Weathering the storm: Grey Cup history through fog to ice to wind and snow
OTTAWA – With open-aired Frank Clair Stadium vulnerable to the elements, weather could once again have a profound impact on the outcome of the Canadian Football League’s championship game. It wouldn’t be the first time.In the 92-year history of the event, weather has been as much a part of Grey Cup lore as anything else. Hence the nicknames, which immediately bring to mind four of the most infamous games in Grey Cup history. The Mud Bowl. The Fog Bowl. The Wind Bowl and the Ice Bowl.
The Mud Bowl came first, in 1950. The game was sold out for the first time in history, with 27,101 fans packed into Varsity Stadium in Toronto to watch the Toronto Argonauts beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 13-0.
“It was probably the worst,” said Nick Volpe, then a placekicker and punt returner for the Argonauts, and now their director of Canadian scouting. “You couldn’t catch the ball. You’d let it hit, hear it splat and then you picked it up and tried to run with it.”
Twenty centimetres of snow had fallen the night before the game, followed by rain. When a snow removal truck got stuck on the field on game day, a tractor pulled it out, leaving potholes on the field. Conditions were so bad that many credit referee Hec Crighton with saving the life of Winnipeg’s Buddy Tinsley, who at one point in the game was lying face down in a puddle and in danger of drowning.
Toronto’s quarterback, meanwhile, had taped thumbtacks on his fingertips to improve his grip on the ball.
Volpe earned the game ball from the Mud Bowl for kicking two field goals for the Argos and saving a touchdown on the defensive side. “It was quite a day,” he said with a chuckle.
Of course, it being a Canadian game and all, it wasn’t the last time miserable weather made an appearance on championship day. The elements played havoc with the Grey Cup finals on other memorable occasions, creating the two-day Fog Bowl in 1962, the Wind Bowl in 1965 and the Ice Bowl in 1977.
The Grey Cup of 1962 began on Dec. 1 and ended a day later. Starting in the second quarter, the fog began to roll into CNE stadium from Lake Ontario. It got so bad that, in the second half, the players lost sight of the ball when it was airborne. Punt returners could hear the ball being kicked, but couldn’t locate it until they heard it hit the ground.
CFL commissioner Sydney Halter visited the field several times to evaluate the conditions, each time allowing the game to continue. Finally, with 9:29 left, to the chagrin of both sides, he stopped the game and announced that it would have to be completed the next day. Winnipeg was leading Hamilton 28-27. That’s the way it would end.
In 1965, Toronto once again hosted a whirlwind of a game. Gusts of up to 80 km/h coming off Lake Ontario blasted into Exhibition Stadium, in a game that became known as the Wind Bowl. Winnipeg coach Bud Grant opted to concede three safeties over the course of the game, rather than attempt to kick into the gale. The margin of victory for the Tigercats was those six points. Hamilton beat Winnipeg 22-16.
In 1977, in front of a record 68,313 fans at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the Alouettes crushed the Edmonton Eskimos 41-6 in the Ice Bowl, otherwise known as “Staplegate.”
Heavy snow had fallen on the field the week leading up to the game. Officials applied a chemical on the turf to melt the snow, however, the water from the melted snow froze into a hunk of solid ice.
The footing on the stadium’s frozen artificial turf was so hazardous that several Montreal players resorted to unique measures to improve their traction on the field.
After a slippery warmup, an aptly named safety, Tony Proudfoot, stumbled upon an electrician’s staple gun in the dressing room and punched nearly 100 staples into the soles of his shoes. Following his lead, several others scrambled for the gun and repeated the ritual. Edmonton appealed for an investigation, but the score stood.
Proudfoot said that he had been experimenting with different types of footwear all week prior to the game and became “obsessed” with finding a remedy to the conditions. Six hours before the game, he found it.
“When I saw the staple gun, a light bulb lit up in my head,” said Proudfoot, who now teaches at Dawson College and does the colour commentary for Alouette games on CJAD radio in Montreal. “I decided to give it a shot.”
Montreal quarterback Sonny Wade indicated after the game that his team won by making more traditional adjustments to the conditions. “We didn’t plan to throw the ball that much, but the field conditions dictated it,” said Wade, the game’s MVP, who finished with 340 passing yards and three touchdowns. “When it’s slippery like (that), the receiver has an advantage over the defender.”
Environment Canada said yesterday it was too early to accurately predict the weather for Sunday. However, they estimate it will be cold, around freezing, with a small chance of precipitation.
History doesn’t offer much of a clue as to what to expect either.
It will be the sixth time Ottawa has hosted the game, with the previous contests played under a range of conditions.
On Nov. 27, 1988, the temperature was a balmy 14C. On Dec. 2, 1967, it was bright and sunny, with the temperature peaking at -2.
The Dec. 7, 1940 game saw snow and rain with a high of 4C, while the Dec. 9, 1939 game was snowy with a high of -4. Ottawa hosted its first Grey Cup game on Dec. 5, 1925. It was a rainy day with a high of 6C.
According to Environment Canada, the record high for Ottawa on Nov. 21 is 11.9C, recorded in 1992, while the record low is -5.6C, set in 1987.
Whichever way the heavens choose to go this year, the current players won’t be getting any sympathy from their predecessors.
“You never thought much about the weather in those days,” said Volpe, now 78. “In our day you played in any condition. Believe me, the guys today don’t know how lucky they are.”