The Grey Cup-champion B.C. Lions saluted their fans Wednesday night for helping them go from worst to first.
A few thousand faithful Lions followers descended on B.C. Place Stadium to celebrate Sunday's 34-23 home-field victory over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
"The fans gave us a tremendous amount of support," said general manager and coach Wally Buono. "We want to thank you for that — because it was a magical ride."
B.C. became the first CFL club to win a title after starting the season 0-5. Finding themselves in a 1-6 funk in August, the Lions finished the regular season on a miraculous 10-1 run and posted two more wins in the playoffs.
The light-hearted 50-minute celebration included video presentations and comments from players and general manager and coach Wally Buono as they crammed together on a midfield stage.
Buono praised late club president Bob Ackles, who rebuilt the franchise upon his return to B.C. in 2003 after leaving in the club in the mid-1980s for executive posts in the NFL and now-defunct XFL.
Ackles hired Buono in 2003 after an ownership change in Calgary led to his departure from the Stampeders, launching the re-birth of a B.C. franchise that was plagued by poor on-field performances, low attendance and minimal corporate sponsorship for more than a decade
"I want to make sure that we understand what [Ackles] meant to us — and what he still means to us," said Buono, who is expected to relinquish his coaching duties in 2012 but remain as general manager.
Fans reserved their loudest cheers for the likes of middle linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who may decide to pursue NFL options next year, defensive tackle Aaron Hunt, defensive end Brent Johnson, centre Angus Reid and receiver Geroy Simon, who was feted more than quarterback Travis Lulay, the Grey Cup and CFL season most valuable player.
As Simon was about to carry the Grey Cup onto the field, Lulay and kicker Paul McCallum impersonated the Superman pose the receiver does after touchdowns.
"We all love Geroy," said Reid, who conducted much of the ceremony. "We just love Geroy. He's been a star here forever."
Later, Lulay threw a pass to Simon on stage and the receiver repeated the gesture himself, drawing a loud cheer from the highly-animated crowd. Young and old alike danced, juked and jived to songs like "Don't Stop Believing" and chanted "Wally! Wally!" while giving the team a standing ovation.
Led by legendary 93-year-old band leader Dal Richards, the crowd also belted out the club's song "Roar, You Lions, Roar!" as players tried to join in, looking up at the stadium's huge video screen for help with the lyrics as they rolled by.
"The magic of B.C. Place is here tonight," said Buono.
Club president Dennis Skulsky presented Buono with a photo illustration of himself and the newly-renovated B.C. Place. The photo was in honour of Buono posting his record 250th career coaching victory, over Edmonton, when the stadium re-opened Sept. 30. After struggling at their former temporary Empire Field facility, where they also played last season, the Lions were a perfect 6-0 at their re-roofed downtown digs.
"If we had done the script for this [re-opening], I don't think we could have done it better," said David Podmore, chairman of B.C. Pavilion Corporation, a provincial organization that operates the stadium.
Admission was free. The team provided hot dogs, potato chips and soft drinks at half-price. In keeping with the event's family theme, no alcohol was served.
In a reference to the riot following the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals last spring, local business leader and Grey Cup organizer Moray Keith praised fans for not going wild and breaking the law after Sunday's big win.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you are proof that Vancouver is a responsible city, and you can be proud that we partied responsibly," said Keith.