There’s a $20 cover charge at Stamps House and we don’t want to pay it.
Actually, we can’t pay it: we are on an epic quest to hit every single Grey Cup party in one night and to fork over a succession of entry fees at each venue would be prohibitively expensive. Media types are cheap, no question, but they aren’t particularly well paid, either. Plus, we need money for beer.
Negotiations with the door staff is under way as we try and stretch the boundaries of press credentials — we are technically working — when the rest of our party arrives. Ian Busby, a 3DownNation author who has covered the Stampeders for more than a decade, takes over.
“OK, can we get in for free if we bring Jon Cornish?” he asked, dropping the name of the Calgary Stampeders running back.
The gatekeeper in the cowboy hat and the cash box smiles at him, clearly amused by the notion. “Sure.”
In walks Jon Cornish.
Twenty minutes later, Cornish is behind the bar, cowboy hat pulled low, pouring shots.
Busby is watching the whole scene, laughing his ass off.
“This is the most Grey Cup thing ever.”
One of the best parts of Grey Cup festivities are the team parties.
Most clubs hold an event of some kind each year, giving their fans a place to gather and drink like champions, regardless of where their team is in the big game or not. Some are small and quaint while others are consistently huge with a long tradition. Each one is a unique representation of the league’s culture.
Fans usually pick one or two parties, choosing to whoop it up with other like-minded souls or friends from other teams. While the events are sometimes grouped together — at the 2012 Grey Cup in Toronto most were held in the convention centre downtown — they are often spread out across a given city.
Over the course of my seven Grey Cups, I’d been to every team party at some point but never hit them all of them in one night. Frankly, I wasn’t sure it could — or even should — be done. But I wanted to try.
The key would be to put together an elite team of Grey Cup veterans who understood the monumental nature of the task, respect and embrace the sheer audacity of it. They should have extremely strong livers.
My first recruit is Busby. Calgary-based, Buzz worked for the Calgary Sun before moving on to CityTV as a producer and jack-of-all trades, including on-air hits with Edmonton’s Dinner TV. He still freelances for the Calgary Herald and for 3DownNation. We got to know each other in Moncton during the 2011 edition of Touchdown Atlantic, when we made a point of visiting most of that East Coast city’s finer drinking establishments. We’ve been friends ever since.
Busby suggests adding photographer Johany Jutras, who spent the 2015 season travelling across the country taking photos in each CFL city for a book project entitled Our League, Our Country. I don’t know her but had seen her spectacular work — you can buy the book here — and Buzz vouches for her. “She’s a party animal,” he texts.
So that’ll work.
Friday night will be game night, we decide.
“I’m not going to sleep tonight, I’m so excited,” Busby texts.
We agree: this could be the most Grey Cup thing ever.
Buzz and I roll solo to the first event but only because it seems destined to be poorly attended — like most things involving the Toronto Argonauts these days. The Double Blue Bash is scheduled for 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Earls on Main Street and has all the hallmarks of a party being held in the wedge between ownership groups: small and on the cheap.
Instead, the place is jammed. The Argos, intentionally or not, have attracted the mid-afternoon drinking crowd — a key Grey Cup demographic. There are jerseys of every stripe packed into the bar, along with the few Argo fans who made the trip to Winnipeg.
It’s also happy hour at Earls which means drinks are $3. Uh oh.
The Argonaut event staff — a long-suffering crew who’ve made something-outta-nothing into an art form — have been smart and brought team ambassador Michael “Pinball” Clemons, one of the most universally loved figures in the league. Pinball is at his effervescent best, smiling for pics and charming anyone and everyone he comes into contact with. Even Ticat fans can’t hate the man. Chad Owens is also there, a recognizable face who interacts with fans almost as well as Pinball does. Anthony Coombs isn’t as well known but he’s from Winnipeg and there are plenty of locals eager to catch up with him.
One of the things that makes the CFL unique and wonderful is the amount of contact between fans and players and never is that more prominent than at Grey Cup. Every event during the entire week has a player or two in attendance and fans have the ability to chat, take pictures and just generally be around the guys.
