100 Years of Grey Cup

By David Wencer, originally published December 23, 2009

This year marks anniversary of the inaugural Grey Cup

Smirle Lawson (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame)

This December marks the one hundredth anniversary of the inaugural Grey Cup game, when the University of Toronto beat the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club at Rosedale by a score of 26 to 6. There was little to suggest at the time, however, that this game marked the beginning of one of Canada’s proudest and most popular sports traditions.

In 1909, there was no Canadian Football League. The terms “rugby” and “football” were often used interchangeably (or together) and the newspaper accounts of 1909 reveal an interesting hybrid of today’s CFL terminology and traditional rugby parlance. Although Canadian football had been played across the country for several decades, it was only in the first decade of the 20th Century that a serious effort began to standardize the rules across Canada. By 1909 there were still many competing leagues, and no adequate means of determining Canada’s top football team.

In fact, over the weekend prior to the first Grey Cup match the highly-regarded University of Toronto squad, generally referred to in the press as “Varsity,” played a team from Ottawa in what many in Toronto regarded as the true test of Canadian football supremacy. This game also took place at the Rosedale grounds, where close to 11,000 people saw Varsity completely annihilate the Ottawa Rough Riders 31-7. At the time, the Toronto Star believed it was the largest crowd in Canada ever assembled to watch rugby football.

Having proved themselves superior to Ottawa, champions of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, Varsity’s next scheduled opponent was the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club, champions of the Ontario Rugby Football Union. The ORFU is perhaps best known to history as the first Canadian organization to adopt the Burnside rules, the rules from which the modern Canadian football game is derived.

Rosedale field, 1921 (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 615)

The game took place at Rosedale on December 4th, 1909, starting at 2:30 PM. It is curious that although the Telegram hailed the event as the “Canadian Championship,” none of the newspaper accounts of the game mention a trophy called the “Grey Cup.” According to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Cup’s donor and namesake Albert Grey (then the 9th Governor General of Canada) forgot that he had agreed to donate the trophy for the event; in fact, the 4th Earl Grey had originally intended the Grey Cup to be for Canada’s outstanding amateur hockey team, but was beaten to the cause by Sir Montagu Allan, whose Allan Cup is still awarded for this purpose. As such, the Grey Cup trophy did not physically exist at game time, and the $48.00 trophy was not presented to the victors until the following March.

Hugh Gall, standing (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame)

The Varsity team were the clear favourites heading into the game, with many in the Toronto press proclaiming them to be the best football team Canada had yet produced. Although most scholarship today focuses on the exploits of their kicker and right half Hugh Gall, it was their 190-pound left half Smirle Lawson who tended to dominate the headlines. Following the rout of Ottawa, the Toronto Star ran a photo of Lawson on the front page, with the caption “Lawson the Invincible.”

Judging by the newspaper accounts, those in attendance at the first Grey Cup varied from supporters of the individual teams to fans of the sport simply hoping for a well-played game. For the U of T supporters, the Telegram noted “an entire new repertoire of songs and yells, in addition to the ones used at the Ottawa game, has been prepared by the Varsity students for the game today.” The reporter went on to note: “last night saw the first out-of-town arrivals for the big game. Those who admire high-class football will not neglect the opportunity to see the Varsity wonders and the tricky Parkdale Paddlers in action.”

For those expecting another easy victory for U of T, the first half must have been something of a surprise. Although a thoroughly skilled team, the key to Varsity’s success in 1909 had been the running game of Smirle Lawson. To counter Lawson, Parkdale had an outstanding defender named George Barber, known for tackling from the waist, “English-style.” Barber played hard against Lawson all game, rendering him ineffective in the first half and most of the second. The result at halftime was a testament to good defensive play, with U of T holding a narrow 6-5 lead. The crowd was evidently pleasantly surprised with Parkdale’s performance, giving them a standing ovation at the break.

In the second half, however, U of T prevailed, and was able to score several more times and secure the victory. Although the official score for the game is 26-6 in favour of Varsity, the final five points were scored on the final play of the game and initially a matter of small dispute. The Star explains that this scoring play “came after time was up, Lawson making one of his wonderful 50-yard runs for a touchdown, while the timers were on the field trying to notify the referee.”

Although Lawson managed to penetrate the Parkdale defence for this final score, U of T’s success in the game has traditionally been attributed to their kicker Hugh Gall, whose record for kicking eight singles in the game is still a Grey Cup record. Several reporters single Gall out for being able to step in when needed, but also note that the key to Varsity’s victory was their outstanding defensive play against Parkdale’s myriad of trick plays.

All the newspapers were quick to say that the score did not reflect the closeness of the play, and many reporters saw this game as proof that Canadian football was in fact capable of producing an enjoyable spectator product. The Globe wrote that Parkdale “demonstrated in a most marked manner that ORFU senior football is almost as good as is played in Canada.” The Telegram quoted one Dr. W.G. Wood as saying “Now, I think, the public will grant that the Ontario Union teams are not of intermediate calibre. Because our boys learned their game here is no reason why they should not develop into as good as the best… I trust the press will drive it home now that Ontario can raise just as good players as anywhere.”

Despite substantially lower attendance figures than the Toronto-Ottawa game of the previous week, the first Canadian football championship was thus considered a success. Nearly everyone who was there agreed that the Grey Cup game was much better than the game against Ottawa, and that Parkdale was a much more worthy opponent. More importantly, it established the University of Toronto as Canada’s first undisputed football champion.

As Canadian football progressed, the rules continued to evolve, eventually becoming the rules used across the country today. Over 46,000 attended the 2009 Grey Cup, and TSN announced a recording 6.1 million watched it on television. The Grey Cup is undoubtedly an enormous event, even if the inaugural participants are no longer considered the pinnacle of Canadian football. The Parkdale Canoe Club morphed into today’s Boulevard Club, and is no longer directly associated with football; the University of Toronto still fields a football team which in recent years set a Canadian record by losing 49 consecutive games.

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