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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider


There is a tendency in sports to look back on the past and remember things as better; to romanticize the way things used to be compared to the cold, hard realities of today.

Of course, those notions aren’t always true. In many ways, things are far better these days than they were 20 or so years ago.

The Canadian Football League’s awarding of two Grey Cup games on Thursday, to Saskatchewan in 2020 and Hamilton in 2021, is one of those occasions to stop and recognize how much better things are for these respective franchises – and the league as a whole – than they were than the last time they hosted back-to-back Grey Cup games in 1995 and 1996.

The 1995 game in Saskatchewan was heralded not just for being the first time the province had hosted a Grey Cup, but also for how it would help the Roughrider franchise sustain itself for a few more years.

Saskatchewan in those days was a financial mess, living one season to the next before eventually running aground in 1997. A loan from the rich and powerful National Football League was required just to keep the team afloat.

In the mid-90s, the Roughriders were playing in an outdated Taylor Field, with absolutely no prospect of building a new facility. In fact, given the economics of the league and the team in those days, one might have assumed they’d be patching up the old stadium for at least another half century.

The 1995 Grey Cup featured the Baltimore Stallions crushing a very good Doug Flutie-led Calgary Stampeder team on a windy Prairie night. The Stallions were themselves a product of desperation, a result of the league chasing U.S. expansion and television dollars in a quest to keep itself afloat.

By the next season, that fantasy was in tatters. The U.S. expansion teams folded during the winter of 1995-96 and the Stallions relocated to Montreal, despite there being no sense of a renewed appetite for CFL football in La Belle Province. It was one more desperate move by a desperate league that finished the 1996 season with three of its franchises – Montreal, BC and Ottawa – in bankruptcy.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats might have been a fourth if not for the cash that came with hosting the Grey Cup game in their rickety old Ivor Wynne Stadium. By the mid-90s, the city of Hamilton had shaken off much of its image as a blue-collar town and with it had gone much of its love for the Tiger-Cats, who seemed perpetually on the league’s watch list.

But with no owners in BC, Montreal or Ottawa, the Ticats, by comparison, were a model of stability.

There was a legitimate conversation during the last week of November in 1996 that the league was on the verge of collapse and that this might very well be the last Grey Cup game ever played. At the very least, it’s safe to say that the league’s future had never looked so uncertain, the dark clouds obscured only by the snow that fell during Toronto’s win over the Edmonton Eskimos in Hamilton.

Fast-forward to today where the only financial question asked about the Roughriders is how much money they make. The Roughriders lead the CFL at the gate and in merchandising, which translates into lots of green for the green team, playing its home games in the Rolls Royce of CFL facilities at Mosaic Stadium.

Trying to imagine such a facility 20 years ago would have been impossible. But when the teams take the field for the 2020 Grey Cup game, they will do so in a stadium that is a testament to the Roughriders’ financial success.

The Hamilton renaissance may be a little more understated, but it is no less significant.

Once a franchise that seemed to change owners as often as it changed quarterbacks, the Tiger-Cats have been owned since 2003 by native son Bob Young, a tech entrepreneur who spends most of his time in North Carolina.

With Ivor Wynne Stadium decaying around them, the Ticats moved into Tim Horton’s Field in 2014, a quaint facility that’s just big enough to create an ideal football environment. No one is going to mistake it for the Los Angeles Coliseum, but for what the Ticats and the CFL require, it works.

And it should be a great host for a Grey Cup game.

Saskatchewan and Hamilton back-to-back as Grey Cup hosts; It’s a perfect time to raise a glass to toast the present.