The Argos have nailed their event, small as it is: the whole place was awash in the good vibes of Grey Cup and the cautious optimism that surrounds the Double Blue these days.
Buzz wants to pose with Pinball for a pic and asks to wear his Grey Cup ring. Pinball had a guy walk off with the very same ring in a similar situation a few years ago so you’d think there’d be some trepidation. Nope. He slides the ring off with a smile.
Pinball Clemons is the most Grey Cup thing ever.
With Busby off to do television hits and both Johany and Kirk still working, I fly solo to the next event, the Grey Cup Tweet Up which, in just a few short years, has morphed from a tiny gathering of like-minded, nerdy-ish football fans (like myself) to a glitzy corporate monster.
The first one I attended was in 2012 in a small basement pub in Toronto. Everyone wore their Twitter handle scrawled on one of those “Hello My Name…” stickers. It was cool to meet a bunch of people I’d been interacting with on social media but never talked to face-to-face. That year — I think it was the second one they held — commissioner Mark Cohon stopped by for a few minutes and an extremely hung over Peter Dyakowski was pretty much the guest of honour.
This year, the #GCTweetUp was held at the Shark Club, an upscale bar-restaurant housed, kinda weirdly, in a downtown mall. The place was absolutely packed with CFL fans, the TweetUp taking place in a roped off area at the back. The league is a partner with Twitter Canada now and the whole thing was slickly produced loudness. There were plenty of CFL types, including Owens again and Montreal receiver S.J. Green. But the guest of honour showed up just as I was leaving: the Grey Cup.
In addition to promoting interaction with its players, the CFL does a great job during Grey Cup week of putting the championship trophy into the hands of its fans. It shows up, accompanied by a pair of white-gloved handlers, at a number of events throughout the week: if you don’t get a picture with the cup at Grey Cup week, it’s because you didn’t want one.
It’s always cool to see people’s reaction to the trophy: most are a little wide-eyed, reluctant to touch it, even shy. It’s undeniably captivating.
The Grey Cup: the most Grey Cup thing ever.
Johany and I make the trek to the Spirit of Edmonton to meet Buzz and it requires some effort: it’s being held at hotel and conference centre complex near the airport, far from downtown.
Holding a Grey Cup party in a hotel ballroom, conference centre or other giant, empty, soulless space is something of a risky proposition. Get it right and it’s infused with the collective energy of several hundred like-minded, similarly-dressed fans having a good time. Get it wrong and it’s a high school party where nobody came. So, so awkward.
Luckily, Spirit of Edmonton is always — and I mean always — popular beyond reason. It is, along with Riderville, one of the tentpoles of Grey Cup good times. There’s a sold out breakfast that features “sluice juice” — a vodka drink of legendary strength — and “sociable” the battle cry of Spirit goers everywhere (everyone drinks when it’s called out, which is roughly every 30 seconds.)
The evening party is just as good. The organizers want Johany to sign some books so that gets us in the door with a few free drink tickets. Buzz is just finishing his TV hits. It’s weird to see an old print reporter — a rumpled, generally unpolished lot, by and large — doing virtually flawless television, interviewing cheerleaders and jamming his arm into a giant hot tub filled to the brim with ice and cans of beer on camera.
Most CFL teams bring their cheerleaders to Grey Cup, where they move from event to event performing their routines numbers to thumping dance music. After the Winnipeg Blue Bombers crew finishes up to whoops, cheers and a thousand iPhone camera flashes, the next bit of entertainment is… a full bag pipe band. The juxtaposition is striking: scantily clad women gyrating to Rihanna followed by men in kilts playing Scotland the Brave. The crowd loves it all.
Buzz, work finally done, has a beer in each hand and is making up for lost time. The Spirit of Edmonton is always one of the best Grey Cup parties — always — and Winnipeg is no different. We could stay here all night and have a blast.
“This is the most Grey Cup thing ever,” I say to Buzz. He can’t hear me over the bagpipes.
