Monday, 26 November 2018


Grey Cup Day

Throughout my 50 years of cyclical waxing and waning engagement with the Canadian Football League, I have absorbed just one truth. The quasi-national loop more often than not flies by the straps of its jock and its loyal fans love hanging on whatever the turbulence.

Sometimes the CFL has eight teams, but usually nine. Sometimes there are no franchises in Montreal or Ottawa. Sometimes two of its teams have the same nickname. Most times its major market teams struggle to attract fans. Often its very existence is threatened by American hegemony in the guises of the Continental Football League, the World Football League, the United States Football League and always the National Football League, the King I-kong-ic corporate monolith of them all, but sometimes the CFL has franchises based in the United States too.

The CFL was established in 1958. Given the meandering history of the league, it’s only fitting therefore that Sunday’s championship game between Calgary and Ottawa was the 106th edition of the Grey Cup, the country’s ultimate rugby, rugger and football trophy. The final was staged a short train ride away from the Crooked 9 but damned if Ann and I were prepared to shiver outside for four hours in Edmonton in late November. The parts of our bodies designed to be flexible sometimes dispute their basic job functions.

I’ve got my memories of six or seven Grey Cup games played in various Canadian cities, the ticket stubs as triggers. I’ve attended regular season games in stadiums old and new in four provinces. I’ve paid to see the departed: Stallions, Rough Riders, Renegades, Concordes, Gold Miners, Pirates, Barracudas and Mad Dogs, a Posse too. Jerseys hang in my closet, t-shirts are folded in a bureau drawer, caps and toques on shelves, logo mugs in the kitchen cupboard. There are a few dusty hardcover CFL-themed books in the library.

Two stories epitomize the CFL for me. Late last century an advertising colleague offered me a ride home to my downtown apartment after work. We stopped a block from my door at my favourite watering hole. I had a beer. Kevin had a Coke because he was minutes away from taking Highway 2 south to Calgary to spend the weekend with his wife who was then employed by the football club. Kevin said, “Oh, hey, I’ve got to show you something.” We left the pub. He unlocked the trunk of his car. There it was: the most Canadian of all sports trophies, the Grey Cup lying on a blanket in the rear of a Japanese import. No white gloves and tuxedos for this piece of metal. I said, “Jesus, does anybody know you have it?” He said, “I don’t think so.”

Glenn attended his first Grey Cup game in 1977. It was a bitterly cold Sunday, and the site being Montreal, there was a public transit strike. Of course there was. I was at that tilt too; the $24 ticket stub is pinned on the bulletin board above my writing desk. Glenn and I subsequently met each other a year later at college. He was the sports editor of The Plant, our school paper. I contributed record reviews and penned a comic strip. Our friendship went on hiatus once I moved to Alberta and Glenn relocated to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

Thursday night Ann and I had dinner with Glenn and his wife Margaret and four of their friends. They were in town for the big game. The visitors were clad in their team’s black and orange, adorned with beads and badges. Glenn told me he’d been to 21 Grey Cups. Margaret had only been to 14, but hey, somebody had to stay home and take one for the team when their two sons were toddlers.

Grey Cup is Canada’s only annual national social event. Edmonton Tourism and Edmonton Economic Development announced Monday morning that thanks to Glenn and Margaret, their friends and other folk like them from across Canada, the Capital Region realized a financial windfall of almost $64-million hosting the football festival. That’s worth closing a few blocks of the main drag for a party. The magic of Grey Cup is that the game is only half of it. The other equally important portion is flying your team’s flag from your hotel room window and sharing morning pitchers of “sluice juice” with like-minded souls from Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton and even Halifax dressed up in costumes and seeking heroic fun. Elvis and the Blues Brothers meet Saskatchewan Man in the Lions’ Den, Tiger-Cats welcome.

Aside from catching up with Glenn for the first time since the 2000 Grey Cup in Calgary, my little black raisin heart was also warmed by a bit of news issued by the commissioner’s office of our modest little sporting league. Ten teams, balanced eastern and western divisions, and true coast-to-coast presence in the nation could soon become a reality. The Atlantic Schooners, to be based in Halifax, now have a name and an apparently stable ownership group who has excited Maritimers enough to shell out for a healthy number of seat subscriptions.

Should the dream team earn a berth in the CFL, I dearly hope the club’s colour palette will be anchored by the hues of Nova Scotia tartan. I suspect its logo would be something of a stylized A based on the sail array of a two-masted vessel. Potential designers will have to avoid the Bluenose on the Canadian dime, the tall mast ship on labels of Molson Export beer and Toronto’s long-discarded classical Greek galley sailing football.

