November 27, 2011
TSN had some excellent features all week in advance of the Grey Cup, but one of the best was their half-hour feature, "John Candy: True Double Blue." The film took a great look at the legendary Canadian comedian and actor who partnered with Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall to buy the Toronto Argonauts, helped them outbid the NFL for Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, helped inspire an incredible Toronto team to the 1991 Grey Cup and helped revitalize the CFL as a whole. There were plenty of illuminating comments from a wide cast of interesting people, including Ismail, Matt Dunigan, Pinball Clemons, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Jim Belushi, McNall, Gretzky and many more about the unbelievable impact Candy's involvement had on both the Argonauts and the league. Here are some of the best comments from the film, which will be shown again on CTV Sunday (varying times by region).
Levy, who co-starred on the fantastic sketch comedy series SCTV with Candy, said he and others from the show ribbed Candy after he, Gretzky and McNall bought the team for his growing similarity to a character he played, larger-than-life playboy Johnny LaRue.
"We told him, 'John, you're actually turning into Johnny LaRue, you own a football team," Levy said.
Levy said buying the Argonauts was a natural fit for Candy (seen above at the introductory press conference in 1991), though, as he was born in Newmarket, Ontario, but grew up in East York and always wore Toronto on his sleeve.
"We called him 'Johnny Toronto,'" Levy said.
That was just one of many nicknames Candy accumulated over the years. He had a solid football career of his own as an left tackle before injury ended it, and his high school yearbook photo (from Neil McNeil Catholic Secondary) has him in full uniform, listed as John "The Pink Panther" Candy. TSN caught up with John Daly, one of Candy's high school teammates, and he said football was always a key part of Candy's life.
"That was his forte, that was his outlet." Daly said.
Daly said the two of them used to watch tons of CFL action, and they were inspired by some of the top legends.
"Cookie Gilchrist, Dick Shadow, they were our heroes for sure."
Candy's fandom went far beyond the casual even at an early age.
"He definitely had season tickets," Daly said. "It was like a religion for him."
Candy's first agent said he dreamed of owning his hometown team long before he hit it big.
"He said, 'One day, I'm going to own the Argos," and I thought it was a joke, but he was serious, he said 'No, I'm going to own the Argos,'" she said.
One of the best sequences of the piece involved a 1991 ESPN piece on the NFL draft that year, with Chris Berman stating, "Last night, Rocket Ismail decided to lift off and land in Canada with the Toronto Argonauts." Ismail was widely expected to be the top NFL draft pick that season, but turned that league down to sign a massive four-year, 18-million contract with Toronto. Some great juxtaposition put a new interview with Berman right after the old clip, where he talked about just how surprising that move was.
"It was more of a shock than anything else," Berman said. "He's not going to the Dallas Cowboys, he's going to play in the CFL?"
The acquisition of Ismail started a massive buzz around the 1991 Argonauts, but Candy did much more to promote their games as an event. This came at a time when the league in general and the Argonauts in particular were really struggling, and Candy became one of the best promoters and showmen the CFL ever had. The documentary used a great clip from an Argonauts' contest where the Blues Brothers (including Candy and other notable types on stage) performed both at halftime and after the game, and then paired it with some great comments from Jim Belushi and Short. Belushi said Candy was such a terrific friend to him that he was willing to help out with whatever he wanted.
I would wax his car and do his laundry if he asked me."
Short, a long-time Hamilton Tiger-Cats fan, helped Candy promote the Argonauts at several points out of appreciation for the man.
"Mainly, I was there because I was his friend," Short said.
He said Candy was incredible for the league as a whole, though.
"It was so exciting because everyone was talking about the CFL."
The atmosphere in 1991 was unbelievable, complete with celebrity sightings and an incredible team, and the players took notice.
"The Skydome, when the roof opened, baby, it was showtime," Clemons (the star running back and returner that year) said.
Dunigan, the Argos' starting quarterback, said the Candy/Gretzky/McNall ownership group was key for keeping the CFL healthy during a rough stretch.
