Lamenting the lost Grey Cup weekend: ‘Sad period in the history of the league’

In a standard 12 months, grocery retailer snack aisles could be packed this weekend with folks in jerseys, face paint and doubtless wild wigs and peculiar hats.

Canadian soccer followers are a particular, vibrant breed, and this could have been their time to actually let unfastened.

They would have been loading up on treats for Grey Cup Sunday — a day almost certainly embedded in their brains like the brand pressed into the leather-based of a CFL soccer.

“The league is a real piece of Canadiana. It’s very unique and it brings together a unique group of people who love it,” stated Bob Irving, who has been CJOB Radio’s play-by-play voice for Winnipeg Blue Bombers video games since 1975.

“It’s a real people’s league. It’s not like the Super Bowl, where you need thousands of dollars to get into any of the events,” he stated.

During Grey Cup week, “you can get into the parties … and meet people from across the country, fans of all the other teams, and it’s all in good fun and in good spirit,” stated Irving.

“It’s a very special week indeed on the Canadian calendar — never mind the Canadian sports calendar, but the Canadian calendar, period.”

CFL followers are a vibrant bunch, like these celebrating previous to the 102nd Grey Cup in Vancouver, B.C., in 2014. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A Saskatchewan Roughriders fan lives it up previous to the 2013 Grey Cup in Regina. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

But there are no shenanigans this 12 months. No steed being trotted right into a lodge by Calgary Stampeders followers. No swapping of collector pins, or steaming pancake breakfasts or late-night celebration tents.

COVID-19 obliterated all of it. The season by no means even started.

For the first time in 101 years, the CFL’s championship trophy is not going to be handed out. That hasn’t occurred since the 1919 recreation was nullified by a guidelines dispute between rugby organizations, and since the nation was nonetheless recovering from each the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic and the First World War, which put the 1916-18 seasons on maintain.

Calgary Stampeders followers horse round earlier than the 105th Grey Cup in Ottawa in 2017. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Costumed CFL followers are seen at the 2018 Grey Cup in Edmonton. None of their groups had been even in the massive recreation. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This 12 months’s massive recreation, slated to be performed in Regina’s Mosaic Stadium on Nov. 22, would have been Irving’s 48th consecutive Grey Cup as both a fan or broadcaster.

“Not being in the Grey Cup city during Grey Cup week is very unusual and different. And I miss it,” he stated.

“In the last couple of Sundays I’ve been marking those days as what would have been the West [Division] semifinal, then the West final last Sunday, and then this Sunday, of course, the Grey Cup.

“To get to this time in the season and never have the nice playoff video games and the drama surrounding them … it creates a void for certain. It’s actually a tragic period in the history of the league.”

The CFL cancelled the 2020 Grey Cup Game and Festival slated for Regina this weekend. Regina will now host it in 2022. (CBC News)

The void comes after the Bombers won their first Grey Cup title in 29 years last season, defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Calgary.

Holding onto the title by default, though, doesn’t make them champs for two straight years, Irving noted a chuckle.

“Rather a lot of folks wish to say that. They’re the defending Grey Cup champions, we are able to say that,” he said.

“We’ll see if they will win two in a row after we get again to enjoying.”

Bob Irving has been calling Winnipeg Blue Bombers games on CJOB Radio since 1975. The 70-year-old was inducted into the Football Reporters of Canada section of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1997. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The league on Friday expressed optimism for a 2021 season, announcing a schedule with the first game being a 2019 Grey Cup rematch between the Bombers and Ticats.

Until then, memories from Winnipeg’s 33–12 win will have to carry Bombers fans.

A season to remember

And there’s much to reflect on, said Irving, starting with the fact that last season, the Bombers (11-7, third place in the West Division) were viewed as huge underdogs to the 15-3 Ticats, who held the CFL’s best record and were on a seven-game win streak.

But the Bombers were riding a wave of confidence as well, knocking off Calgary in the semifinal — their first win in that city in two decades.

Calgary’s McMahon Stadium fills with blue and gold confetti in 2019 after the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup last November, ending a 29-year drought. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

They then went into Saskatchewan and dropped the West’s top team 20-13, after a nail-gnawing end that had the Roughriders on goal line twice in the final two minutes, pushing for a game-tying touchdown, but the Bombers defence was a wall. 

With four seconds left, an end zone pass by Riders QB Cody Fajardo hit the crossbar of the uprights. Dead ball. Game over.

“The environment, you would might lower the pressure with a knife at the finish of that recreation. It was only a spectacular ending,” Irving said. 

The Bombers did it with quarterback Zach Collaros, who Saskatchewan had tossed aside. Collaros started the season with the Riders but suffered a concussion in Game 1. Saskatchewan traded him to Toronto in late July, but Collaros didn’t play a game there.

Andrew Harris celebrates after defeating the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL West final in Regina on Nov. 17, 2019. A week later he would go on to be named the Grey Cup’s top player and top Canadian. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

He was picked up by the Bombers in a trade deadline deal six weeks before the Grey Cup, after injuries hobbled Winnipeg’s QBs. Matt Nichols had season-ending surgery and Chris Streveler suffered an ankle injury in the second-last regular season game.

Collaros went 4-0, including three consecutive road wins to clinch the cup. The Bombers only won three on the road all season prior to that.

As for Streveler, many assumed his season was done. But the QB built like a tank showed up with a heavily taped ankle and went to work. In the West semi, he set a CFL playoff record by taking 23 snaps without attempting a pass, running in spite of his injury.

In the Grey Cup, he threw a touchdown pass, rushed 30 yards and caught a pass on a trick play.

The 2019 Bombers also featured four Winnipeg-born heroes in Andrew Harris, Nic Demski, Brady Oliveira and Geoff Gray.

Harris, who was three years old the last time the Bombers won the championship, became the first player in CFL history to be named the Grey Cup’s top player and top Canadian.

Chris Streveler raises the cup with other players during the Grey Cup parade in Winnipeg on Nov. 26, 2019. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

And the team helped long-suffering fan Chris Matthew to finally pull on his pants, while thousands of other diehard Blue and Gold faithful crowded downtown Winnipeg for a parade to The Forks.

A beer-swilling, shirtless Streveler — dressed in a fur coat and cowboy hat — embodied the party mood.

“[The victory and parade] introduced the followers out and the love for the Blue Bombers in a approach that basically underlined how vital this group, this staff is to the fibre of this group,” said Irving.

That’s why the loss of the 2020 season stings so much, he said.

“They had been bringing most of the championship staff again, and most of us felt they’d have one other nice probability to win it once more,” Irving said.

“The probability to take one other run at it this 12 months — boy, that is a lost alternative that I do know weighs closely on the gamers.”

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