The Grey Cup and the Mud Bowl

Canada - Scott #2567h (2012)
Canada – Scott #2567h (2012)

The 1st Grey Cup game was played on December 4, 1909, between the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club. The University of Toronto won the game, 26-6. The Grey Cup (Coupe Grey in French) is the name of both the championship game of the Canadian Football League (CFL) and the trophy awarded to the victorious team playing Canadian football. It is contested between the winners of the CFL’s East and West Divisional playoffs and is one of Canadian television’s largest annual sporting events. The Toronto Argonauts have the most Grey Cup wins (17) since its introduction in 1909, while the Edmonton Eskimos have the most Grey Cup wins (11) since the creation of the professional CFL in 1958. The latest, the 105th Grey Cup, took place in Ottawa, Ontario, on November 26, 2017, when the Toronto Argonauts defeated the Calgary Stampeders 27-24.

While the Stanley Cup was created in 1893 as the Canadian amateur hockey championship, professional teams were openly competing for the trophy by 1907. Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada, planned to donate a new trophy to serve as the senior amateur championship; however, Sir Montague Allan donated the Allan Cupbefore he could finalize his plans. Grey instead offered an award to the Dominionamateur rugby football championship beginning in 1909. He initially failed to follow through on his offer; the trophy was not ordered until two weeks prior to the first championship game.

The Grey Cup, circa 2006
The Grey Cup, circa 2006

The trophy was commissioned in 1909 at a cost of $48. It has a silver chalice attached to a large base on which the names of all winning teams, players and executives are engraved. Its original base was made of wood, with silver shields listing each championship year and winning team’s name, beginning with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. The Grey Cup has been broken on several occasions and survived a 1947 fire that destroyed numerous artifacts housed in the same building.It disappeared for three days in 1967 when it was taken from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as a prank, and in December 1969 it was stolen from the offices of the Ottawa Rough Riders at Lansdowne Park. The thieves attempted to ransom the trophy, but the CFL refused to pay and made plans to replace it with a duplicate. An anonymous phone call led to the trophy’s recovery two months later in a locker at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. The thieves were never found.

The first Grey Cup game was held on December 4, 1909, between two Toronto clubs: the University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeated the Parkdale Canoe Club 26–6 before 3,800 fans. The trophy was not ready for presentation following the game, and the Varsity Blues did not receive it until March 1910. They retained the trophy in the following two years, defeating the Hamilton Tigers in 1910 and the Toronto Argonauts in 1911. The University of Toronto failed to reach the 1912 Grey Cup, which was won by the Hamilton Alerts over the Argonauts. The Varsity Blues refused to hand over the trophy on the belief they could keep it until they were defeated in a title game. They kept the trophy until 1914 when they were defeated by the Argonauts, who made the trophy available to subsequent champions.

Canada’s participation in the First World Warresulted in the cancellation of the championship from 1916 to 1918, during which time the Cup was forgotten. Montreal Gazette writer Bob Dunn claimed that the trophy was later rediscovered as “one of the family heirlooms” of an employee of the Toronto trust company where it had been sent for storage. The Grey Cup game was also cancelled in 1919 due to a lack of interest from the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the intercollegiate unions, along with rules conflicts between the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) and the western union. Competition finally resumed in 1920 with the 8th Grey Cup game, won 16–3 by the Varsity Blues over the Argonauts. It was the University of Toronto’s fourth, and final, championship.

The game has typically been contested in an east versus west format since the 1920s. Traditionally held on a Sunday at the end of November, the Grey Cup has been played in inclement weather at times, including the 1950 “Mud Bowl,” in which a player reportedly came close to drowning in a puddle (portrayed on today’s stamp) and the 1962 “Fog Bowl,” when the final nine minutes of the game had to be postponed to the following day due to a heavy fog. The latter game was held at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, and began on Saturday, December 1, 1962. The fog rolled in early in the second quarter and became increasingly dense as the game progressed. By the fourth quarter, the players were unable to see the sideline markers and the fans unable to see the play. The players were unable to see the ball in the air — kick returners listened for the sound of the ball hitting the ground — and the action was largely invisible to the television audience. With nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds remaining in the game and Winnipeg holding onto a 28–27 lead, officials made the unprecedented decision to suspend play until the next day. Though the league feared that continuing fog on the morning of December 2 would force the complete abandonment of the game, it lifted in time for the contest to resume. Around 15,000 of the original 32,655 spectators watched Winnipeg win the Grey Cup without further scoring by either team. It was the first title game completed on a Sunday; the Grey Cup moved from its traditional Saturday start to Sunday in 1969.

