The Grey Cup is returning to Hamilton. What’s the city’s game plan?
A quarter century ago, the city of Hamilton hosted one of the most memorable Grey Cups ever.
The game had everything: Doug Flutie, maybe the Canadian Football League’s best-ever player, was quarterbacking the Toronto Argonauts. Edmonton Eskimos receiver Eddie Brown watched a long bomb slip through his fingers, but, miraculously, the ball hit his foot and bounced back into his hands for a touchdown. Flutie clearly fumbled a third-down snap at a key moment in the game, but an official’s quick whistle bailed him out, and the Argos kept possession of the ball. The diminutive Henry “Gizmo” Williams returned a kickoff 91 yards for an Edmonton TD. All of it culminated in a thrilling 43-37 victory for the Argos.
And did I mention there was a blizzard?!
I don’t mean it snowed. I don’t mean it snowed a lot. I mean a full-on blizzard descended on Ivor Wynne Stadium, giving the more than 38,000 in attendance another reason to delight in the spectacle of it all.
Sadly, although the game was so memorable on the field, off the field, it was a near disaster. The Grey Cup is a national festival. Thousands of people travel vast distances across multiple provinces to attend. So the organizing committee quite reasonably put together a budget that assumed a healthy contingent of Argo fans from Toronto would drive one measly hour to see their team in the big game.
They didn’t. Almost no one from Toronto came, perhaps scared off by weather forecasts, perhaps simply preferring to watch the game and have a party in the comfort of their homes.
Regardless, if not for the last-minute intervention of Tim Hortons, which purchased thousands of tickets, the players wouldn’t have been paid. As it was, the city lost a fortune. (Full disclosure: my mother, Marnie Paikin, co-chaired Hamilton’s Grey Cup organizing committee, and I’m not sure she’s yet recovered from her disappointment at how poorly Torontonians supported their team’s appearance in the big game.)
Most Canadian cities that host our version of Super Sunday do so every few years. Regina hosted in 2003 and 2013 and will do so again next year. Ottawa in 2004 and 2017. Edmonton in 2002, 2010, and 2018. Montreal in 2001 and 2008. Calgary in 2000, 2009, and 2019.
But Hamilton was so spooked by its experience with the 1996 Cup, it hasn’t dipped its toe back into the hosting waters … until now.
For the first time in 25 years, the Steel City will host the Grey Cup, on December 12. And while this generation of organizers feels extremely confident they’ll put on a fabulous show, they acknowledge there are, to steal a phrase, variants of concern.
First and foremost, this will almost certainly be the first major national event in Canada since we’ve begun to emerge from the pandemic. There are hopes that more than 32,000 people will buy tickets and attend the game at Tim Hortons Field, but no one is actually sure that will happen. “In a normal year, we’d have sold the game out already,” acknowledges Greg Dunnett, director of Grey Cup Festival Operations for the Tiger-Cats, in a recent presentation to the Rotary Club of Hamilton.
Second, Hamilton was hoping to gain valuable insights from Regina’s hosting of the festival last year. Except Regina didn’t host last year. No one did. The season was cancelled. So there is a certain amount of deciding and hoping for the best this year.
Having said that, organizers have planned a true extravaganza: 40 events, potentially engaging 300,000 people, representing $80 million of economic activity for Hamilton and 3 billion “impressions” in legacy and social media for the city. If all works out, this could be tons of fun.
Dunnett has the Cup experience broken into three elements: the walkability of the downtown festival in the days leading up to the game; showcasing the city’s cultural renaissance; and the game-day experience itself. In addition, he soon expects to announce two “tier one acts” to play major concerts at the First Ontario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum) on the Friday and Saturday nights before the game.
“That would hopefully attract 30,000 people who don’t normally come to the Grey Cup,” Dunnett says.
Other activities include the traditional brunches and parties staged by various cities (such as the Tiger Town Party, the Stampede Breakfast, and the Spirit of Edmonton, where every cry of “Sociable!” requires downing a shot of some kind of hooch), an alumni luncheon/autograph session, the festival fan experience and open market at Gore Park downtown, the Around-the-Bay 10k race Saturday morning (run since 1894), the Grey Cup parade, a flag-football tournament, the commissioner’s brunch, a VIP reception for 1,000 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and so much more.
Why do organizers expect to have a better go of it this time around?
“First and foremost, the difference between 1996 and now is our strong ownership,” Dunnett says, referring to Bob Young, the software industry multi-millionaire who has owned the Ticats since 2003. Young never refers to himself as the owner; he calls himself the “caretaker” of a public trust. “He’s put his heart and soul and money into the team.”
Dunnett also points to a stronger fan base in Hamilton, which will get first dibs on tickets. In addition, he points out that Edmonton had 55,000 people in the seats for the last Grey Cup it hosted, in 2018. And Calgary hosted 35,000 people in 2019.
“There is a very low risk our game won’t sell out,” he insists.
And, hey, maybe we can also hope for another blizzard. It sure added to the fun of the last Grey Cup game Hamilton hosted.