The Southern Blitz

How Canadian football’s short foray into the U.S. ultimately strengthened the league

As a sportscaster in the 1990s, I was around during perhaps the strangest time in Canadian sports: the Canadian Football League’s expansion into the United States. The period brought fans the Shreveport Pirates, the Las Vegas Posse and the Baltimore CFLers (later the Stallions), among others. The three-year period was tumultuous, almost broke the league, probably saved the league and ended with the game back in Canada for good.

After U.S. expansion collapsed, just before the 1996 season, almost everyone was left scratching their helmets and asking the same question, “What the heck just happened?”

Now we know, thanks to Vancouver Province writer Ed Willes and his entertaining book, End Zones and Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL. Willes takes a meticulously researched, and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, view of the CFL’s short-lived love affair with the United States.

How can you lose with a period of history that includes Melinda the “Glamorous First Lady of Magic” unveiling a team name in little more than a G-string, or Dennis K.C. Park singing “O Canada” to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” at the Las Vegas home opener?

There is more. Willes gleefully recounts the attempt by Memphis to cram a CFL-sized field into an old college stadium. The locals did indeed paint 110 yards, but each yard was only 33 inches. The end zone was too small, and was surrounded by a concrete wall. Every possible touchdown throw was, as Willes describes, “a life-threatening experience for receivers.” The result was some of the lowest-scoring, and most boring, football, ever seen. Memphis was gone after just one season.

Willes quotes British Columbia coach Dave Ritchie, who saw the field and immediately said, “That’s what we do for expansion fees.”

There were some success stories. The Baltimore franchise drew crowds, won a Grey Cup title and did not lose too much money. (The team eventually moved north and became the current Montreal Alouettes.) But overall, the period was so “seat-of-your-pants” that at times you think Willes is making the anecdotes up. He is not. The renowned Stephen Brunt is quoted early on saying, “It was the greatest story I’ve ever covered.”

And in just three short years it was over.

So what did happen, according to Willes? Through original documents and current interviews with the major players, he pieces together a pattern of unplanned chaos. The driving force at the beginning was survival. Larry Smith became CFL commissioner in 1992 and looked out over a Canadian-based league that was hemorrhaging money. Now a senator, Smith recalls it as a time when “we didn’t have a template … that would guarantee success.” No kidding.

Smith’s idea, pushed on by CFL owners Larry Ryckman and Bruce McNall (both later charged with fraud), was to take the Canadian game south. The National Football League—the U.S. football juggernaut—was moving teams out of places such as Baltimore and ignoring smaller markets such as Shreveport, Memphis and Birmingham. So Smith pursued the people there who had money.

Owners such as Fred Anderson (Sacramento), Nick Mileti (Vegas) and Jim Speros (Baltimore), paid lots of money to get into the league. The league did not end up getting all the money it was promised, but apparently got enough to keep it from total collapse. Willes does not necessarily credit Smith with any grand vision, but in hindsight, the money he did get helped keep teams such as Hamilton and B.C. from going under.

The eventual death of the U.S. experiment was caused by numerous factors, one of the biggest being the complete (often willful) ignorance of the Canadian rules by many of the U.S.-based owners, coaches, players and fans.

Willes perfectly sums this up with the title of Chapter 6—“Half the People Here Couldn’t Even Spell Saskatchewan”—a quote from Memphis coach Pepper Rodgers, who was notorious for attacking the CFL rules. Willes further quotes him as saying, “You Canadians can sit around and do all you want up there in Canada but no one understands the rules here.”

And it is in comments such as these that Willes touches on more than just the clash of sporting cultures. Canadianness, perhaps, is in the small things. Take the 1994 Grey Cup, for example.

Baltimore was facing the B.C. Lions, the first U.S.-Canada final in Grey Cup history. And the game took on huge overtones. Lions owner Bill Comrie told his players, “It’s us-versus-them. This is for our country.” Willes includes a photo of a banner at the game that read, “Free Trade Didn’t Include the Grey Cup.”

(Willes could have gone even further here, possibly pulling in some of the larger cultural trends that explained why the football game became, as he puts it, front-page news. It was not just the CFL’s U.S. expansion that had Canadians feeling threatened. The NHL’s Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets were sold or about to be sold to the United States. Disney bought the promotion rights to the RCMP.)

Fans rallied around the details and the game became a celebration of those small differences; three downs, the bigger field, the “rouge”—the point a team gets if the other team does not get the ball out of the end zone on a kick (with some exceptions). The Canadian players on the Lions felt they were also defending their jobs and their reputations. Lions running back Sean Millington, Vancouver born and raised, said the game proved, “I can compete. We can all compete.”

Yes, the Lions won. And bit by bit the Canadian game started to come back.

The next Grey Cup was held in Regina, in freezing temperatures and howling winds. (I was there; I still have the ringing in my ears.) Baltimore won that time, but in such a prototypical Canadian context that it seemed that the C in CFL had been the real winner. Willes includes a quote from fan Rodney McCann that sums this up perfectly. “My grandfather froze at the Grey Cup. My father froze at the Grey Cup. I’m going to freeze at the Grey Cup. That’s what it’s all about.”

The league itself started to realize that its Canadianness was something it needed to nurture and promote. Willes does credit Smith and others with never forgetting the small things, even in the midst of the U.S. experiment. Smith, looking back, says today that, “we all loved the CFL and we were all custodians of a great Canadian Institution.” Willes leaves little doubt that if the CFL had adapted to become more American, it would be gone today.

Willes also knows there are practical reasons things have turned around. Montreal’s move from the horrible Olympic Stadium to McGill’s Molson Stadium (thanks to a bump from a U2 concert) saved that team. New and smart owners David Braley in Vancouver and Robert Wetenhall in Montreal brought stability to those teams and the league.

The emergence of content-hungry cable channels—particularly TSN—helped give the league more regular exposure and TV money. Things have turned around. The league is strong. But the league learned, and Willes recognizes, that the CFL is Canadian or it’s nothing. As Willes himself writes, “We borrow so much of our culture and our identity. But the CFL is ours.”

Maybe it took a flirtation with the U.S., and some U.S. arrogance à la Pepper Rodgers, to prod Canadians into realizing this.