North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Just another Friday night in the city: Five scenes from the Grey Cup pre-game

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1. Friday afternoon in Toronto, about 48 hours before the Grey Cup. There’s booths, tents and a giant stage set up at Yonge and Dundas Square. Food people are pitching their wares, yelling into crowds and handing out things. The people at Smokes Poutine handed me a giant sticker when I bought a poutine. A guy from Frank’s Red Hot tried to cajole my buddy Eric into a seven-hot-sauce-extravaganza without much luck. We’re both handed luggage tags from a woman trying to enter us into a draw for a trip to Orlando.

It’s a large, commercial gathering of noises and bright, flashing lights. A band is playing and there’s an array of cheerleaders, each dressed in team colours. One tent has CFL MEDIA written on it and inside there’s a bunch of newspapers, but nobody’s inside. Another tent has a bunch of CFL gear for sale. There’s games all around, too: ones where throw a football through the middle of a giant donut, another where you run a buttonhook route and catch a pass. The CFL is learning from the big leagues: this is a scene not remote from one you’d see at the NBA All-Star game or, I assume, the Super Bowl.

The change from 2007 is stark. The last time Toronto had a Grey Cup, it was hard to notice it. Maybe it’s because the Argos weren’t playing in it, but that seems like an easy out. Five seasons ago, it just seemed like the CFL was still that little Canadian league best celebrated in the prairies. It was something which didn’t translate to big cities. It’s changed this year: the city is embracing the Grey Cup, or at least willing to tolerate it for the weekend. The pregame stuff didn’t feel quaint, maybe for the first time I can remember.

2. Walking around the downtown core all of the afternoon and into the evening. Took the subway out to Honest Eds, then up to Young/Eglinton and finally walked up and down University. All over I saw people in CFL gear: hats, shirts and the occasional jersey. There was more, too.

One of the coolest aspects of the CFL is the way it’s fans dress up for the Grey Cup: I saw people dressed like doctors, in scrubs covered in CFL patches. There was a guy in a Stampeders-themed jumpsuit. My friend Jenn saw a bunch of people dressed as tigers. I suppose this isn’t something limited to just the CFL – God knows the NFL has it’s share of fan crazies – but Canadians are supposed to be reserved, right? There aren’t any people who slather red paint all over, wear a tail and go to Raptors games. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wear feathers at a Blue Jay game. The CFL has these passionate people and honestly, I think it’s pretty cool.

But there was an interesting absence: I barely saw anyone wearing Argos gear. For a while I was trying to keep score of who was wearing what, a plan as foolish as it was pointless, but by a wide margin the Argos were the least-represented team. I can count on one hand the number of Argo jerseys I saw. Saying the Argos are a distant fourth in the GTA is hardly an original thought, but I was mildly surprised by how little Toronto gear I saw. But then it was the afternoon. ALl the people who came to Toronto were on vacation; all the people already in Toronto were still at work.

3. A bunch of words have been written about Marty, the Stampeders horse, and his visit to the Royal York hotel. Apparently it’s a tradition for a horse to get ridden into a hotel during the Grey Cup, although I don’t really remember it being a big deal before. And although I think horses are rad animals, I’m having a hard time buying into this.

Marty the horse made the most of his time in the GTA, even if he wasn’t allowed inside the Royal York

In the past few years, TSN has pitched the CFL like the league’s never been pitched before. They go into overdrive, showcasing every game, every week. And it all builds up to the Grey Cup. Which, to be fair, is one of the crown jewels of TSN’s broadcasting. Arguably, only the World Juniors are more important to the network and off the top of my head, I’m not sure which draw more in the ratings. But it’s certainly something in the same mould: the World Juniors weren’t anywhere near as big as they’ve come in the past few years, thanks almost entirely to TSN’s wall-to-wall coverage.

It’s the same thing with the Grey Cup. TSN goes into overdrive this time of year and they’ve outdone themselves. There’s been a documentary series, live remotes from Toronto every day this week and every aspect has been well-covered, even the CFL awards, which don’t even get broadcasted. There’s hardly any angles that escaped their cameras. Enter Marty.

