Editor's note: With the NFL's Super Bowl coming to the Bay Area in February, CSNBayArea.com Senior Insider Ray Ratto is in Canada to cover the Grey Cup and see how the other half lives. Bookmark Ray Ratto's Grey Cup blog for complete coverage leading up to Sunday's game.
WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- The NFL Experience is basically what happens when someone takes all the sellable NFL merchandise in the world and puts it in the largest warehouse there is, throws in a few interactive games and turns on the cash register.
Effective. Lucrative. And stunning in its excess, as all 32 existing teams merge at the Super Bowl to become a monolithic paean to The Shield. There are no offerings to any of the defunct franchises like the New York Brickley Giants or Tonawanda Kardex, both of whom died in 1921 before ever seeing a third game. There is the now, and the now can be sold.
The CFL Experience, on the other hand, unhesitatingly brings you John Ryerson, thumping the tub for a team that exists only in the mind.
He is the embodiment of the Atlantic Schooners, a team that would have been headquartered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that was promised a provisional CFL franchise in 1982 but lost it when it couldn’t get a stadium built. It has been thus ever since -– the Schooners have money and owners and can easily attract players, but still no place to stick them (“You can’t just put out lawn chairs,” he said) -– which is why the Schooners still don’t exist, and still cling tightly to the two sayings that appear on their banners at the convention center here and bind the idea even after 33 years:
“A Canadian Tradition,” and “Still Undefeated.”
“I’ve been coming to Grey Cups for 23 years in a row, and I’ve been throwing this party for 10,” he said with an unmistakable Maritime lilt (think Bostonian only without the potential for getting punched in the throat). “And every year we’re treated just like the rest of the fans here. And one day we will be.”
The Schooners have one of the two anomalous followings that have come to the Grey Cup religiously, the other being the Baltimore Stallions, the one tangible remnant of the CFL’s utterly loopy plan to colonize America in the 1990s.
The Stallions were an odd duck in that they were trying to fill the void left when the Colts were spirited away a decade earlier by that ethical and moral exemplar Bob Irsay. Thus, Baltimore got in on the CFL expansion that went first to Sacramento and then to Baltimore, Shreveport, Las Vegas. A year later, Sacramento moved to San Antonio, and...
...but we can play Junior Archaeologist some other time. The point is, the Stallions, who were unfettered by the league rules requiring a minimum number of Canadians (currently 21, and 20 “internationals”), got to the Grey Cup in 1994, and won in 1995. But in the midst of their triumphant playoff run, the city announced that it was driving the getaway car in Art Modell’s flight from Cleveland with the Browns. The Stallions were dead, and almost certain never to be revived. Indeed, this is one of the first years since they folded that there has been no evidence in town of what was known as the Baltimore CFLers.
The Schooners are a different matter. They never miss the ceremonial first beer being opened. The CFL has never had a presence east of Montreal, and the people who live in Quebec City and beyond have been itching ... well, mildly pining, anyway ... for inclusion. Quebec City has never been close to getting a team, but Nova Scotia has a promise on which it intends to collect.
“The league has said it will give us right of first refusal when they decide to expand, and as soon as we figure out the stadium, we’ll be there,” Ryerson, a native of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, said. “And when we do, we will absolutely throw the biggest party the Grey Cup’s ever seen, you can bank on that.”
Understand, here, that Ryerson is not some moneyed big shot trying to become a football mogul. The closest he comes is to say, “If we do get a franchise, I’d be OK with getting a chance to own a piece,” and even the party he runs every year is a non-profit. “We take the money we make of the party here every year and donate it to the local food bank of the town hosting the game. Two years ago in Regina, we dropped $28,000 on the people there.”
He runs a software company in Toronto and commutes from his Yarmouth home, so he’s not a heavy hitter in the standard NFL way. But he has his dream, and he comes to every Grey Cup to make sure nobody forgets.
“We’ve been throwing this party for awhile now, and we’ve never had to throw anyone for being unruly,” he said. “We’ve been treated very respectfully by everyone every time, and we’re treated as very much a part of the group.”
He knows that not everyone in his province shares his calm but strident position, but he believes when dream becomes done deal, that will change. He spent more than a decade in Saskatchewan and saw how a regional team can take over.
“I can’t let it go,” he once told Davene Jeffrey of the Halifax Herald News. “I have the Saskatchewan mentality in me and I can’t let it go.
“There are certainly people in Nova Scotia who may just not like sports,” he said. “But I think once it becomes a reality and a shared experience, and once we host our Grey Cup, everyone will be on board.
“At least that’s what I hope.”
Until then, he runs his party, with food, things to sell and live bands (this year’s lineup included Dust Rhinos, Mudmen and Tilted Kilts, though they could probably get GWAR if they stretched the budget a bit), and a team that remains a twinkle in his eye.
It has a logo, though, because branding for an undefeated team never hurts, even in the world of dreams.