In a normal year, grocery store snack aisles would be packed this weekend with people in jerseys, face paint and probably wild wigs and weird hats.
Canadian football fans are a special, colourful breed, and this should have been their time to really let loose.
They would have been loading up on treats for Grey Cup Sunday — a day most likely embedded in their brains like the logo pressed into the leather of a CFL football.
“The league is a real piece of Canadiana. It’s very unique and it brings together a unique group of people who love it,” said Bob Irving, who has been CJOB Radio’s play-by-play voice for Winnipeg Blue Bombers games since 1975.
“It’s a real people’s league. It’s not like the Super Bowl, where you need thousands of dollars to get into any of the events,” he said.
During Grey Cup week, “you can get into the parties … and meet people from across the country, fans of all the other teams, and it’s all in good fun and in good spirit,” said Irving.
“It’s a very special week indeed on the Canadian calendar — never mind the Canadian sports calendar, but the Canadian calendar, period.”
But there are no shenanigans this year. No steed being trotted into a hotel by Calgary Stampeders fans. No swapping of collector pins, or steaming pancake breakfasts or late-night party tents.
COVID-19 obliterated it all. The season never even began.
For the first time in 101 years, the CFL’s championship trophy will not be handed out. That hasn’t happened since the 1919 game was nullified by a rules dispute between rugby organizations, and because the country was still recovering from both the 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic and the First World War, which put the 1916-18 seasons on hold.
This year’s big game, slated to be played in Regina’s Mosaic Stadium on Nov. 22, would have been Irving’s 48th consecutive Grey Cup as either a fan or broadcaster.
“Not being in the Grey Cup city during Grey Cup week is very unusual and different. And I miss it,” he said.
“In the last couple of Sundays I’ve been marking those days as what would have been the West [Division] semifinal, then the West final last Sunday, and then this Sunday, of course, the Grey Cup.
“To get to this time in the season and not have the great playoff games and the drama surrounding them … it creates a void for sure. It’s really a sad period in the history of the league.”
The void comes after the Bombers won their first Grey Cup title in 29 years last season, defeating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Calgary.
Holding onto the title by default, though, doesn’t make them champs for two straight years, Irving noted a chuckle.
“A lot of people want to say that. They’re the defending Grey Cup champions, we can say that,” he said.
“We’ll see if they can win two in a row when we get back to playing.”
The league on Friday expressed optimism for a 2021 season, announcing a schedule with the first game being a 2019 Grey Cup rematch between the Bombers and Ticats.
Until then, memories from Winnipeg’s 33–12 win will have to carry Bombers fans.
A season to remember
And there’s much to reflect on, said Irving, starting with the fact that last season, the Bombers (11-7, third place in the West Division) were viewed as huge underdogs to the 15-3 Ticats, who held the CFL’s best record and were on a seven-game win streak.
But the Bombers were riding a wave of confidence as well, knocking off Calgary in the semifinal — their first win in that city in two decades.
They then went into Saskatchewan and dropped the West’s top team 20-13, after a nail-gnawing end that had the Roughriders on goal line twice in the final two minutes, pushing for a game-tying touchdown, but the Bombers defence was a wall.
With four seconds left, an end zone pass by Riders QB Cody Fajardo hit the crossbar of the uprights. Dead ball. Game over.
“The atmosphere, you could could cut the tension with a knife at the end of that game. It was just a spectacular ending,” Irving said.
The Bombers did it with quarterback Zach Collaros, who Saskatchewan had tossed aside. Collaros started the season with the Riders but suffered a concussion in Game 1. Saskatchewan traded him to Toronto in late July, but Collaros didn’t play a game there.
He was picked up by the Bombers in a trade deadline deal six weeks before the Grey Cup, after injuries hobbled Winnipeg’s QBs. Matt Nichols had season-ending surgery and Chris Streveler suffered an ankle injury in the second-last regular season game.
Collaros went 4-0, including three consecutive road wins to clinch the cup. The Bombers only won three on the road all season prior to that.
As for Streveler, many assumed his season was done. But the QB built like a tank showed up with a heavily taped ankle and went to work. In the West semi, he set a CFL playoff record by taking 23 snaps without attempting a pass, running in spite of his injury.
In the Grey Cup, he threw a touchdown pass, rushed 30 yards and caught a pass on a trick play.
The 2019 Bombers also featured four Winnipeg-born heroes in Andrew Harris, Nic Demski, Brady Oliveira and Geoff Gray.
Harris, who was three years old the last time the Bombers won the championship, became the first player in CFL history to be named the Grey Cup’s top player and top Canadian.
And the team helped long-suffering fan Chris Matthew to finally pull on his pants, while thousands of other diehard Blue and Gold faithful crowded downtown Winnipeg for a parade to The Forks.
A beer-swilling, shirtless Streveler — dressed in a fur coat and cowboy hat — embodied the party mood.
“[The victory and parade] brought the fans out and the love for the Blue Bombers in a way that really underlined how important this organization, this team is to the fibre of this community,” said Irving.
That’s why the loss of the 2020 season stings so much, he said.
“They were bringing most of the championship team back, and most of us felt they would have another great chance to win it again,” Irving said.
“The chance to take another run at it this year — boy, that’s a lost opportunity that I know weighs heavily on the players.”