Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Big Day in Canadian Sports History and Even they Hardly Noticed

The University of Toronto Blues, first winner of the Grey's Cup.  Neither of the trophy's shown is the mammoth Cup.

By the sheerest of coincidences two Canadian sports traditions were both born on December 4, 1909.
The first Grey’s Cup game was played that day between the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and the Parkdale Canoe Club.  You read that right, a game be-tween a college team and a bunch of paddlers.  In those days the Cup was open to all amateur Rugby football teams.  By the way the college jocks won.
The enormous silver loving cup itself was the accidental gift of Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, and the Governor General of Canada.  He was also the grandson of the guy who popularized my favorite tea.  The Governor wanted to immortalize himself by awarding a trophy for the amateur championship of the Canadian national sport, ice hockey.  But after the Cup had been commissioned from a silversmith but before it could be announced Sir H. Montagu Allan donated his self-named cup for that purpose.  Stuck with a big bill and larger trophy, the Governor looked around for other uses, and came up the footballers.
The Blues dominated the early years of the cup, always against teams from Toronto or Hamilton.  World War I interrupted the games and they failed to resume in 1919 due at a rules dispute.  During that time the Cup was nearly lost.  It was re-discovered in the equivalent of a storage locker.  Play resumed in 1920 with the Blues victorious for the last time.
By then the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) was the governing body of the championship Cup.  In 1921 the dissident Western Canada Rugby Football Union joined the CRU and its members became eligible to contest the cup.  The Edmonton Eskimos were the first, going down to defeat to the Toronto Argonauts.  By 1923 it became customary for western and eastern champions to face each other in the game.  But the east remained dominant and it was not until 1935 that the Winnipeg ‘Pegs beat the Hamilton Tigers and took the trophy home to the west for the first time.
Officials had planned to cancel the game during World War II, but the military felt that it was a great moral boost.  Instead from 1942 to 1945 the cup was contested by all military teams.
With the post-war resumption of the game long festering resentments of college and amateur teams playing professional organizations came to a head, as did the very poor field playing conditions allowed by Cup officials.  The later resulted in the infamous Mud Bowl of 1950 on a field so bad a Winnipeg player was carried unconscious from the field after nearly drowning in a pond sized puddle.
In 1956 the Canadian Football Council was formed to administer professional football two years later becoming  the Canadian Football League (CFL) which has sponsored and administered the Cup championships ever since.
In the 1980’s and ‘90’s the CFL experimented with adding American teams.  Four joined and the Baltimore Stallions actually won the Cup in 1995.  But the American teams could not compete against the might NFL and the CFL quickly returned to a strictly national organization.
Today the Grey’s Cup game is played annually in November.  This year the Cup was awarded for the 100th time. The Toronto beat the Calgary Stampeders 35-22.
J. Ambrose O'Brien had other things on his mind on December 4, 1909.  He was founding the Montreal Canadiens as a charter member of the new National Hockey Association, a league of professional teams.  The Canadiens were the sole Francophone team and were set defiantly to represent French speaking Quebec against the rest of the Dominion.  The original charter stipulated that the team was to be composed of French speakers and led and managed by them.
In its first year the team finished an embarrassing last place.  It was sold to another Irish Francophile, George Kennedy and its prospects improved. By 1916 it won its first Stanley Cup.
The following year the Canadiens and three other teams founded the new National Hockey League (NHL).  It became the first winner of the Stanley Cup when that award became the NHL championship trophy in 1924,
Not only are the Canadiens the NHL oldest team, it has been one of the most successful.  It has won 24 Stanley Cups, the last in 1993.
Canadiens have struggled most years since then until managing a Divisional championship in 2008. That same year they became the first NHL team to post 3,000 wins.
And they remain the passion of their devoted and still defiant French speaking fans.

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