Excitement's been building across Canada since the announcement that the Grey Cup will be touring the country by train this fall, and Friday's media/alumni/VIP tour of the train suggests this trip may well live up to its hype. The 302-metre train, which weighs 730 tons and will be making stops from coast to coast this fall, is spectacularly outfitted inside and out with a remarkable collection of CFL displays and artifacts. Best of all, fans across the country can check it out for free at stops across the country, beginning this Sunday in Vancouver. It's a particularly neat way to bring the Grey Cup to fans' communities, and it's a big, bold display of the league's history, present and future. It's a new step for the CFL, and it's one league officials are exceptionally excited about.
"Today's an amazing day," CFL commissioner Mark Cohon said. "A dream is becoming a reality."
Cohon said the league came up with the train tour concept in brainstorming sessions a couple of years ago, and said what really made it appealing was the common ground between national railways and the CFL, both Canadian institutions rooted in history. He said cross-country rail has played a key role in the country's development.
"It unites us," he said. "It makes Canada Canada."
He said bringing the Grey Cup across the country by rail is a great way to combine those institutions.
"When we thought of the marriage of the two, it just fit," he said. "If the railway is the ribbon of steel that first linked Canadians to one another, the Grey Cup is the silver chalice we have used to toast our bond."
VIA Rail chairman of the board Paul G. Smith said the combination seemed like a natural one from their end as well.
"Canadian football and railways have more in common than you'd think," he said. "VIA Rail connects Canadians from coast to coast, just as the CFL does. ... This is a partnership of two Canadian institutions."
It's an impressive partnership, too. The train's gorgeously decorated on the outside with images of current players from Travis Lulay to Weston Dressler, and it also includes magnified versions of the current and historical stamps released by the league earlier this year. However, the inside's even more spectacular. There's a museum car featuring panels describing some of the league's most memorable moments and plenty of artifacts, including everything from cleats used in the 1962 Fog Bowl to a jersey worn in the 1921 Grey Cup game. There's a team car set up like a locker room complete with star players' jerseys and their individual locker decorations, and it includes some remarkable video and audio of coaches' locker-room speeches.
That's not all, though. The Grey Cup has its own car complete with plenty of special touches, and there's also a car for hospitality events. Some of the most interesting elements throughout the train are touchscreen displays allowing fans to examine Grey Cup engraving plates from individual years, team photos of individual Grey Cup winners (some dating back to the early 20th century), ticket stubs and programs from Grey Cups over the years. It's a neat touch which allows for the display of a tremendous amount of historical material in a small amount of space, and ensures there's something for fans of every Cup-winning team from the 1922 Queen's Golden Gaels to the 1995 Baltimore Stallions and beyond. There's plenty of recent history on display as well, on the touchscreens, the write-ups and in the museum, where one prominently-featured artifact is this game ball from Edmonton's famed 41-38 overtime victory in 2005:
It takes a lot of time, effort and money to put this kind of a train and this kind of a trip together, and what's really impressive is how many governmental and business partners the CFL convinced to jump on board. The federal government's $5 million in funding for 100th Grey Cup celebrations came into play here, but the CFL's also teamed up with a massive number of private-sector sponsors to put this train together, including title sponsor RONA (which contributed $60,000 in materials alone for renovations of the cars), VIA and Canadian Pacific (for the cars, logistics and more), Cisco (for touchscreen and WiFi technology) and many more. RONA's Karim Salabi (executive vice-president, marketing) said the league's place in Canadian history and focus on fans and communities makes working with the CFL an easy sell.
"We've been partners with the CFL since 2000," he said. "This was a natural partnership for us because we share the same values."
What's also interesting is that the impact of this tour's going to go beyond just this year. Some of the Cisco technology used will be donated to local children's hospitals, and RONA's also doing a Home-Field Advantage Program in conjunction with the tour that will invest $30,000 into restoring football fields in the eight CFL cities. Members of a minor football team that will benefit from one of those field restorations, the White Rock Titans, were in attendance Friday to tour the train, and Salabi said investing in these fields will boost the future of Canadian football.
"It's a legacy that will live on and provide opportunities to develop more Canadian talent, some of which may wind up playing for the B.C. Lions and playing for the Grey Cup," he said.
B.C. Lions president Dennis Skulsky said he was thrilled to be on hand for the launch, and he's optimistic his team will be present when the tour comes to its conclusion around the Grey Cup in November.
"This RONA 100th Grey Cup Tour is going to be spectacular," he said. "We have a plan to meet the train when it gets to its destination in Toronto. The B.C. Lions will be there."
Regardless of who winds up playing in that 100th Grey Cup, though, it's going to be a special event. This tour can only help build anticipation for it. Cohon said conducting an extensive cross-Canada tour's an exciting move for the league, and doing it by rail helps reinforce the league's history while setting up its future.
"It's about celebrating our unique Canadian identity, our unique heritage and the great stories that have made us what we are today."
The Grey Cup Tour really gets going on Sunday, when fans are invited to come down to Vancouver's Pacific Central Station and check out the train from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during a fan celebration that will also include a performance from the Juno-winning band Arkells (who just happen to be pretty connected to this league), a DJ, guest appearances from the B.C. Lions' cheerleaders and more. Details about that stop and all the cross-country ones to follow can be found at greycuptour.ca.