Bad planning derails our next stop. One of the aforementioned quality Argo staffers had told me the Redblacks were holding their party the same Earls later in the evening and so we headed back, looking to see if the Ottawa crowd had kept things going. The place is still jumping but it’s pretty clear it isn’t an exclusively Rouge Et Noir event.
“Oh, the party is tomorrow night,” says one of the only people we could find wearing the right colours.
Like Toronto, the Redblacks had opted for just a single evening of party (many others, including Spirit of Edmonton, Riderville and TigerTown are multi-night affairs.) The Montreal Alouettes — with a fan base that rarely travels — are the only team that doesn’t have a party at all.
Still, the Redblacks fans we meet have a drink with us to keep things going. The party the following day is, by all accounts, completely off the chain, spilling over into the restaurant side and outside onto the street. The Redblacks fan are quickly re-establishing themselves as a force to reckoned with. They are very Grey Cup.
The best thing about the B.C. Lions’ Den is Wally Buono.
The general manager and (once again) head coach is, of course, a CFL legend, winner of five championships, including the 2011 Grey Cup in Vancouver. He’s holding court when we get to the Delta Hotel ballroom, shaking hands, slapping backs and talking to anyone looking for a few minutes of his time.
The rest of the party is… well, this is what happens when the giant, cavernous ballroom isn’t full. The band’s not bad and there are quite a few fans decked out in the requisite orange and black, but they’re scattered in a sea of empty space. We have a drink with Wally’s daughter Christie — she’s become friends with Johany — and decide to make our way as there are still several parties to hit.
John Hodge, Darrin Bauming and Kirk Penton appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Hodge is a fellow 3Down blogger, Bauming is a Winnipeg radio guy, Kirk is the Sun Media’s CFL writer – all great dudes. They’ve been following our exploits on Twitter and have decided to catch up.
In the lobby of the Delta, we run into several players, including Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish. Buzz, who has covered Cornish since he was drafted, has just published a story that strongly hints that Cornish will retire during the off-season. They’re not friends, exactly, but they’ve known each other a long time and their relationship goes beyond the typical player/scribe dynamic.
Buzz wants Cornish to come with us to our next stop, Stamps House. Cornish doesn’t seem too keen. I don’t know Cornish well but he’s always seemed intelligent, well-spoken but slightly aloof: being a professional athlete sometimes requires a certain cognitive dissonance and that doesn’t strike me as Cornish’s style. He’s also busting Buzz’s chops about a typo in the story, which is already online.
A few us of start the walk to Stamps House — it’s just a few blocks away — while Buzz chats with Cornish. I figure Cornish isn’t coming, that he just wouldn’t enjoy the level of fan attention he’d get at Stamps House. Cornish is a multiple CFL champion and was voted the country’s best athlete in 2013 but he doesn’t seem very Grey Cup in many ways: I have a hard time seeing him making small talk with the masses.
Somewhere around the fourth of fifth shot of whisky, that changes.
Shortly after his well-timed entrance to the Pony Club bar — yes, we got in for free — Cornish is clearly feeling the love, the countless fans having expressed appreciation for the player and concern for the man (Cornish has battled concussion issues the last few seasons.) They want him to come back but understand if he doesn’t.
Cornish gets up on stage and delivers a speech expressing his appreciation for Stamps fans.
It’s a nice moment, especially given the uncertainty of Cornish’s future (he’ll make his retirement official a few days later, just as Buzz reported.) It feels like he’s saying goodbye to the people that care about the football version of Jon Cornish the most, even if they don’t quite know it yet.
We could have stayed at Stamps House the rest of the night. The Pony Club isn’t particularly big but it was perfect venue, a modern Western-themed bar with giant glass windows, u-shaped bar, a stage and multiple TV screens showing football highlights and music videos. It’s a sea of red-and-black clad Calgary fans.
But there are still three Grey Cup parties left to hit and we’ve come too far to fail now… we say our goodbyes, assuming Cornish will stay behind.
“I’m in. Let’s go,” he says.
This should be interesting. We’re off to Riderville.
If the Spirit of Edmonton is a raging frat party then Riderville is Animal House: a crazy thing taken to its most extreme incarnation.
