Fri Sep 24 06:02pm EDT
A game between the 2-9 Edmonton Eskimos and 6-5 Toronto Argonauts would not normally be the most compelling story of this weekend, despite there being a lot on the line for Edmonton. However, this isn't your average CFL game; it's the centrepiece of the Touchdown Atlantic party, and it will also be the first CFL regular-season game ever played at a neutral site. It's also seen by many as the first step towards putting a CFL franchise in Atlantic Canada, even if league commissioner Mark Cohon still says that's a long ways off, and it's even sparked speculation about a 12- or 13-team league. There's much more to this than just a single game.
There's a lot of excitement in the Moncton area around this, and that's understandable. The CFL does a great job with special events, as anyone who's ever attended Grey Cup week knows, and it sounds like they're working with the city to put on a pretty good party. Perhaps what's most interesting about the Touchdown Atlantic celebrations so far is the degree to which Atlantic Canada's embracing this, though; from all reports, it sounds like the event's taking over the area.
The locals should get plenty of credit for giving the teams a reception that caused Argonauts' defensive back Byron Parker to comment that "It felt like I was one of the Beatles or something." The welcome apparently even managed to cheer the Eskimos up after their beatdown in Montreal last week, which is saying something. Even the Argonauts' cheerleaders are getting glowing profiles in the local media, and the Atlantic fans haven't been scared off yet by the kisses of Adriano Belli (pictured at right in 2006 smooching then-Montreal teammate Ed Philion).
Another impressive facet of this event is that the CFL has made it about much more than just the game on Sunday. They've got some solid musical acts lined up, including The Trews and Joel Plaskett and the Emergency. They've also integrated high school and university football into the festivities, with high school games Thursday and Friday and what should be one of the best CIS clashes of the weekend Saturday between the Saint Mary's Huskies and Mount Allison Mounties. Cohon also announced today that the league will establish a $75,000 legacy fund to support minor football in the Maritimes, which is great to see. There are plenty of good things happening at all levels of football in Canada, but the various governing bodies aren't always on the same page. This week's events show that they can work together well, and that's tremendous news for football in this country.
Some events of this kind feel like a spectacle brought in from the outside (see the NFL's games at England's Wembley Stadium), but that's not the sense I get around Touchdown Atlantic. This seems like a much more organic event that locals are fully behind. Moncton mayor George LeBlanc apparently agrees, according to comments he made to Greg Brady on Toronto's The Fan 590 earlier today.
"It's been a tremendous week so far and it's going to be a fantastic weekend," LeBlanc said. "We're really looking forward to this game. It's going to be a spectacular weekend; it's like having the Grey Cup here."
LeBlanc said the game and its surrounding festivities weren't a difficult sell at all locally.
"Everyone takes in the CFL here," he said. "We sold out the tickets in about a heartbeat and a half."
This is far from the first big event Moncton's hosted, as they've held world track and field and curling championships, as well as concerts by AC/DC and The Rolling Stones. LeBlanc said the city's proximity to other Maritime population centres makes it an ideal site for large-scale events, adding that there are approximately 1.2 million people within a couple of hours' drive.
"We're the centre of the Maritime provinces here," he said. "For a city of 68,000, we really like to punch above our weight."
The one concern some might have about this is that Toronto is effectively losing a home game (they're listed as the "home" team for this), which could have an impact on what's shaping up to be a very close race for Eastern playoff positioning. The Argos are 4-1 at home, but just 2-4 on the road. LeBlanc said he expects plenty of local support for the Boatmen, though.
"Toronto's the home team and we're behind them 110 per cent," he said.
We'll see what happens on that front Sunday. It should be an interesting game, as both sides have a lot to play for. Regardless of which team prevails on the field, though, it looks like this year's Touchdown Atlantic is shaping up to be a great success story for the CFL.