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Stampeders-Argonauts Grey Cup sets up as underdog battle with historical connections

Toronto's Joe Theismann and Calgary's Dick Suderman (L) battled in the 1971 Grey Cup, and their teams face off …Both road underdogs came away with victories in Sunday's CFL division finals, giving us a Toronto Argonauts-Calgary Stampeders clash for the Grey Cup. It's not a matchup many envisioned at the start of the playoffs, but it should be a thrilling one, and one where both teams have plenty to prove. The Argonauts haven't played in a Grey Cup since their victory in 2004, while the Stampeders haven't been back to the big game since winning in 2008;  the Argos would also love to grab a Grey Cup victory at home and use that as a springboard to boost their off-field fortunes, while the Stamps will be keen to show that they can field a championship team, not just a consistently-good one. What's also notable is some of the Grey Cup history involving these teams, though. Fittingly enough for the 100th Grey Cup, a game where the league's prominently celebrating its past while looking to the future, the matchup also invokes history while being significant in the present and carrying implications for the future.

Perhaps the most notable game this one brings to mind is the famed 1971 Grey Cup clash between these teams out in Vancouver, one that (strangely enough) will be examined in the final installment of Engraved On A Nation this week. That film, focusing on the 1971 Argos, is entitled "The Greatest Team That Never Won," and while that title's sure to provoke some debate, especially considering that the Argonauts only went 10-4 that year, that was certainly a special team and one that stirred up plenty of emotions in Toronto . It was a remarkable Grey Cup game, too, played in the rain and mud at the old Empire Stadium, and it contained perhaps the most negative example of "the Argo Bounce" (which came up again Sunday!); a late fumble from Leon McQuay and a punt return error from Harry Abofs eventually doomed Toronto to a 15-13 loss. There were plenty of pre-game similarities there as well; like this year, that was the Argonauts' first Grey Cup appearance after a long drought (since 1952 in that case), and also as in recent years, Calgary was seen as an impressive team that hadn't quite been able to make the jump to championships (the Stamps had appeared in two of the three preceding Grey Cups, but lost both). Don't expect rain and mud to be factors inside the Rogers Centre, though.

From an off-field standpoint, though, there's another compelling past example to cite; the 1948 Grey Cup in Toronto, which saw 12-0 Calgary (featuring an 18-year-old halfback named Normie Kwong, who this year had his Canadian rushing record broken by current Stampeder Jon Cornish) triumph over 10-2 Ottawa thanks in part to a controversial "sleeper play," but may be more prominently remembered for kickstarting the Grey Cup Festival. Trainloads of Calgary fans arrived in Toronto that year (something else that's happening again in 2012!) with horses, and essentially created the weeklong party we see around the Grey Cup these days, particularly at the famed Royal York Hotel. Here's what legendary Canadian sportswriter Jim Coleman wrote about that:

"The football game for the Grey Cup was contested officially in the stadium and was continued unofficially in the hotel lobby. At 5:01 p.m. the goalposts were borne triumphantly through the front doors and were erected against the railings of the mezzanine.

"At 5:02 p.m. two platoons of bellboys circumspectly removed the potted palms, flower vases and anything that weighed less than three thousand pounds.

"The gaudily caparisoned Calgary supporters were boisterous and noisy but well-behaved and courteously declined to ride their horses into the elevators. Any minor untoward incidents were occasioned by youthful local yahoos who suffered from the delusion that the consumption of two pints of ale and the acquisition of a pseudo-western twang entitled them to ride the range astride any convenient chesterfield."

Don't expect to see that exact scene repeated this week, but boy, is there ever a parallel there. In 1948, the CFL didn't even go by that name yet and there wasn't actually a national league (the most significant leagues were the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, which essentially became the CFL's East Division in later years, and the Western Interprovincial Football Union, which essentially became the West Division, but amateur teams were still in the running for the Cup until after the 1954 season), and while the Grey Cup games tended to be popular, they hadn't yet turned into a massive event. The CFL and the Grey Cup have come a long way since then, but as commissioner Mark Cohon said at last year's State of the League address, "The challenge for our league is in Southern Ontario." Having the hometown Argonauts competing for the 100th Grey Cup is a potential tailor-made springboard for the league if there ever was one, and if the league's able to generate any fraction of the buzz in Toronto the 1948 Grey Cup did, this could prove pivotal for the CFL's future in Ontario.

How does this matchup look from a strictly on-field perspective? Well, from this corner, it should be a pretty good one. For one thing, it's the first time the Most Outstanding Player nominees have faced off in the Grey Cup since Calgary RB Kelvin Anderson and Winnipeg QB Khari Jones did so in 2001, which is interesting (2007 could have seen that as well, as Kevin Glenn's Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Kerry Joseph's Saskatchewan Roughriders faced off, but Glenn broke his arm in the East Final and didn't play in that game). Calgary running back Jon Cornish and Toronto receiver/returner Chad Owens are deserving MOP nominees and two of the game's most electrifying players, and having them in the Grey Cup should be thrilling. There's also an incredible parallel between quarterbacks in this one; both the Stampeders' Glenn and the Argonauts' Ricky Ray were traded between Alberta and Ontario this offseason (Glenn from Hamilton to Calgary, Ray from Edmonton to Toronto), both have had solid seasons and can put up some aerial fireworks, and both will be looking to prove themselves to those who doubted them. There's plenty of talent on both sides, especially on offence, and that could make for a compelling game. This one sets up as a nice combination of past, present and feature: what more could you ask for with the 100th Grey Cup?

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