"The league really needed a shot in the arm, and they provided that," he said.
McNall said Candy's time, effort and dedication given to promoting the entire league was incredible.
"He would go to every little nook and cranny to sell not only the Argonauts, but the whole CFL."
That included moments where Candy would fly out and hit every morning radio show in a particular city, starting at 4:30 a.m. and urging fans to buy tickets to avert blackouts (which still are around, unfortunately). Toronto's promotions director said Candy's media blitzes had a remarkable effect.
"I believe we busted every blackout that season."
Gretzky said the passion Candy displayed was incredible.
"He loved going to the games and he loved promoting the Toronto Argonauts."
Candy's efforts went well beyond the field, though. Many players testified about the impact Candy had on them, and not just when things went well. After a concussion, Ismail said Candy went to visit him in the hospital, which he felt was incredible.
"He made me feel even more important," Ismail said. "It's John Candy coming to visit me!"
Former Argonauts' GM Mike McCarthy said Candy did everything he could for the players.
"His heart was so big," McCarthy said. "They don't have a cappuccino machine in the locker room? Next time you show up, there it is."
Dunigan said that motivated the Argonauts' players to try even harder.
"With John's passion for the game, you didn't want to let him down."
Clemons said watching Candy at the 1991 Grey Cup, where the Argonauts triumphed 36-21 over Calgary in frigid Winnipeg conditions, was an incredible experience.
"The most inspirational moment for me the entire year may have been John Candy standing on the sidelines in a leather coat in 20 below," Clemons said. "He's not up in the pressbox with the heat, he's down on the sidelines with his guys, and all of a sudden, I'm not as cold."
Clemons said the whole year was a tribute to Candy.
"91 was unbelievable," he said. "He brought back the passion, the glory of the Toronto Argonauts and the CFL."
The good times didn't last, though. Things went rapidly south for both McNall (later convicted of fraud) and the Argonauts, and the success faded quickly. They slumped to 6-12 in 1992 and 3-15 in 1993, and the show ended.
"You look back on it and it seems like it was just a flash in the pan," Dunigan said. "It was just…gone."
McNall said the problem was that the team was losing money hand-over-fist despite their success.
"We won the Grey Cup, we had Rocket; I just don't know what else we could do."
McCarthy said that wasn't entirely the Argonauts' fault though, blaming some of it on the issues McNall's other investments had.
"I knew when money from our ticketing office was going to LA to pay hockey bills, there was something going on."
Regardless of the cause, McNall decided to sell the team to TSN in early 1994. He did so without consulting Candy directly, and that led to some conflict. Argos' executive Bruce Cooper said Candy wasn't happy when he found out about it.
"John was not aware that Bruce had asked me to find a buyer for the team," Cooper said. "John felt I was betraying him and the club."
McNall said he understood Candy's concerns. "The Argonauts were his family," he said. "For him to walk away from the team, he wasn't going to do that."
He added that he wishes things had gone differently.
"The only regret I have is that the mess that I created got things to the position where I had to sell the club."
Unfortunately, things ended tragically for Candy. Almost immediately after he found out the Argonauts were sold, he died of a heart attack in Mexico at just 43. Chris, his son, said the loss of the team was a huge blow for his father. "He got a phone call from the Argonauts telling him the team was sold," Chris Candy said. "That really hurt him."
The story did end happily on a few fronts, though. Candy was key to the revitalization of the CFL, and his knack for promotion and love for the game was crucial to the league making it through some hard times. The CFL has also recognized his contributions more and more in recent years, and one key moment came in 2007 when Gretzky and Candy's names as owners were added to the Grey Cup alongside McNall's. Candy was an incredible comedian, actor and man, and one of the most important owners the league has ever had. It's great to see TSN recognize him with a big, well-done feature like this, and hopefully it will help inform new generations about the impact a legendary Canadian actor once had on the CFL.