, as a fan, I'm really glad they do.

LeeHarding
LeeHarding

Great article but... "Hamilton's fancier supermarkets"? LOL.

Milt Stegall. I will never forget his declaration to reporters about the 6 guarantees of life: "Death, taxes, trouble, Milt Stegall will always be on time, Milt Stegall will always be in shape, Milt Stegall will always look good." LOL and he is still holding those down as an analyst.

I am glad he failed at the 7th guarantee which was a Grey Cup for Winnipeg in 2007. Go Riders!

TedMaria
TedMaria

They need to fix this now. It should be mandatory that every team carries one Canadian quarterback on its roster. This will pay off in years to come...otherwise we will still be talking about Russ Jackson 100 years from now as the only great Canadian QB.

Arkbot
Arkbot

@2001mark They just re-introduced an Ottawa team this season after an extended absence, and they've been testing the Moncton market for a couple years with destination regular-season games, possibly exploring that. They have to be cautious, the league can't afford a big, expensive mistake.

2001mark
2001mark

@ScottSlonim It is but the NFL's infrastructure still reigns supreme.


30 teams battling it out > 9 teams... sorry truth stings but I can't get too excited about a 9 team league.

ScottTuckydeHaan
ScottTuckydeHaan

They had a bunch of those cfl ponchos at the grand Bahia principe in Mexico hahha

RonDavies
RonDavies

@cflsteve I still wouldn't say the NFL is well aware of the vast improvement of the CIS player.  There are a few teams who have been scouting it for years but many are woefully behind in recognizing the player pool.


Case in point was the Panthers who were acting like it was a great coup for their scouts that they found LDT.  He only came on their radar at the East-West Shrine game, that's too late.  As a CFL GM said, there are several NFL teams that scout Canadian football, historically the Panthers have not been among them.  Better late than never though as they signed CFL first overall pick Linden Gaydosh last year.

Zedcat
Zedcat

@Bauer53  The tradition of Pigskin Pete. Do a feature on Pete Weiler as well as the current Pigskin.

dave jones
dave jones

I don't know if he nailed it. Why does writter like him always focus on the negative. Why the need to bring up the 92 Grey Cup, when Toronto has had 2 very successful Grey Cup since then. Why the need to comment on how many people don't like the league, instead of approaching it by how many people do like the league, since it is the number 1 rated sport sport in the summer and only second behind hockey in this country

oqnet
oqnet

@2001mark @ScottSlonim I disagree, the 9 team format is pretty decent, you can watch pretty much every game each week and follow up on how each team plays, it's quite nice. yeah a couple more teams in there would be good maybe another expansion out west and east.  I just don't think the NFL has it quite right either.

RonDavies
RonDavies

@cflsteve Sorry I meant Chiefs who signed LDT.  The Panthers signed OL David Foucault.

Apollinarus
Apollinarus

Ouch! C'mon now. Lol. Its like the Saskatchewan joke that comes from losing the Grey Cup because we had 13 men on the field that goes "...12 pack of Pilsner in the huddle. If you don't get a beer... Get the hell off the field!" cool thing is that to this day nobody knows who the player was that got the penalty that lost the championship and we don't care. Ridernation wins as a team and looses as a team.

btsambirsky
btsambirsky

@Apollinarus rider fans are awesome.  I lived in Cowtown for 6 years and had a lot of appreciation for the green in the city and around the country.

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