Rob Bridges was among the many visitors to Vancouver this week that reminded me why the Grey Cup matters. A proud Hamiltonian, Bridges travelled more than 4,300 kilometres to cheer on his hometown team, despite the fact they were overwhelming underdogs.
Bridges arrived at BC Place decked in Hamilton Ti-cats gear, hard hat and all. He purchased pricey front-row seats at midfield and cheered on the Eastern Conference champions as they did their best to keep pace with the Calgary Stampeders, who dominated the CFL with a 15-3 record during the regular season.
"I had to be here," said Bridges, a season ticket-holder for many years. "The Ti-cats mean everything to Hamilton. They mean everything to us. We're a hard-working town and they represent that in the way they play."
On Sunday, the Ti-cats showed the never-say-die character that led them to the CFL championship game despite a rocky start to the season and a roster of youthful players. After trailing 17-0, they rallied in front of 52,056 fans at BC Place. Hamilton briefly put a scare in the Stampeders' fan base when it appeared electrifying kick-returner Brandon Banks had scored a touchdown that would have given the Ti-cats the lead late in the fourth quarter. However, Banks' return was wiped out because of a penalty and Hamilton lost the CFL championship for a second straight year.
Calgary won its seventh Grey Cup title with a 20-16 victory, capping a party-filled week on the west coast that underscored the cultural significance of a league that is sometimes maligned by critics and media. The CFL is often not taken seriously in a world where pro sports are expanding internationally and commanding big-time dollars from broadcasters and sponsors.
This week, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said the game is a part of Canadian culture and the Grey Cup Festival has filled the streets with parades, concerts and performance art. Thousands of fans poured into town from across the country. You could see them decked in jerseys of their favourite team.
During their Saturday night Grey Cup Festival concert, 54-40 brought onto the stage about a dozen fans. Lead singer Neil Osborne spied the audience for jerseys and beckoned a Blue Bombers supporter to join him, then a pair of BC Lions fans with their faces painted in orange, a pair of Edmontonians in Eskimo garb followed, and so on until the band had assembled a motley chorus line for a rendition of their hit "Casual Viewin'."
It was a true Canadian moment -- and there aren't enough of those. Beyond the annual parties and the economic impact of the game for the host city, the Grey Cup matters because it's part of Canada's heritage. It gives a reason for people like Bridges and the fans on stage with Osborne to feel part of a community. Anything that can accomplish such a feat deserves our attention -- and our support.