If I understand the backstory, some drunk Calgarians ride a horse into a hotel back in 1948. It’s since become a tradition, like the pancake breakfast. So when the Royal York barred it’s doors to Marty in front of a bunch of cameras, TSN found itself with a great story. And it’s one they rode as hard as they could. Their cameras followed the horse to the financial district, where Marty took a shit, and later to a bar, where he lapped up some beer out of a bowl. Granted, other outlets picked up on the story, but nobody was riding it quite like TSN, where it was all over SportsCentre, their website and even discussed at length on the Jay and Dan podcast.

It is a big deal that a hotel wouldn’t let Marty in? I think it’s much ado over nothing. One could argue the hotel’s turning down free publicity, but I found an old Paul Zimmerman story mentioning the Royal York banning a horse from it’s lobby in 1992. So it’s obviously happened before and the CFL didn’t die. The news cycle about Marty is nothing but bluster. It’s  a good example of how TSN’s expanding coverage of the game isn’t always great.

4. Last year, the Vanier Cup game was apparently the greatest Canadian college football game ever played. Maybe it was, but that’s like saying something is the locally-sourced greatest hummus dip you can buy in Erie, Indiana. It sounds great, but it doesn’t really mean anything. For better or worse, CIS football is a non-entity on Canadian television. There’s a reason it’s still on The Score for most of the year. It can be good football – comparing it to NCAA ball is hardly fair – but it’s both small and only a quarter of a niche sport.

Part of this isn’t really anybody’s fault: it’s not something a lot of schools could afford to do. Football is an expensive sport to put together, especially if you’re not raking in money from TV deals. This alone is why most Canadian schools don’t have football programs: only 26 schools play CIS football, compared to 35 playing men’s ice hockey and 44 playing men’s basketball.

But again, the Vanier Cup is a TSN property. So it must get the hype and attention it deserves. Thusly, on Friday night, TSN showed a documentary on last year’s game, The Best Game Ever. In this game, Laval was down 23-0 at halftime, rallied to tie the game and lost in overtime. I watched this doc in a bar without any sound, so maybe I missed a few details, but it was more of an extended highlight show than a movie and I found it incredibly dull. Maybe something was lost in translation.

Later that night, TSN aired this year’s game, although I didn’t watch any of it. The talk all week about this year’s game was on the attendance: it was supposed to be something like 33,o00, a record. It was supposed to have something to do with last year’s game, but it’s locale – Toronto’s Rogers Centre – certainly didn’t hurt. Most CIS stadiums couldn’t seat that many. But for something with that many people, I didn’t see a single person wearing any CIS gear. Maybe it was anecdotal, but given the amount of CFL fans I kept running across, I was a little surprised. Although I did hear from a friend that Union Station was overwhelmed and she had a hell of a time getting back to Hamilton after a concert, so maybe I was in the wrong neighbourhood.

5. I was in Toronto for a Raptors game: a blog I read was throwing an anniversary celebration at a downtown bar. It was packed, with many more people than I thought would come showing up. And, love them or hate ’em, the Raptors will be the only big game in town after the Grey Cup for some time. The NHL just cancelled more games, the Marlies are still considered minor league (perhaps accurate, but hardly fair: it’s roster has more than a few NHL-level talents this year). But the Raptors are not a good team. Their record is just 3-10 and they’ve dropped three games in a row.

Last night I caught the end of the game on a TV in a mall. A group of people had gathered around, including one guy who kept telling me the Raptors needed to trade Bargnani and feed the ball to Lowry more, because he’s a real baller. And this was after a 34-point night for Bargnani where we all saw him hit a big three late to give the Raptors a three-point lead. But we all groaned at the final possessions: Detroit’s Brandon Knight drove to the basket and hit a layup to give the Pistons a one-point lead with just over seven seconds left, followed by a long Kyle Lowry shot that rimmed out at the buzzer. Not an ideal ending by any means.

Still, it gave me a good feeling about this year. The Raptors are usually the also-rans here in the winter, even when they outperform the Leafs. That so many people crowded a bar for an early-season game against a bad team, or how group of people would all stand and watch the final possessions and actually talk to complete strangers about what’s wrong with the team, these are nice happenings. Even as they flail helplessly at the bottom of the Atlantic division, people in Toronto are still interested in the Raptors. That’s a great feeling.

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Written by M.

November 25, 2012 at 7:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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