Ottawa Gee-Gees coach Jamie Barresi's memories of playing in the Panda Game don't fit the usual nostalgia-trip narrative, even though he is now guiding the team he quarterbacked as a younger man.
That might be good, since it fits in with the Gee-Gees and Ontario University Athletics football newcomer Carleton Ravens' efforts to channel the positives of a rivalry game that, as an event, went sideways a few times back in the day. The era when spectacle swallowed the sports aspect — students once let pigs loose on the field during a game back in '77 — wouldn't pass muster in 2013. (Ottawa-raised comic Norm MacDonald explained the ambience better than I can during an appearance on Letterman.) Playing for citywide bragging rights, which the teams will do on Oct. 5 for the first time since 1998, the last season of the original Ravens? Well, that's timeless.
"It's something that's very positive," says Barresi, the former CFL offensive coordinator who took the reins at his alma mater in January. "It's stoked a lot of fires. I've had a lot of people come up to me and say they're glad the Panda Game is back.
"As young kids, the players will be fed on that. I'm sure they'll have people coming up to them and talking about it. You can see where it’ll be a big moment in terms of their football experience. They may look back on the Panda Game as the best venue they’ve ever played in."
Come the first weekend of October, the Gee-Gees and the expansion Ravens, with what head coach Steve Sumarah calls a "95 per cent freshmen" roster, will gut it out in the new, homey, multipurpose Gee-Gees Field, which can hold 4,152 fans. That's university football in 2013. There was an era when the Panda Game attracted a packed house at Lansdowne Park. But long-time Ottawa residents might remember that it lost the sheen of harmless university-age mayhem.
A railing collapse during the 1987 game that caused injuries for 30 Carleton students was a shocker. In 1992, an illegal hit by Gee-Gees special teamer Mike Lussier on Carleton running back Rob Dunn was another the-end-of-the-innocence reckoning. Long before that, during his playing days from 1976-79, Barresi believed football had become a little too secondary.
"I really do hope that some traditions are going to be buried," he says. "I don’t want to say this too softly and I don’t want to say this too harshly. I hope people come out and appreciate that these are young kids who put a year-round commitment into this. Coaches, this is their profession, what they work at. My experience, when I played, I wasn't too happy about it, to be honest with you.
I wanted to play in the rivalry, but I didn’t appreciate the fact that I was playing in front of some people who were, you know, not in good spirits.
"When you go to the National Arts Centre when you go to watch a high-class performance, you’re going to watch intently," Barresi explains. "Our kids are no different. They have done a lot of work. I hope people appreciate that this is something that’s very important for kids. I hope people come with an eye to watch a good football game in the sense of understanding strategy and a good effort. Come in the spirit of cheering hard for your team, appreciate the game as a football fan. You go to a U.S. college football game, you sit beside an old lady and she tells you there’s a [defensive lineman] playing a five technique and he comes out on second-and-long."
'Not sure if you’re going to be able to match this rivalry in the country'
In other words, it's more about university football for its own sake. It ought to sell itself. Carleton and Ottawa's Capital Hoops Classic basketball doubleheader at Canadian Tire Centre, home of the NHL's Ottawa Senators, has drawn crowds as large as 9,730.
At Saint Mary's, where he coached before coming to Carleton in 2012, Sumarah's teams always had a target on their backs. But there wasn't a singular focus on one opponent.
"Being in the AUS you could play some teams as many four times. There were strong rivalries between each team," he says. "Where here, your natural rival is just down the canal. It’s going to make football in the area better. The start of training camp is next week and we’re already talking about the Oct. 5 game. I’m not sure if you’re going to be able to match this rivalry in the country "
"With the Redblacks coming back and the Panda Game, you can see the growth in football in [the Ottawa-Gatineau] community," Sumarah adds. "It’s just another piece to the puzzle of football is becoming a sort of No. 1 sport in this country. We’re pretty excited to have a small part of it."
Every university program in the country has mark-the-date-on-the-calendar matchup: Queen's-Western, Montreal-Laval, Regina-Saskatchewan, to name a few. On top of sharing a city, the Gee-Gees and Ravens also a share a certain isolation, since Ottawa is only nominally part of Ontario. The two schools also used to play in the old O-QIFC conference, which broke up two seasons after the original Ravens folded. So there's an important familiarity. Queen's is the only other school Ottawa has played regularly for the past 40 years.
"When you’re going across the province to places such as Western and Windsor, it’s really hard to identify and be close to it," Barresi says.
The Gee-Gees' returning group is hoping their 2-6 mark in 2012 will prove an "anomaly," in their coach's words. Ottawa started 0-5 before coach Gary Etcheverry was forced out. Barresi has inherited a fairly experienced team with holdovers such as quarterback Aaron Colbon, running back Brendan Gillanders, receiver Simon Le Marquand and tackle Taylor Servais, whom the Edmonton Eskimos had in camp in June.
Sumarah, with a first-year team, will be reliant on transfers such as quarterback Jesse Mills and a good recruiting class that includes touted game-breaking receiver Nathaniel Behar, plucked out of Western Mustangs coach Greg Marshall's backyard in London. With a renovated field and designer Nike uniforms, Carleton has big plans, but Sumarah knows even mighty Laval started out with a 1-7 first year back in 1996.
"We’ve got a bunch of green faces coming into our locker room that have no idea about CIS football and the commitment involved. We have a lot of teaching and learning to do over the next little while."
That might not be so important. Know this: there is a Carleton-Ottawa football game this fall. Consider a void filled.
"From what I've seen, it's all positive energy," Sumarah says. "We’re not looking for the hoopla around the game, we’re looking to win."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.