On Canada Day, my favourite CFL city is all of them

People often ask me ‘What’s your favourite CFL city?’ and, for once, I’d like to give an honest answer. So here it is: all of them.

There are many things I love about my job covering the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and running 3DownNation – I always marvel that I get paid to watch football – but one of the absolute best things is the travel.

Each season for the last nine years, I’ve followed the Ticats across the country as they played their road schedule: one game in each of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg as well as a game or two in Toronto, Montreal and, more recently, Ottawa. I’ve also made a couple of trips to Moncton, N.B. For Touchdown Atlantic.

Every one of them is interesting and enjoyable in their own way.

In Vancouver, the sea wall offers my very favourite spot to run, the opportunity to go from the condo towers of downtown, through the edge of Stanley Park all the way to the ocean. I once rented a bike, rode to the base of the Grouse Grind, climbed it, rode back and almost fell asleep in the press box that night I was so tired. It was spectacular. If I’m in Vancouver, I’m having sushi, every time.

I covered my first Grey Cup in Calgary. I met people from across the country who made the pilgrimage every year, coming from all over Canada to celebrate football and friendship and drink prestigious amounts of beer. I’ve climbed mountains in Calgary, followed the Bow River for long distances but that first Grey Cup week remains my favourite memory of the place, my first real CFL awakening.

In Winnipeg, I’ve watched GoldEyes games in a baseball stadium that serves craft beer in tall boys in features local vendors among the concession stands (perogies and baseball are a great combo.) The Wagon Wheel restaurant, the first recommendation I ever received from an offensive lineman – thanks Dan Goodspeed – lives on only in my memory of its unsurpassed club sandwiches. I once stumbled across a Canada Day celebration at the Forks that featured a Native Canadian ceremony that stays with me, a constant reminder that this country is a lot older than 150 to many people.

In Edmonton, there’s a classic diner on Jasper Avenue that serves a cheap breakfast, the perfect place to finish a long run along the Saskatchewan river. I once found Chris Cuthbert seated at a table, his coffee cup empty, working diligently at his pre-game prep. Two hours later, we were still there, discussing the league and our various ideas to make it better. Canadian cities, and the CFL, are small like that.

Regina features a downtown farmer’s market with a spectacular array of cool stuff, an awesome bike shop and two nifty comic book stores. I once borrowed a bike from the Regina Leader Post’s Murray McCormick – the most hospitable of all beat writers – and rode until I found dirt roads and big sky: I was awestruck by the endless beauty of it all.

Toronto is Toronto, a city that offers a little bit of everything. I’ve spent plenty of time there over the years and have learned to soak up the energy and use it as my own. There’s so much negativity around the league in the city right now but I still think there’s hope: there’s real CFL city lurking in there, somewhere.

Go climb Mount Royal in Montreal. Power up the hard and fast way up the stairs or take the winding paths up the side of the mountain: either way, the payoff is a stunning view of one of the best cities in the world. From bagels to smoked meat to a litany of tremendous restaurants, it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal here. Montreal is familiar to me – I spent summers here as a kid – and still feels forever unknowable.

I drank beer at Carleton University (went to class some, too) so Ottawa’s return to the CFL has allowed me to revisit so many of my old haunts: some unchanged, others gone altogether. So much history, personal and otherwise. I’m calling it now: Grey Cup in November is going to be tremendous.

The CFL is part of the social fabric of each of these communities and my “work” has allowed me to experience this country in a way that I would have never been able to otherwise: to appreciate each place for what it is, to get a sense of its own identity and how it fits into the larger sense of our collective Canadian self. There is a thread that binds all these places together; it’s subtle and ethereal but it’s there.

I’m going to spend Canada Day with friends and family, then I’m going to sit down and watch some football. Next week, I’ll go back to writing about it and next weekend I’ll be off on another adventure in Saskatchewan. It’s a good life, it’s a great game and it’s the best country.

Happy Canada Day, everyone.

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