Ricky Ray has won more Grey Cups than any starting quarterback, but he still feels the sting from the one that got away.
Ray led the Edmonton Eskimos to a Grey Cup appearance in 2002, his rookie season. He began the year third on the depth chart behind starter Jason Maas and Bart Hendricks but went under centre early in the season when Maas was hurt.
Ray finished with 2,991 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and just nine interceptions as Edmonton (13-5) finished atop the West Division before dispatching Winnipeg 33-30 in the conference final. That set up a Grey Cup showdown at Commonwealth Stadium with the Montreal Alouettes, who were first in the East with an identical 13-5 mark.
But Anthony Calvillo and the Als spoiled the party with a 25-16 victory before 62,531 fans. Calvillo claimed MVP honours after completing 11-of-31 passes for 260 yards and two TDs despite playing with his right ankle frozen after injuring it in the East final.
Ray pulled Edmonton to within 18-16 with a 17-yard TD strike to Ed Hervey on third down with 19 seconds remaining. But his pass to Terry Vaughn for the two-point convert was incomplete.
Montreal’s Jeremaine Copeland cemented the win, returning the attempted onside kick 47 yards for the touchdown.
Ray didn’t have to wait long for his first Grey Cup win, passing for 301 yards and two TDs while scoring another as Edmonton defeated Montreal 34-22 the following year in Regina. But he still thinks about the ’02 loss.
“I’ve been a part of both . . . but it (2002) still sticks with me today,” Ray said. “I remember that whole off-season just thinking about the game and find myself thinking about it now losing that game at home.
“Being a part of both sides of it, it’s something that’s in my mind.”
Ray’s recent Grey Cup thoughts are much more pleasant. After enduring two injury-plagued seasons with Toronto, Ray made 17 starts last year and led the Argos to a stunning 27-24 Grey Cup upset of the Calgary Stampeders.
Ray finished 19-of-32 passing for 297 yards and a TD to cap an impressive first season under Argos head coach Marc Trestman. It was also Ray’s record fourth Grey Cup title as a CFL starter.
Not surprisingly, the memory of that championship remained with Ray throughout the off-season as the 38-year-old pondered his CFL future before deciding to return to Toronto.
“I definitely enjoyed that one and thought a lot about it in the off-season,” he said. “And I still think about it today.”
Toronto and Calgary square off Saturday night at BMO Field in the Argos’ home opener. And for the second straight year the Stampeders spent the off-season dealing with memory of ending a dominant regular season with a heartbreaking Grey Cup loss.
Calgary dropped the 2016 Grey Cup to Ottawa 39-33 in overtime at BMO Field. Two years earlier, starter Bo Levi Mitchell earned MVP honours after the Stampeders held on to beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 20-16 at Vancouver’s BC Place.
“As a quarterback you get very good at compartmentalizing certain plays and thoughts,” Mitchell said. “You play this game to win championships and each time you put yourself in position to win one you want to make sure you finish on the right side of the scoreboard.
“Unfortunately the last two years we haven’t but we’ll use that as a teaching tool.”
It’s been a meteoric rise for Calgary linebacker Alex Singleton, who was the league’s top defensive player last season, just his second in the CFL. But Singleton has yet to sip from the Grey Cup in his young pro career.
“Well, I lost in my rookie year and second year . . . so I don’t even know the good feeling,” he said. “The off-season, you definitely use it as motivation.
“You think about it (but) you can’t dwell on the past, you can’t dwell on the idea of the loss. You can use what you learn, which for me, was how we got there and what we need to do to hopefully go back for a third year and hopefully change that outcome.”
Toronto running back James Wilder Jr. capped a solid first CFL campaign with a championship win, and the league’s 2017 top rookie is using the memory of the Grey Cup victory as motivation.
“You could be complacent or you could use it as motivation to want to get another one,” he said. “We got a taste of the good, it felt great and that’s the motivation, to get back there and win it again.
“You’re going to be thinking about it (Grey Cup win) for the rest of your life. You could say you’re not but you are, it’s just the way you stick it in your head.”