LABOUR OF LOVE: A RETROSPECTIVE LOOK AT THE LABOUR DAY CLASSICS:

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by Ted Soutar
Originally published September 4, 2004; edited and updated September 1, 2007

 

The hot, humid days of summer turn to crisp autumnal harbingers of an inevitable winter yet unseen and even less anticipated.  August’s dog days soon dissolve into September’s Indian summer.  Frosty morning air gives way to warm -- occasionally overwhelmingly so -- afternoons, to be replaced by cool nights filled with the promise of a new school year.  The harvest moon glows ripe and large in the evening sky, highlighted by stars more brilliant in their appearance with the cooler air of the coming season.  The rustle of leaves beginning to turn indicates the winds of change blowing over the city streets and country lanes.  The answer to Christina Rosetti’s classic rhetorical poem “Who Has Seen the Wind” is evident everywhere.  Out on the prairies, farmers begin yet another long grueling battle with Mother Nature and Father Time to gather their harvest.  It is a beginning and an end.  New possibilities abound, and the rebirth that will become more evident next spring begins its conception.

 

The winds of change, too, blow throughout the Canadian Football League, as the turning point in every season announces itself in the drama that unfolds in the annual Labour Day Classics.  Traditionally the midpoint in every CFL season, this one weekend demands that even the most casual observer of Canadian football sit up and take note.  Like the very seasons themselves, this one weekend is a beginning and an end.  It is the end of what may be the most protracted experiment in speculation.  It is the end of all the “what ifs” and “maybes”.  It is the beginning of “the time is now”.  It usually signals what is to be, while giving homage to what has gone before.  It is the beginning of the playoff races.

 

With the exception of the Grey Cup itself, it draws together longtime fans and novice curiosity seekers alike in a way nothing else can.  A way that touches the very fabric of what it means to be a Canadian football fan, and, in one very real sense, what it means to be a Canadian.  Yes we are all alike, but we are also different.  We all of us make up that ‘distinct society’ that the late Prime Minister Trudeau spoke about.  We gather together in stadia or around television screens across the country to reclaim a part of our past lost to our neighbour to the south - we did introduced them to the game, after all.

 

And yet it’s not lost, in the sense that what the American game has become is as different to the Canadian game as we all are to “the great melting pot” below the 49th parallel.  Someone once said the only way to tell the difference between an American and a Canadian is to point out to a Canadian that there is no difference.  No truer words were ever spoken, particularly when it comes to football.  No, rather than a reclamation, it’s really more of a celebration of our game and our heritage.

 

While their game is just getting under way, ours has already seen more than two months of battle to this point, merely to arrive at the crossroads that will determine the fates of players, coaches, teams and fans alike.  It is this weekend, more than any other that challenges the collective psyche of football fans in Canada.  Whether an “old-school” traditionalist or newly-born convert, this weekend and its results largely determine whether the casual fan sticks with the game for the rest of the season or not.  It also tells the longtime fan in cold harsh reality whether or not it’s time to begin thinking of uttering that age-old mantra, “Wait until next year…”

 

Ultimately, it’s just another week in a long 18-game season.  But it is also oh, so much more.  It is a renewal of why we care about the CFL.  The history and tradition of our game go back a century and a half, the roots of which are firmly planted in the first recorded game of rugby in North America that predates Canadian Confederation.  Long-forgotten, those roots have refused to wither and die but rather, have sustained the game despite the many foolhardy attempts which, in the guise of attempting to grow the game, have at times likened to sound its death-knell.  And those same long-forgotten roots, lost in the mists of the game’s first century, spawned what might arguably be called the greatest period in the game’s storied history, namely its last half-century or so.

 

Since 1948 the game has seen its most productive and potentially destructive eras, yet the traditions these years have created have ultimately sustained both the game and us alike when it seemed the game would die.  And no greater tradition exists than the annual clashes on Labour Day weekend.  It is this weekend that gives us the great rivalries in sport – the Toronto Argonauts, the oldest continuous professional team in North American sport versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, themselves a proud and storied team with roots extending further back than their hated rivals.  It gives us the Edmonton Eskimos versus the Calgary Stampeders; a rivalry no less storied, dating back to 1892, and if anything, even more heated than the Toronto-Hamilton rivalry.  It gives us the Saskatchewan Roughriders versus the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a pitched battle for prairie supremacy.  In past years the Montreal Alouettes and Ottawa Roughriders would square off, with both teams splitting the bragging rights.

 

With all the upheaval and conflict the past two decades has seen for this league, there remains one constant: the Labour Day Classic weekend.  Even the Grey Cup game has seen changes, what with dwindling crowds in Toronto and Vancouver in the early nineties, and the Baltimore Stallions taking Earl Grey’s celebrated mug across the border for a brief stay in 1995.  One might argue it was this event that finally turned a lot of people away from the game, it being the proverbial final straw that broke the camel’s back after so many years of turmoil and mismanagement.  But it is the Labour Day weekend that always makes people come back, if only for that one weekend a year.  It is the one weekend of the year that sees the highest attended games in every city.  And it is still the weekend that defines Canadian football, and its fans for what we are: resilient, tough and devoted to that which we love.

 

 

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EDMONTON

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ROUGHRIDERS

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OTTAWA

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