Once upon a time, here in the land of ice and snow, the little Canadian Football League fought the mighty NFL for the one player everyone wanted most — and won.
Twenty-five years later, it's inconceivable that a CFL team could steal the most exciting prospect away from what is now the world's richest sports league.
It sounds like a fairy tale.
So this is the story of how a hero named Rocket and his famous friends in Hogtown fought off everything the Snow Queen could throw at them (including a can of beer) to win the silver chalice.
It starts with a Hollywood extravaganza and ends with movie stars freezing their butts off in Winnipeg.
In between was the most fun that Argonaut fans — including The Great One and a sweet man named Candy — have ever had.
Bruce McNall is chatting about that year on the phone from Los Angeles, where the up-and-down entrepreneur now runs a company that invests in films and other projects. You can hear him smile from 3,500 klicks away.
McNall has done a lot of things, including owning the Los Angeles Kings, trading for Wayne Gretzky, producing hit films like Weekend at Bernie’s, and making a few mistakes along the way — including one that put him behind bars for almost five years.
The Toronto deal in 1991 is still near the top for him.
“There are bigger things in my life that were more public,” McNall says. “I have the Gretzky trade, things of that nature, but certainly that whole experience that year was right up there for me.”
McNall was, after all, the author of the tale, buying the Toronto Argonauts off Harry Ornest, whom he knew on the board at Hollywood Park racetrack, now closed.
Harry had owned the CFL club for three years, but wanted to unload it. He found eager buyers in McNall, his superstar hockey player Gretzky, and the beloved comedian and actor John Candy, a Toronto native who loved the Double Blue beyond all sports teams.
It cost $5 million US for the franchise, McNall says, with the hockey player and actor each buying in for 10 per cent.
“John Candy made it extra special because it was such a big deal for him to own a piece of the Argonauts,” McNall says. "He was a fan as a kid. He worked his butt off on this thing.”
Blaine Schmidt, an offensive lineman on the Argos, found that out right away. He was working at his auto body shop in Mississauga, Ont., the day after the ownership deal was announced when the phone rang — it was Candy, inviting him out to do media junkets.
“It was basically John and I in his limo, running around to TV stations... how good is that?”
Candy’s unquestioned love of the Argos was now requited. His daughter Jennifer, who was 11 at the time, remembers the excitement.
“It was pretty surreal and epic,” she says from L.A. “Our dad owned a football team. Not only a team, but a team in our hometown. It was the Argos, and it was very special because of our dad having a huge love of the team as a kid.”
Jennifer, now Candy-Sullivan and an actor herself, says John went full-speed the whole season, home and on the road.
“The thing with my dad was, you don’t just go half in, you go whole in, and he was so passionate about it — he wanted to travel through Canada, and he was not being paid for the promo stuff.”
Each new town the Argos visited, Candy would be up early for morning TV and radio shows, and keep it up all day.
“That much energy, and that much love, the team had to benefit,” Jennifer says.
Candy, Gretzky and McNall had bought a club that was already competitive, having gone 10-8 the year previous and making the East final before a three-point loss to Winnipeg. Along the way, they scored 689 points, playing a wide-open offence that attracted an average of more than 30,000 fans to home games.
They had a great attack, led by QB Matt Dunigan, a young slotback named Michael Clemons who everyone called Pinball, a solid O-Line, good receivers and a developing defence.
But McNall wanted more. And since Hollywood is all about splash and dash, he knew where to find it.
Enter The Rocket.
Raghib Ismail wasn’t just any U.S. college football star. He was the full Tinseltown package — faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall linebackers at a single bound, and powerful enough a media attraction that he’d already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, the second with the headline “Ready for Lift Off — Is Rocket Ismail the next megastar?”
Electrifying fans as a runner, receiver and kick returner at powerful Notre Dame, Ismail finished the 1990 season as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, given to the best college football player in the land. Many had him pegged as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
The Rocket was ready to cash in and play ball in the NFL.
But only the first half of that dream would come true that year because McNall had other plans. He went to Team Rocket (a collection of financial advisors, lawyers, etc.) and sold them on his vision.
“Things were complex, to say the least — it was a lot of moving parts at all times,” McNall says. “The biggest issue was convincing him that he wanted to come to the CFL. It was me trying to explain to him that being the biggest fish in a smaller pond may be better than running kicks back [as an NFL rookie].”
Needing a final argument, McNall asked Al Davis, owner of the Raiders, to take Ismail in the fourth round of the draft. That way, if things didn’t work out, there’d be a fallback plan.
“That made Rocket very happy. And I think it helped seal the deal,” McNall says.
A big meeting at the Great Western Forum (home of the Kings and Lakers) begat a four-year CFL deal for the (at the time) unheard-of sum of more than $18 million US, plus possible bonuses.
That was considerably more than Ismail could make as an NFL rookie, and it gave him a higher annual salary than Gretzky's $3 million with the Kings.
It would be the last time a Canadian football team outbid an American one for a top prospect.
Toronto fans were beside themselves with excitement. Remember, this was four years before the NBA's Raptors would debut, and a year before the Blue Jays won their first of back-to-back World Series titles.
The CFL had done this kind of thing before, starting in the 1950s and leading to the 1970s when a number of teams beat NFL clubs to big-time players.
The Argos famously signed Heisman Trophy runner-up Joe Theismann from Notre Dame in 1971, and had also grabbed linemen Jim Corrigall (Kent State) and Jim Stillwagon, the Outland Trophy winner as best college lineman while at Ohio State. Running back Anthony Davis came from the University of Southern California in 1974.