The Schooners will need a place to play. Public risk for private profit is always a bad deal. Pro sports, ultimately a useless distraction, has somehow brainwashed civic leaders that new stadia for private tenants is all to the collective good. Amazon even employed this spinning business model for its HQ2 sweepstakes. Still, from thousands of miles away, I would love to see a Canadian professional football team on our east coast. My reasoning abilities are out the porthole when it comes to our goofy little circuit. The CFL is a survivor against all odds, a touchstone for citizens scattered across a big, empty country. And Jesus, wouldn’t a three- or four-day Grey Cup party in Halifax set kitchens reeling?            

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Friday, 23 November 2018



The final football game of the Canadian season will be played here on Sunday. Winter’s coming on in whatever form it may take in these days of goofy climate anomalies. The air is crisper, better to transmit the relentlessly annoying noises of motorized machines. Everyday life has become a source of sonic irritation, from snow-blowers, to paving to neighbourhood lots being divided for ugly, skinny residential rectangles. It’s good to get away from it all or at least have something to look forward to, dangle a lamp at the end of the low-lit tunnel of shortening days.

Years ago when I lived in Calgary I caught a bus every workaday morning that let me off near a Seventh Avenue C-Train platform. The bus was always full. One grey dawn I was crammed up against the driver, rigid, intent on not invading his personal space. It was freezing outside. The commuter smog hung low like cancer-flavoured cotton candy. The skyscraping core though within easy walking distance was invisible.

Without taking his eyes from the smoking parking lot ahead, he nodded toward an electronic billboard on the roof of a whitewashed auto body shop. “What would you do with $20-million?” The timed ad was promoting a growing provincial lottery jackpot.

“I’d get the Beatles back together and have them play my backyard,” I replied.

He said, “But John and George are dead.”

“Like I’m going to win $20-million.”

“Somebody has to.”

“Guess I’d better buy a ticket.”

Lotteries are peculiar mechanisms. The odds of winning are impossibly slight and so players essentially pay for what is already free: a few moments to dream. Paying to dream is as silly as buying back your own tap water from Coke, Nestle or Pepsi because they’ve re-packaged it in a plastic bottle. Still, water is the stuff of life and life, excepting the double-helix of DNA, is made of dreams.

November is a dreary month, often cold and always tinged with the sadness of Remembrance Day. No finer time to dream of a sunnier future. So when the Rolling Stones announced dates for a 2019 American spring tour the Telexes began to get typed. Tony, an old friend and intermittent meGeoff correspondent wrote from his hellish retirement in Bermuda, “Pick a city. We’ll go.” On it!

I filtered Ann’s and my known obligations. I compared the Stones’ schedule to the relevant Major League Baseball teams. I was distracted during my searches by a mechanical roar from across the back alley. I stood watching and listening as a deceased neighbour’s lot was cleared of its trees and his modest post-war bungalow demolished. Eventually I returned to my task. I was delighted to arrive at Chicago, the band and the city share some history and the Cubs would be hosting the south side White Sox or the New York Mets depending on our arrival and departure dates. The dream was creeping into scheme territory.

Norm is a lawyer based in Toronto. He also plays a mean guitar, a blonde Fender. We grew up together. We went to high school with Tony. The three of us are still Stonesheads. Back in 1978 Norm and I took a train to Toronto and then a bus to Buffalo to see the Stones together. The first time for both of us. We didn’t know it then but Tony was there too.

Chicago is one of those cities to which I’ve always dreamed of returning. While Ann scrolled through Airbandb listings I baited a hook for Norm: Ann, Tony and I were planning to see the Stones in Chicago, Cubs at home, 2120 South Michigan Avenue once the home of Chess Records and now the Willie Dixon Blues Foundation, Buddy Guy’s Legends club nearby on Wabash, good eating and drinking. I threw in a little high culture for good measure: And the Art Institute of course…

Because daydreams are not nightmares I neglected to mention a few things to Norm. Seven months is a long time, anything could happen to any one of us or the group’s members, life’s like that but not in the Reader’s Digest sense. The Stones are long past their best-before date and the venue is a football stadium. They’ll play a set we’ve all heard before. God knows what the currency exchange rate between Canadian and American dollars will be by June 21, 2019. And then there’s Chicago’s batshit crazy propensity for gun violence.

