Smack in the middle of the rowdiness and reverie in downtown Toronto on the eve of the 100th Grey Cup, CFL referee Glen Johnson and his officiating crew gathered for a quiet dinner with their spouses.
The 51-year-old referee from Winnipeg and his cohorts discussed their coveted assignment for the big game between the Calgary Stampeders and the hometown Toronto Argonauts. For Johnson, it also was a time of reflection.
You see, officiating CFL games is in his blood. His father Gord was a CFL ref for 16 years and he officiated four Grey Cups. This will be Glen's 400th CFL game and 10th Grey Cup, making Glen and his dad the only father-son tandem to referee Canada's biggest football game.
"It means a lot," said Johnson, a senior vice-president with Toronto-based Intelliware Software Development. "I think of it as a summary of a body of work over a long time. One perspective, this is just one game. There was No. 99, this is 100 and there will be a 101. It just happened to be me this year.
"But I feel a little different. I feel this is something I've always wanted to do. Ten years ago I was looking at this game and saying 'Boy, I wish I'm on the 100th. I hope I earn that and that I'm the guy.' So it's kind of a culmination for me. It's just a lot of hard work over a long period of time."
Words of wisdom
A long time ago the referee-father preached to the referee-son to let the players play, to stay out of their way and only get involved when necessary. Following these words of wisdom has the younger Johnson at the top of his class and a favourite with the current crop of CFLers.
"He's a consummate artist at it now," said George Black, head of CFL officials. "He's as good as anybody we've ever had in terms of calling penalties, rules understanding, presentation, crew management, game management. He's at the top of the heap."
One of the reasons why Johnson, in his 23rd CFL season, has been at the top of the heap is his athletic background. As a youth, he played football and baseball, but packed in those sports to concentrate on hockey. He played in the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League and a couple seasons with the University of Winnipeg.
"Because I played hockey I understand what it's like to compete and that helps me deal with the players and what happens in games," Johnson said.
Johnson certainly experienced an extreme baptism when he began officiating in the CFL. His first game was on the opening weekend in 1990 in Regina, when the Saskatchewan Roughriders played host to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a rematch of that exciting 1989 Grey Cup game at the SkyDome.
Ticats head coach Al Bruno was still hot at the officials from the tight championship game seven months earlier, and as the back judge that day Johnson heard it from Bruno for four quarters.
It was "kid this, kid that." Of course, because of his youthful appearance the most common refrain from coaches, players and fans in those early days was "did your dad drive you to the game?"
But Johnson survived and progressed. His first Grey Cup was a historical game, too. The 1994 championship at B.C. place pitted the hometown Lions against the first United States-based team, Baltimore, to advance to the Grey Cup. B.C. kicker Lui Passaglia gave Vancouver a party with his last-second field goal.
The most exciting of his Grey Cup games was in 2005, also at B.C. Place, when the Edmonton Eskimos outlasted the Montreal Alouettes 38-35 in overtime. It was and still is only the second overtime game in Grey Cup history.
Too many men
Then there was the 13th player on the field game two years ago. The poor Roughriders had too many men on the field when Alouettes kicker Damon Duval missed his game-winning attempt. But with Johnson standing behind him, Duval was given a second try because of the penalty and gave Montreal the win.
"When I saw three flags go up in the defensive backfield I knew it could only be one thing," Johnson said. "The odds of that happening were astronomical."
So how has the officiating crew prepared for the 100th Grey Cup? They held an administrative meeting on Thursday, a film session on Friday to study the tendencies of the Stampeders and Argonauts from the West and East finals.
On Saturday, the officials went through their own walk-through with TSN to discuss camera angles and other necessary matters. On Sunday, Johnson will have another morning meeting with his crew, an afternoon nap and arrive for the game at Rogers Centre at 4 p.m., 2 ½ hours before kickoff.
One nice part for Johnson about refereeing the 100th Grey Cup is that he will have some fans in the stands. Not only will his father, whom he talks to on most game days, be there, but so will his brothers, Garth and Gary, sister Lori and wife Karen Ann.
"And my mom will be back at home watching and critiquing like she always does," Johnson said.
A true family affair.
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