Ottawa had QBs Tom Clements (Notre Dame), and Condredge Holloway (Tennessee). Montreal took a bunch, including linebacker Tom Cousineau (Ohio State), and the fabulous Heismann winner Johnny Rodgers (Nebraska), the “Ordinary Superstar.” Edmonton grabbed QB Warren Moon from Washington.
But no clubs had done that much in the 1980s, so McNall’s gambit came as a surprise.
Would it work?
“I did think it would work, because [the Argos] had a decent corps of players, and Rocket was one more speed guy they were looking for,” says Rick Matsumoto, who covered sports in Toronto for more than 40 years.
Looking back at the headlines and columns of that time, the press also understood this was about the draw.
“I thought, ‘Wow... this is pretty cool,’” says Matsumoto. “They’re going after a name player and they already had Wayne Gretzky in the fold, and they already had John Candy in the fold.
"It was an exciting thing for sports fans.”
And those fans flocked in.
The July 18 home opener drew more than 41,000 fans to Skydome, and featured a halftime show by the Blues Brothers band.
Dan Aykroyd and company were joined on stage by Candy himself to put a giddy, Toronto-flavoured twist on the standard Sweet Home Chicago. The Argos got in on the party by crushing the visiting Ticats 41-18.
From there to the end of the regular season, an average of 37,120 fans per game came to watch a 13-5 club that was able to withstand a bunch of injuries (Dunigan only started eight games) to keep going.
Ismail lived up to the hype, piling up 3,049 combined yards (second-most ever to that time) including 1,300 receiving, 271 rushing and 1,478 returning. He played anywhere coach Adam Rita wanted him, including kick coverage a few times.
And the Argo players stuck together while the rest of the league took the normal Toronto bashing up to a new level. Swaggering into other parks (and boy, could these guys swagger that year) was even more fun than usual.
“We had all the flash, rolling into Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan with McNall and Candy,” says Schmidt.
Grey Cup day in Winterpeg fit the frigid town’s nickname — a temperature of minus-18C under a clear blue sky. Much of the crowd was behind the West Division champion Calgary Stampeders.
Dunigan played with a separated shoulder on his throwing side and for most of three quarters there was nothing doing — just 49 yards in the air. Then Dunigan found the beat and the Argos found the heat, scoring three times in 20 minutes to put the game away.
The clinching score? Well, how could that have been anybody but the Rocket?
After the Stamps cut their deficit to 22-21 with a TD early in the fourth quarter, Ismail caught the ensuing kick-off on his own 23, zoomed past a great block thrown by Pinball, left Junior Thurman grasping nothing but air, cut for the sidelines and pranced in for the major.
The most famous beer can in Canadian sports history (at least until this year at a Blue Jays game) almost hit the returner as he rocketed 87 yards into the end zone.
The iconic play helped Ismail earn Grey Cup MVP honours as Toronto beat Calgary 36-21.
McNall and Candy — the former sporting an open jacket, the latter a long leather coat (Cold? What cold?) — had brought a bunch of actor and producer friends from Hollywood up for the game, and they froze their famous bums off on the sideline.
Gretzky, who had a game the night before and one the night after, was there as well in a warm toque.
“I’ll never forget it,” says McNall. “I remember when we first got there it was so cold, it was like ‘Thank you for telling us the nice weather conditions here.’
“We got everybody seats, and apparently the seats Marty Short had gotten were double-ticketed somehow, so he goes up to his seat and there’s people there. And, you know, only in Canada — someone yells ‘Hey Marty, come sit with us, no problem.”
Like many fairy tales, the end to this story was somewhat grim.
Dunigan signed with Winnipeg in the off-season, players wanted more money, injuries were everywhere in 1992.
The Argos cratered, finishing last in the East with a 6-12 record and missing the playoffs.
“I think the big thing in ‘92 was the bar was raised so high, how do you put it up a notch from there?” says Schmidt. “In my point of view, we all got a little bit cocky, we thought it would be a piece of cake, we’ll run over everyone this year.
“Even from a business side, I think they were asking for too much money and thought ticket sales would fly off the roof and they forgot where they came from.”
McNall is philosophical about it.
“When you accomplish every imaginable thing in such a short period of time, everybody from the fans to us, there was almost a letdown — ‘Well, we’ve done it... Now we’re done, it’s over now.’
“There was a deflation,” he says. “The whole sense of doing the unimaginable, and now what?”
Ismail would leave after that second year, moving to the Raiders for the start of a solid, but not spectacular, nine-year NFL career with three clubs.
In 1998 with Carolina, Ismail had over 1,000 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. He broke the 1,000-yard barrier again the next year with Dallas, but the following season he blew out his knee in a game at Philadelphia.
The Rocket was never the same after that, and 2001 would be his final season in the pros.
McNall says he and Gretzky wanted to sell, but hung on through the 1993 season for Candy. They were already working on a deal with Labatt breweries (officially to its TSN subsidiary) when the actor died of a heart attack on March 4, 1994.
Two months later, the team was sold.
McNall would run into bad trouble, eventually going to prison for 57 months on fraud charges.
Meanwhile, NFL salaries took off as TV rights deals began soaring, leaving the Canadian loop unable to produce the kind of money needed to lure star players away.
But what you can’t take away is, love them or hate them, those 1991 Argos were something special. A memory to hold onto for everyone who was there — and everyone who knows they'll never see anything like it again.
Large photos courtesy Toronto Argonauts, Canadian Press, Getty Images