Thursday's three preseason games are all intriguing. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats host Winnipeg in the first game played this year at their new home in Guelph (7 p.m. Eastern, Cable 14 in Hamilton/Haldimand/Niagara, plus radio broadcasts on CHML in Hamilton and CJOB in Winnipeg), while the Calgary Stampeders travel to Saskatchewan to face the Roughriders (10 p.m. Eastern, CKRM in Regina, CHQR in Calgary), who will be looking to build off their momentum from a late win against Edmonton in last week's preseason game. It's the Argonauts-Alouettes' clash (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN 1050 in Toronto, CJAD in Montreal) that might be the most interesting, though, as CFL football will be played at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium for the first time in 55 years. Playing at Varsity should provide a unique atmosphere and bring back memories of some of the Argonauts' hallowed traditions. However, it also will stir up memories of how the stadium could perhaps once have been home for the team again.
While the current Varsity Stadium was only built in 2007, the history of Canadian football at the site goes back much farther. Varsity Stadium's existed on the U of T campus since 1898 in three separate incarnations, and it played a prominent role in the origins of Canadian football. The stadium has always been home to the university's Varsity Blues, who won the first Grey Cup in 1909 back when university teams still competed for it and went on to pick up further Grey Cups in 1910, 1911 and 1920, but Varsity also served as the Argonauts' home from 1898 to 1907, 1916 to 1924 and 1925 to 1958. It hosted a record 30 Grey Cups between 1912 and 1957 (second-closest is the defunct Exhibition Stadium, also in Toronto, with 12), including the infamous 1950 Mud Bowl. The stadium also played a key role in the establishment of the Vanier Cup, the Canadian university championship: Varsity was the venue for the first eight Vanier Cups (1965-1972) and the twelfth through 24th Vanier Cups (1976-1988), playing host to 21 Vanier Cups in all. The current stadium may be relatively new, but the area it's on has seen more Canadian football championships by far than anywhere else in the country. Thus, it's particularly neat to see the Argos return to their roots with a game at such a storied location.
This isn't entirely a happy occasion for the team, though, as the return to Varsity will also bring up memories of what could have been. Given the issues involved in sharing the Rogers Centre with the Blue Jays (and other events), the Argos have been looking for a new home for at least a decade, and they may be under even more pressure to do so now thanks to their expired lease at the Rogers Centre and discussion that the Jays want to change their field to natural grass. At one time, the rebuilding of Varsity Stadium looked like an ideal solution for them: it's a great and accessible location, near the subway and surrounded by plenty of places to eat, drink and hang out, and when you throw in the legendary history there, it could have been a spectacular CFL venue once again. As Sean Fitz-Gerald writes in The National Post, though, rising costs and local opposition resulted in the construction of only a small stadium, keeping the Argonauts out. A key figure there? Then-Trinity College provost Margaret MacMillan (now warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford), who watched games at Varsity growing up, but told Fitz-Gerald this week that she didn't want a professional football stadium built near the U of T campus:
"We felt it was just too big," she said. "We felt the place for a really big football stadium is not in the heart of downtown Toronto. It's down by the lake, or it's somewhere with easy access. And we were worried about the impact of huge crowds on the whole neighbourhood, and what it would have done.
As opposed to the U.S., where college sports (and football in particular) are an essential part of life for many and where sports are becoming more and more important for schools from marketing and financial perspectives, universities in Canada have often pushed sports to the side. That's particularly true with the exclusion of professional sports, as demonstrated in the Varsity rebuilding plans and McMaster's decision to prevent the Tiger-Cats from playing there (although they eventually found a friendly university out in Guelph) but there's also been pushback against university-level and international-level sports. Debates over how much funding should go to athletics and stadiums are commonplace, which has led to decaying facilities in many places and incredible challenges when schools try to replace them. The U of T has been at the centre of another one of those recently, too, with famed author Margaret Atwood leading the charge against the proposed construction of field hockey surfaces for the Pan Am Games at the school's Mississauga campus.
Thus, it's not really that surprising that the Argos' plan to play at Varsity fell through, given the opposition from MacMillan and her comrades. It's also not really shocking that no joint university/Argonauts' stadium appears to be anywhere on the horizon in Toronto (York University's new Pan Am stadium is reportedly too small, and Varsity won't be expanded any time ). It does cast a bit of a damper on Thursday's game, though. Playing at Varsity again will be an excellent reflection of the Argonauts' history, which is well worth celebrating. However, it's also a reminder of what could have been with local leadership that cared a little more about sports.