Back in July, my buddy Eddie asked if I wanted to go to the Grey Cup which would be held at Winnipeg's Investors Group Field. When I checked the NHL schedule, I found that the Leafs would be in Winnipeg just three days later, so I immediately said "Yes". As the date neared, other happenings allowed me to take some time off from my job and expand the trip to include the Leaf games in Minnesota and St. Louis, as well as a week in Ontario to visit family. But the highlight of the trip was the 103rd Grey Cup, and as luck would have it, my hometown Ottawa RedBlacks were one of the teams involved, with the Edmonton Eskimos the other.
We arrived in Winnipeg on the morning of the game, happy to see that the weather was clear and not too cold, just a couple of degrees below freezing. After watching the early NFL games at our hotel, we headed over to the stadium using the free shuttle from the airport, which got us there about an hour before the scheduled 5 p.m. kickoff. There were fans from every CFL franchise on our bus, except Montreal, which is not surprising, because nobody from Montreal would want to travel to Winnipeg in the best of times, never mind the end of November. It was quite the fun ride with Eskimos fans singing their fight song, and already a much different atmosphere than the Super Bowl that I saw in New Jersey, where public transit was a disaster.
Eddie had bought the tickets in July and had told me that they would be in the temporary seating section in one end zone. The tickets were supposed to be delivered but something went wrong and we had to pick them up at will call. When I had a look at the ticket, it said Section 133, Row 11. Checking the stadium map, it appeared as if our seats were in the lower bowl at the 10-yard line, a far cry from the temporary seating. Eddie believes that they upgraded us for some reason, and as the seats behind us were empty for the entire game (suggesting returns from the league), he might be right. Regardless, we were pretty excited with the seats.
We took a walk around the concourse, which was a bit of a mistake as every other person had decided to do the same thing. There were several bottlenecks, particularly at the end zone with the temporary seating. This did allow me to snap a picture from the concourse there.
We made it back to our section a few minutes before kickoff and I was surprised to find that Danny's Whole Hog stand had no lineup. Their pulled pork sandwich comes topped with coleslaw and BBQ sauce and was a bargain at $10. One of the better stadium sandwiches I have enjoyed.
Below is a shot of the lower deck from our seats. Even the upper deck is quite close to the field here and should you attend a game, avoid the end zone if possible as the additional few bucks to sit between the goal lines is worth it. I'm not going to write a more thorough review of the stadium at this point as I'll be back here for a Blue Bombers game sometime, when it will be less crowded and I can tour the whole thing a bit more comfortably.
As mentioned, the game was supposed to start at 5, but in reality, it was the pregame show that got underway at that time, with Dean Brody performing his California Girls derivative, suitably titled Canadian Girls. Sample lyrics:
And we like the foreign ladies Their accents are really nice But there ain't nothin like our northern girls To keep us warm at night
You can read the entire cliched song here. While this was going on, a whole bunch of Canadian girls danced. Actually, each team had sent a few cheerleaders along, and they danced in union, celebrating all that is wonderful about Canada. Or Canadian football. Or something. By this time the sun had set, the temperature was dropping, and I just wanted the damn game to get started.
First though, it was time for the Grey Cup to be displayed and several Mounties escorted the trophy onto the field while the crowd applauded politely. Ain't she a beaut?
Finally, the national anthem was sung, a couple of F-18 fly-bys took place, the coin flip was held, and then it was time for football. Edmonton had won the toss and elected to defer, so Ottawa took the opening kickoff and marched 73 yards, scoring when Henry Burris (#1 below) connected with Patrick Lavoie for a 3-yard touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Edmonton's Kendial Lawrence fumbled and Ottawa recovered. It took the RedBlacks (I refuse to use the all-caps REDBLACKS as the team calls themselves) just four plays to score again, with Burris finding Earnest Jackson for a 7-yard score. Chris Milo missed the extra point, but it was still 13-0 Ottawa after just 6 minutes.
Edmonton kicked a field goal on their next possession, and when Burris was intercepted on his first pass of the next drive, the game took a turn. Edmonton capitalized when Mike Reilly (#13 below) found Adarius Bowman in the end zone for a 27-yard score and the first quarter ended 13-10 for Ottawa.
After that, defense took over. In fact, the final 3 quarters totalled the same 23 points that were scored in the first 15 minutes. The RedBlacks added a field goal in the second quarter, while Edmonton tacked on a single on a missed field goal. When the Eskimos took possession from their own 22 with just 2:41 left in the half, they ran a near perfect two-minute drill, moving the ball 86 yards over seven plays before Reilly hit Akeem Shavers for a two-yard touchdown with just 12 seconds left. The two-point convert was missed and Edmonton took a 17-16 lead into the break.
The third quarter saw Ottawa hit another field goal, while Edmonton managed only a single on a punt that sailed through the end zone. The Eskimos had a chance to take the lead on the last play of the quarter, but Sean Whyte's field goal hit the upright. That meant a dead ball and no single point, so Ottawa maintained their 19-18 lead, and it sure looked like they were getting all the breaks. The stage was set for what should have been an exciting finish, but neither team could muster a sustained drive in the fourth quarter with another long punt giving Ottawa another single to make it 20-18. After a couple of 2-and-outs, Edmonton took over on their own 32 and took advantage of a couple of pass interference calls to move the ball to the Ottawa 10. This second penalty was only enforced after Edmonton challenged. Yes, in the CFL, pass interference calls and non-calls can be challenged. After an incomplete pass brought up 2nd and goal, Reilly escaped a sack and found Nate Coehoorn for a 9-yard gain. It was 3rd-and-goal from the 1 and Edmonton gambled, bringing in Jordan Lynch, who had starred at Northern Illinois, to run the QB sneak. He succeeded, as did the two point convert and Edmonton had the lead 26-20 with just 3:17 to go. Ottawa punted on their next possession, and Edmonton was able to get a couple of first downs to run out the clock in a really anti-climactic ending.
It was their 14th Grey Cup but first since 2005. The post-game celebration was pretty muted, with Reilly winning Most Outstanding Player, Shawmad Chambers taking Most Outstanding Canadian for his 49 receiving yards, and the Grey Cup being presented by new commissioner Jeffrey Orridge. Then some confetti was shot out of a couple of cannons and with that, the CFL season was over. It was a pretty good game, although it was really dominated by the defences after that very exciting first quarter.
As we made our way back to the bus, we saw the statue of Bud Grant, more famous for his stint as the Vikings coach who lost four Super Bowls, but a legend in Winnipeg for leading the Blue Bombers to four Grey Cup titles between 1958 and 1962.
Super Bowl Comparison
I attended the Super Bowl last year and found the Grey Cup to be a much more enjoyable experience. The Super Bowl crowd is filled with corporate types who have no interest in the game, while at the Grey Cup, it was all CFL fans, dressed in the gear of their teams even though they weren't playing. Naturally security, transit, and ticket prices are all much worse at the Super Bowl. Still, with all that being said, the Super Bowl will always be more memorable, simply because it is such a part of the sports psyche in America.