It has been lost, forgotten, stolen, held for ransom, caught up in a compromising position with exotic dancers and even come under attack by the Taliban.
Such is the rich and colourful history of the Grey Cup.
The iconic trophy wasn’t supposed to honour a football champion. It was originally to be awarded annually to Canada’s top senior hockey team, but Sir Montague Allan beat Earl Grey to the punch by issuing the Allan Cup.
Grey later donated the trophy to recognize the Canadian rugby football winner. At the time, the Grey Cup was made at a reported cost of $48.
Today, the hallowed trophy’s value awarded yearly to the CFL champion is estimated at $75,000.
To those who compete for it, the Grey Cup isn’t about money. It’s a 100-year-old trophy that’s steeped in tradition and sewn tightly in Canada’s cultural fabric. The Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts will add to that rich history when they face off in the centennial version of the CFL’s title game on Sunday at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
Mark DeNobile, the executive director of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, says the Grey Cup has weathered its share of storms over the years based on the shape of the trophy when it returns home to Hamilton.
”Whatever the team does with it while they have it as Grey Cup champions, we really don’t want to know,“ he said with a chuckle. ”A few times, yes, it has come back in rough shape.”
The Grey Cup has had adventures at home and abroad. On July 1, 2008 DeNobile, former CFL players Roger Aldag and Steve Mazurak, Ottawa comedian Mike MacDonald and the George Canyon band accompanied the trophy to the Canadian Forces base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
While there, the base came under attack by the Taliban. DeNobile was on stage with the Cup when missiles hit nearby, and that’s where it remained while DeNobile and others were taken to a nearby bunker.
“That was an interesting time,” DeNobile said. “The Taliban launched three missiles into us and we were on the stage when it happened.
“The air sirens went off just like you hear it, you have to grab the ground for 90 seconds, they blow a whistle and you run into a cement bunker. After all that, George Canyon went back on and played but the Cup stayed on stage throughout the attack.
“Two years later, CFL commissioner Mark Cohon and Doug Allison (league’s Vice-President, Finance and Administration) took it back there and had their own incident where something was bombed so the Grey Cup is 2-for-2 in Kandahar.”
The Grey Cup has special significance to the DeNobile family. DeNobile’s father, Gino, appeared in seven CFL title games as an offensive lineman with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from 1956 to 1984, winning twice.
Mark DeNobile also earned a Grey Cup ring working in Hamilton’s front office in 1999 when the Ticats beat Calgary 32-21 at B.C. Place.
After helping the B.C. Lions win the Grey Cup last November, linebacker James Yurichuk took the trophy to new heights.
When it was the Brampton, Ont., native’s turn to have the Cup for a day, he took it via helicopter to the top of a B.C. mountain and had a friend film him victoriously raising the trophy above his head as the sun set behind him.
Sadly, the best footage was lost. What remained was uploaded as a short film on YouTube but it reportedly pales in comparison to the missing clips.
Other players have chosen to share the trophy with the people. Members of the victorious ’92 Stampeders took it to a strip club, where the Cup was used to measure the dancers’ breast sizes.
And while the Grey Cup has survived the two foreign attacks, it didn’t fare so well in 2006 after the Lions defeated the Montreal Alouettes. During the post-game jubliation, the trophy broke in two when offensive lineman Kelly Bates lifted it above his head.
That didn’t deter Bates and his teammates, who continued celebrating with both pieces of the Grey Cup. Fortunately for Bates and the Lions, a welder in Winnipeg successfully re-attached the cup to its base.
It wasn’t the first time the Cup was broken. In 1987, it snapped when a celebrating Edmonton Eskimos player sat on it. Four years later, tape held the neck of the trophy intact when it returned home with the Argonauts.
And in 1993, it was again broken when Edmonton’s Blake Dermott head-butted it.
Last December, Wally Buono stepped down as B.C.’s head coach just over a week after winning the Grey Cup for a record-tying fifth time. But in 1998, the CFL’s all-time leader in wins as a coach nearly added another wacky chapter to the championship’s colourful history. Hours after Buono’s Stampeders earned a wild 26-24 victory over the Tiger-Cats, the victorious team nearly left Winnipeg without the trophy itself.
The Stampeders returned to their hotel for a reception after the game. They then headed to the airport for their chartered flight home only to realize the trophy had been left at the hotel. As panic set in, salvation arrived in the form of the trophy, which someone had placed on a bus headed to the airport.
“There were so many people getting their picture taken with it (at the reception) so I left early to get the buses organized assuming someone else would take care of it,” Buono, who had signed for the Cup on the club’s behalf, said at the time. “All of a sudden we don’t know where it’s at.
“Fortunately, when the third bus came, someone was smart enough to have put it on. It was a big relief.”
The Cup is insured, but whoever signs for it is responsible for its safe keeping. If it’s lost or irreparably damaged, the signee is on the hook for its replacement value.
The Stampeders’ faux-pas last year wasn’t the first time the Cup had been forgotten.
In 1964, the B.C. Lions sent someone back to their hotel to retrieve it after arriving at the airport empty-handed. And in 1984, hours after a team celebration, former Bombers GM Paul Robson sheepishly returned to an empty Winnipeg Arena to find the trophy sitting on a table at centre ice.
Former Toronto kicker Mike Vanderjagt lost the Cup in November 1997. Vanderjagt took it to a bar in his native Oakville, Ont., where it was stolen. Early the next morning, a college student who reportedly joked she’d give $100 to have the Cup in her apartment found it in her kitchen. Police were called and the trophy was returned to a relieved Vanderjagt.
It was also stolen in 1969 from Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park and held for ransom. When the CFL balked, Toronto police found the Grey Cup in a storage locker at the Royal York Hotel.
The University of Toronto won the first Grey Cup championship in 1909, but didn’t receive the trophy until the following March as Grey’s staff reportedly forgot to have it made. And once the school got the Cup it held on to it, figuring it didn’t have to return the trophy until another team beat U of T in the title game.
That happened in 1914 when the Argonauts captured the title. Since then, the winning team has made the trophy available to next season’s champion.
In 1947, the trophy was almost destroyed by fire while on display at the Toronto Argonaut Rowing Club. The office was gutted, but a slightly tarnished Cup survived.