“I knew it!” Norm wrote back. He also allowed that he might have some Stones credit in the bank as he’d taken his wife of 30 years to see Hamilton in New York City for their wedding anniversary. We left things at that. Meanwhile this reverie of a road trip, a reunion and a rock ‘n’ roll show is gratis, no charge until Wednesday, November 28, 10 a.m. local time when I’ll spend money struggling to make a dream come true, typing with two fingers, hunt and bash. Be nice to get away from it all and hear some beautiful noise for what could be the last time.                

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Monday, 19 November 2018


Fort Rodd Hill

National historic sites wherever they may be always intrigue me. Though the past is a narrative always distorted by a philosophical prism, ever-shifting perceptions of what was noble then and why it’s criminal now, one nation’s voyage of discovery and exploration is another nation’s colonial yoke, the physical remains are irrefutable: something, whatever it was, happened here once. Rambling around preserved ruins you learn facts and the stories that accompany them while your imagination is free to roam and make things up as you amble along.

Ann and I spent a week on Vancouver Island visiting close relatives and good friends in the environs of Victoria, British Columbia, the provincial capital. Remembrance Day dawned sunny, azure and warm, presenting a serendipitous opportunity to visit one outdated link in the Dominion of Canada’s modest chain of Pacific coast defenses. Ann was patient with me as I kept wandering off to explore and click iPad pictures, leaving her to stand alone on the beaten paths.

Construction of the upper and lower batteries of Fort Rodd Hill began in 1895. The heavy guns atop the cliff overlooked the naval base in Esquimalt Harbour (still active), the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the city of Victoria. The artillery fortification was decommissioned in 1956. In the years in between Fort Rodd Hill was continually upgraded as the nature of warfare changed. Barbed wire entanglements were erected outside its walls already protected by a bombardment-deflecting glacis, sloped earthworks incorporating the site’s bedrock. A third battery of rapid-fire guns was added between the existing heavy emplacements in anticipation of raids by swift torpedo boats. Search lights were installed and camouflaged as a “fisherman’s hut,” along with a telephone exchange. Steel torpedo nets were strung out in the Strait. A plotting room to direct anti-aircraft fire was gerry-built into the cliff underneath the existing structure.

The fort was dug out of and built on Lekwungen territory. It’s believed the first white men these First Nations people encountered were Russian fur traders. Imperial Spain then began nosing around the Pacific island, its expeditions retraced by British naval captains James Cook in 1778 and George Vancouver in 1791. West coast threats to the British Empire and this country have through the life of Fort Rodd Hill included manifest destiny America, the Russians in the wake of the Crimean War, and Imperial Japan (which is why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was permitted to punch the Alaska Highway through sovereign Canadian boreal forest). I can only speculate as to what murderous mischief Stalin might’ve got up to had Hitler not pivoted on their mutual non-aggression pact; the Russians loomed menacingly once again at the height of the Cold War.

The original six-inch guns were mounted on hydraulic platforms. They peeked above the ramparts to fire and were lowered to be reloaded under shelter. The rate of fire was not efficient, about one shell every two minutes. The ammunition magazines were tucked safely away underground, accessed via narrow tunnels of vaulted brick. The right and rear walls of the fortress are pocked with loopholes, horizontal and vertical rifle slits. Quarters, the guardhouses and barracks, were close and Spartan.

Below Fort Rodd Hill on a pinkie-sized peninsula is another national historic site. Erected in 1860, the whitewashed Fisgard lighthouse with its red residence was the first of its kind on Canada’s Pacific coast. Looking back from the lamp, a distance of just a few hundred yards, the fortifications hewn into the promontory were virtually invisible.

Monday evening, mild. The still water in Victoria’s inner harbour was a black mirror. Lights and masts reflected. Ann and I held hands and walked. We took the few steps up from sea level beside the refurbished and green-lit ferry terminal. We crossed the road and lingered by the cenotaph in the grounds of the legislature, its every soaring arch and angle blazing white light. The wreaths on the ground were plastic fir, prickled with red and black Royal Canadian Legion poppies and festooned with purple ribbons imprinted with gold type. The embossed plaques on the plinth commemorate the sacrifices made in two world wars, Korea and Afghanistan - “the graveyard of empires.”

I said to Ann, “They’re running out of room.” And who can recount all the godforsaken places where Canadian forces have been deployed by the United Nations as peacekeepers.

