Stephen Brunt on the 'great, goofy' history of the CFL and the Grey Cup

First aired on Daybreak Alberta (10/11/12)

The history of the Canadian Football League and its championship game, whose winner lays claim to the Grey Cup, are the focus of a new book by writer and broadcaster Stephen Brunt. In 100 Grey Cups: This Is Our Game, he chronicles the remarkable track record of the trophy, the teams and the lore. He also plays Daybreak DJ, choosing some of his favourite Canadian songs.

"I've always wanted to do a CFL book," Brunt said. "I'm a Hamilton [Ont.] guy. I grew up in Hamilton, I live in Hamilton. We always talk about hockey, and Canadians love hockey, hockey is us, those kind of cultural clich├ęs. But the first sport in my life was football." For Brunt, growing up in the city known as Steeltown, "it was all about the Ti-Cats." In fact, he's still a season-ticket holder. "I go to games with my mom, who is 82, and just a rabid fan, and it kind of reminds me of where I come from."

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In the book, Brunt details the distinct history of each of the league's nine teams, but he also believes they share a common link. "I think it comes back to that theme of identity...how sport creates communities of people who care about the same thing at the same time, and how important that is, to feel part of something larger, cheering for ourselves, and who we are and where we come from," he explained. "That's where the power of it is. It's not in the spectacle. It's in that identification."

Brunt went on to point out that Canadian football is distinctive. "It's a North American game but it's also specifically a Canadian game," he said. The American game and Canadian game evolved differently. "And it's got this great, goofy history. So much of what we deal with in all facets of our lives now is kind of homogenous. And this is not."

Brunt described the chapters dealing with the Alberta teams, beginning with the Calgary Stampeders. Legend has it that after Calgary won the Grey Cup in 1948, a reveller rode a horse into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Brunt said that in the course of researching the book, he'd never found any proof the incident actually took place and suggested that it's a myth. But he also acknowledged that he gave a reading in his hometown of Hamilton, and was told by a woman that she knew the person who was on the horse. "Maybe it happened," he said.

He also described how Calgary fans travelled to Toronto in 1948 to support their team. "They came by train...they have a square dance car, they have a baggage car with horses, buckets of alcohol," he said. Staid Toronto didn't know what to make of the raucous visitors. But ever since then, the Grey Cup has been as much about a party atmosphere as it is about the game itself.

Brunt had to cover the history of the league through the decades, so he chose to write about the 1978 edition of the Edmonton Eskimos. "It's the first year of the five-year dynasty. They'd been good already for five years. But I don't think there's been a franchise that had a run like the Eskimos had." Brunt credited the team's coach and general managers. "There was just a sense that they were six steps ahead of everybody else in the league, and no one else could match the Eskimo way of doing things, and no one could compete."

The 100th Grey Cup will take place this coming weekend, with the Calgary Stampeders taking on the Toronto Argonauts. Asked to assess the state of the CFL at this milestone moment, Brunt said that it's "a mixed bag. It's stronger in the West than it's ever been." He pointed to Regina ("it's a mania there right now. It's unbelievable") and added, "Saskatchewan is in ascendance right now, money is pouring in, people are coming back. [The team's] almost become symbolic of the new Saskatchewan."

Brunt went on to say that the league is in good shape in Calgary and Edmonton, B.C. , and Winnipeg. In the east, things are fine in Montreal and he is optimistic about the Ottawa franchise, which is returning to the city. "The issue is where I live," Brunt said. "Toronto's a black hole. The real attendance in Toronto this year is dismal."

Will it make a difference that Toronto is hosting the Grey Cup, and will be playing in the big game? Brunt wasn't sure.

Daybreak host Russell Bowers suggested that this might be the opportunity for Calgarians to get a horse into the Royal York for real. "The problem is that section of Toronto is one horrible construction pit right now, so I don't think the horse could make it [across the street] ...from Union Station into the Royal York unless it can jump," Brunt said.

Listen to the entire interview, which is in two parts, below.

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