As per usual, it’s completely full — despite the fact that it’s been held in a ginormous room in the Convention Centre downtown. Riderville attracts all the Rider fans — the best travelling fan base in the CFL — as well as fans from every other team. Along with Spirit, Riderville is the place to be at Grey Cup.
There’s a huge line to get in but we just blow by all that, ushered into the VIP section by Cornish’s presence. We might have pulled that off on our own but with Cornish it just happened in a flash. And though he doesn’t know any of us beyond Buzz, Cornish is making a sincere effort to make everyone feel included, giving everyone all player alter-egos – it helps that Hodge is a dead ringer for Redblacks centre Jon Gott. When we run into some of those same players later, the humour in it is even more apparent.
Ten minutes and two more drinks later Cornish rolls out of the VIP section and into the main part of Riderville. On top of being some of the most rabid fans in the CFL, the Rider faithful are also extremely knowledgable: they know who Jon Cornish is.
They can also be some of the most of obnoxious. So I’m wondering if Cornish is about to get seriously heckled here. As he marches up stage, I’m just waiting for some drunk clown with a watermelon on his head and Pilsner in his hand to start talking some smack.
It never happens.
Instead, Cornish poses for a selfie with the crowd and they cheer him, buy him more beers than a sane man would drink.
Rider fans understand what Cornish represents, a Canadian playing a marquee position, a unique talent, a player who has given his body and soul for his teammates, his league, his country — and won a few championships along the way. Rider fans might hate Jon Cornish on game day but they respect what he is: a legitimate Canadian CFL star.
For his part, Cornish knows this is his last Grey Cup, at least as this version of himself. He may be back here in the years to come as a broadcaster, a team ambassador, a businessman — the man has some options — but he’ll never be back as a player. He’s decided to have one more night to soak it all in, and I mean all of it.
On this night, and on this night only, Jon Cornish loves Riderville. And Riderville loves him back.
And that is the most Grey Cup thing ever.
The Down East Kitchen Party is next, downstairs in the Convention Centre below Riderville. It’s pretty dead but Cornish rattles off a good line while signing a flag emblazoned with the Atlantic Schooners logo.
“This isn’t a real team. Why can’t I own this team?,” Cornish says. “I offer to buy this team for zero dollars.”
But the beer is outrageously expensive by Grey Cup standards — a whopping $10 for tall boys of Keith’s — and we still have one more party to hit, TigerTown. The problem is how to get there.
Cabs are notoriously scarce in Winnipeg — Manitoba law is also keeping Uber at bay — and we need to get to the Exchange District just north of downtown. But we are now a party of seven and finding two cabs seems like an impossible task. We could walk but it’s late and freezing: Johany is carrying two massive cameras and wearing heels, Cornish has no coat.
It’s Busby who spots the limo and starts the negotiations. The driver is waiting for a pick up at the Convention Centre but has 30 minutes to kill: TigerTown is 10 minutes away and he’ll do it for $50. Before I can contemplate the look on my boss’ face when I submit the receipt, everyone is piling in.
It’s a fun ride. I’m sitting a seat away from Hodge, my Bomber blogger for 3DownNation. He’s a music teacher at a tiny school outside Brandon and his students are mostly Hutterites — he writes about the constant disappointment that is the Winnipeg Football Club in his spare time. We pay him but not much: he does it because he loves the Bombers and the CFL, because it’s part of the social fabric of his life, his community. Now he’s sitting in a limo with Jon Cornish.
Most. Grey. Cup. Thing. Ever.
I had high hopes for TigerTown — every single one I’ve ever been to was a blast. But not tonight. There’s just one sad-looking Ticat fan drinking alone at the bar and the place is half empty.
Still, we’re a happy bunch: we’ve hit every single Grey Cup party in one night and we’re still standing (if a bit wobbly.) The night has shown us the very best of what the league, its players, its fans and its annual party have to offer. We have, unintentionally and unwittingly, turned our Grey Cup Crawl into the Jon Cornish farewell tour.
It seems like it will be a quiet ending to truly great night.
Then Darian Durant walks in.