The minor miracle of Canada, in a large part due to its geography, is that since the War of 1812 petered out in 1815, and Fenian Raids ceased in 1871, she has never had to defend her borders from armed invaders. No small boon to date in an ever-changing world. An emplacement like Fort Rodd Hill never once launched an artillery barrage in anger. Lest we forget our country’s good fortune as we remember those who gave their lives, limbs and sanity in service of our allies overseas.          

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Wednesday, 7 November 2018


Someday Never Came

I was struck by a short Canadian Press story in the sports section of last Friday’s Globe and Mail. Not that anything was in my eye but I still felt something akin to an emotional twinge. The Montreal Canadiens, heeding the example of their six sister Canadian NHL teams, will no longer print complimentary pocket schedules.

They came in the same shape but many sizes. Some pocket schedules were simple rectangular cards. Others had a quarter fold and opened like a skimpy book. Elaborate ones expanded like accordions or spread out like road maps. Some people collect matchbooks, embroidered patches or bars of hotel soap. At some point during the 70s I began tossing miniature sports schedules into a shoebox, a blue Adidas one with three white saw-toothed stripes on its lid. Seasons of Canadiens hockey, Expos baseball, Alouettes and Concordes football, Manic soccer (indoor and outdoor) and local university athletics began to accumulate.

Production costs would not have been an issue for the hockey club as the price per unit would break down into pennies or fractions of, that outlay in turn offset by contributions from marketing partners and advertisers. However, in this era of apps, laptops and tablets it makes little sense to flood sports bars, gas stations, convenience stores and ticket wickets with a million pieces of worthless paper. And then there are environmental concerns. Every phase of printing from forest to courier truck exacts an ecological toll. Some are blatantly obvious; others less so: for instance a sheet of recycled paper leaves a larger carbon footprint than its virgin counterpart because it must be de-inked and re-pulped.

Travelling I habitually pocketed the home team’s season schedule whether I attended a game or not; club calendars made fine little mementos. Friends and relatives who lived outside of Montreal began enclosing schedules in their letters to me. I hit a gusher halfway through the 80s when I first met my friend Stats Guy. At the time he was the director of publications and statistics for the Edmonton Oilers. He was in constant contact with his counterparts around the NHL and other pro leagues, baseball especially as Stats Guy is a life-long seamhead.

This tiny sporting fraternity exchanged tips and information. What are the dimensions of your media guide? Perfect bind or coil? Colour throughout or just in one or two signatures? Can you please send one or two along and enclose a couple of pocket schedules?

(During our last Tuesday Night Beer Club meeting Stats Guy muttered about culling his collection of sports publications. Two sips later he mentioned he’d just bought four new bookshelves. I’m wildly relieved that I don’t live directly beneath his upper storey apartment.)

Seasons changed at the whim of sports calendars. A few times a year Stats Guy would play schedule Santa, a bulky manila envelope would arrive. The shoeboxes stashed in the corner of the closet began to stack up. They changed addresses in Montreal numerous times. They got shipped to Edmonton. Mysteriously, their number continued to increase. When my employer transferred me to Calgary, my shoeboxes were packed into bigger boxes by Allied Van Lines. During my 20-odd years in Calgary my shoeboxes multiplied in five different closets.

Someday, I often thought, someday. Someday I will spread out my collection on the dining room table and I will organize it, sort it by sport, league and year. Someday, maybe once I’ve retired, I will rehouse my pocket schedules in binders and display them in those three-holed plastic inserts trading card collectors use. Someday. It’ll be fun, I thought, not a chore. Someday.

About five or six years ago when I was planning my move from Calgary back to Edmonton, I sat on the edge of my bed in my bedroom and contemplated the ziggurat of shoeboxes piled up on my closet floor. The original incubator, that blue Adidas box, was on top, obscured by a Harris tweed sports jacket. My intention was to relocate north with a light load: books, notebooks, recorded music and my modest collection of Rolling Stones tour posters. Clothing too – always handy, especially if you wish to go outside.

I asked myself, Who are you kidding? I told myself, Those pocket schedules will stay in their boxes until the day you die. You will never look at them; you will never sort them out. And if on the off chance you did, if you ever got around to it, who the hell would want them after you’re gone? Junk, just junk to be disposed of, junk, more junk to be carted off when you’re dead. God knows what’ll happen to your Stones stuff.

I dumped all of my pocket sports schedules into the blue recycle bin in the back alley. They resembled a collage atop the newspapers and broken cartons. Defunct leagues and teams. Relocated teams. Years of casual foraging. Trips. Memories. Among the logos and artwork were faces of people who’d spared a thought and a stamp for me. All so real then as now even though I no longer have the paper to prove it.

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