2017 Grey Cup
2017 Grey Cup

The 1977 Grey Cup was the first held at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, contested by the home town Alouettes and the Eskimos in front of a record crowd of 68,318. The game became known as the “Ice Bowl”, as low temperatures froze snow on the field that had been melted by groundskeepers with salt, making the artificial turf extremely slippery. The Alouettes adapted to the field conditions by affixing staples to the soles of their shoes, improving their traction, and won the game by a 41–6 score.

The Edmonton Eskimos formed the Grey Cup’s longest dynasty, winning five consecutive championships from 1978 to 1982. Competition for the trophy has been exclusively between Canadian teams, except for a three-year period from 1993 to 1995, when an expansion of the CFL south into the United States resulted in the Baltimore Stallions winning the 1995 championship and taking the Grey Cup south of the border for the only time in its history.

The 105th Grey Cup game was played at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa in 2017, as part of celebrations to mark 150 years of Confederation.

On August 16, 2012, Canada Post issued a set of stamps to celebrate the 100th Grey Cup game. The logos of the Canadian Football League teams were issued on eight different coil stamps while exceptional games or events — one per team — were portrayed on commemoratives available in booklets of ten. Finally, a single stamp spotlighting the cup itself was issued.

Scott #2567h is a non-denomiated stamp honoring the Toronto Argonauts and featuring the 38th Grey Cup, played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto on November 25, 1950, before 27,101 fans, between the Argonauts and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Argonauts won the game 13–0. This game came to be known as the “Mud Bowl.”

1909 Grey Cup champions
1909 Grey Cup champions

On the day before the game, a rare, heavy late November snowfall blanketed the field. Heavy equipment was sent to clear the snowfall before the game. However, the equipment damaged the turf, which was already in bad shape from poor groundskeeping during the regular season. To make matters worse, on the morning of the game the weather turned much warmer, and the snowfall turned to steady rain. By game time, the field was torn up and soaked with water, with the rain continuing through the entire game.

It was a game that will be remembered more for its poor field conditions than the actual game itself. The wet and muddy conditions at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium created a quagmire but did not prevent the Argonauts from winning their eighth Grey Cup title. The Argos kicked for what turned out to be the winning point in the first quarter. Winnipeg’s Tom Casey misjudged Joe Krol’s punt from the Blue Bombers 49-yard line, as the ball went over his head and into the end zone for a rouge. Joe Krol avoided a potential turnover later in the half when he dropped the ball on an attempted kick in Bombers territory. The Argo star picked it up and raced around the end for 10 yards, putting the ball on the Winnipeg 15. After failing to make another first down, Nick Volpe kicked a 21-yard field goal to put the Argos up 4-0.

Before the end of the first half, the Argos increased the margin to 7-0. Toronto’s Billy Bass recovered Indian Jack Jacobs fumble at the Winnipeg 19. After two running plays from Ulysses “Crazy Legs” Curtis and Teddy Toogood, Nick Volpe was successful on a field goal from the Winnipeg 23. The Argos completed the scoring in the third quarter. Toronto’s Jake Dunlap blocked Jacobs’ kick which the Boatmen recovered at the Winnipeg 20. Billy Bass and Al Dekdebrun carried to the four-yard line and Toogood to the one. On third down Dekdebrun slid across the goal line for the only touchdown of the game. Volpe missed the convert, but Joe Krol later kicked a single for the final point of the game. Dekdebrun directed Toronto’s ground offence all game, which steamrolled the Winnipeg defence for 232 yards.

This is the last time a team has been shut out in the Grey Cup final.

The aftermath of the game generated severe criticism of the Canadian Rugby Union and the choice of Varsity, which had traditionally hosted the game almost every year due to its relatively large capacity and generally warmer weather in late November and early December compared to other cities. Some believed the game could have been played a week earlier to avoid adverse weather conditions. Wrote one writer, “Because the field was like a pig’s wallow, what should have been a football classic turned into a slogging show.” The lack of a tarpaulin to protect the field, which could have been obtained for approximately $5,000 was noted. The Calgary Stampeders, who had faced bad field conditions in the 1948 championship game, offered to pick up the expense on behalf of the league, but the offer was declined. Although Varsity Stadium, and later Exhibition Stadium, continued to be the primary venue for the Grey Cup, the criticism of the conditions at both fields eventually led to the venue shifting among the cities of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Football Union on a regular basis.

Flag of Canada, adopted February 21, 1965

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