The images of a Grey Cup week are the antithesis to what has become our reality.
Fans packed into giant hotel ballrooms and bars, drinks flowing, conversation buzzing, the meeting of strangers from across the country at close proximity, all who share a deep love for the Canadian Football League and its unique championship affair.
And that’s all before you pack 50,000 fans or so into a stadium on a cold November night, huddled together as close as one can imagine.
It’s hard to think of an event that is less in tune with the expectations of how people should behave during the COVID-19 pandemic. For even if the CFL had found a way to play this season, as some believe it should have, there wasn’t going to be a Grey Cup week in the sense we’ve come to know it.
It’s a bit of a double-edged sword for the CFL, celebrating a Grey Cup that is not happening. In one sense, it’s a way to remind people of the league and the game they love. It’s also a reminder of what they are missing. Without the league being able to give any indication of its direction for 2021, that presents some challenging optics.
All that said, the CFL on Thursday announced it plans for Grey Cup Unite, a week of virtual CFL-related events aimed at engaging fans, stirring football conversations and, perhaps, shedding a little light on where the league is going from here.
"After we finished watching the Labour Day come and go, we can’t let these epically important parts of our calendar pass without doing something to acknowledge them," said commissioner Randy Ambrosie. "It’s really about the spirit of our game and acknowledging the role that Grey Cup has played in the lives of Canadians for decades and how important Grey Cup week has been, the spirit of Canadians coming together."
On the agenda for the league’s virtual Grey Cup are such things as the commissioner’s state of the league address, availability with coaches and players, a roundtable on racial justice, a summit on Canadian business issues and the presentation of an all-decade team for 2010-2020.
There is likely to be particular interest in Ambrosie’s address, which is being moved from its traditional Friday morning slot to kicking off the week on Monday. How much we’ll be able to learn about the direction of the league at that time, however, is unclear.
"We’re going to talk optimistically about that. We’ll share details on the work that we’re doing, scenario planning that we’re doing, that expression plan for the worst and hope for better. We’re doing that work today with the intention of being able to communicate a real commitment to being back in 2021," said Ambrosie. "I am optimistic. None of us knows how this plays out in the months to come, but I still feel a sense of optimism that we’re going to get through it and that we will find a way to play in 2021."
The CFL has spent the past two months working through the financials of various scenarios for next season, everything from a short-season hub to a full schedule in home stadiums and everything in between.
There are believed to be divergent views among the nine teams about what is the best course of action for 2021, but a decision on the league’s plans is not expected in time for Grey Cup Unite.
"Football teaches us a lot of valuable lessons, it’s one of the real reasons why I love it so much," said Ambrosie. "And one of them is that sometimes life knocks you down and as a player you have two choices, stay down or get up. So we got knocked down. Let’s be football players and let’s get back up and start again."