TORONTO — An epic battle between east and west is set to unfold in Canada’s largest city Sunday, as the Toronto Argonauts face off with the Calgary Stampeders for the 2012 Grey Cup championship.
More than 52,000 CFL fans from across the country are expected to pack into Toronto’s Rogers Centre for the 6 p.m. kickoff in the high-stakes 100th anniversary game.
Hundreds of fans dressed in the colours of their favourite CFL teams marched from Varsity Stadium on the University of Toronto campus down busy Yonge Street.
With league commissioner Mark Cohon looking on, fans had a chance to carry the coveted Grey Cup trophy to the sounds of a live marching band. Cohon had said he hopes the march becomes a new Grey Cup tradition.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi are among the dignitaries expected to be at the game, which will feature an anticipated half-time show with Canadian rock legend Gordon Lightfoot, teen idol Justin Bieber, pop star Carly Rae Jepsen and pop-punk band Marianas Trench.
Harper, who is originally from Toronto but whose political riding is in Calgary, has already announced that he’ll be cheering for a Stampeders win in the centennial game.
"Our Government recognizes that the 100th Grey Cup game is an important milestone for football in this country and a rich part of our nation’s history," Harper said in a statement Sunday.
Even the two mayors have made a public bet, with the loser promising to donate his weight in food to a food bank and wear the winning team’s jersey to a council meeting.
Both the Argos and the Stamps have a lot on the line when the pigskin flies Sunday.
Calgary hasn’t won a Grey Cup since 2008 and Toronto, struggling to increase its fan base, has not won the coveted trophy since 2004.
Argos fan Jamie Wolodarskym says the city is ready for a double-blue win.
"It means everything," said the 40-year-old from Toronto. "We’re at home. This is our game. This is our year. We’re going to take it all."
In anticipation, Wolodarskym says his face will stay painted blue until the Argos takes home the trophy.
Mark Wlodarski, from nearby Mississauga, Ont., says Toronto is a big sports city but a win has the potential to make fans love the Argos again.
"The Grey Cup is all about bringing everyone, all of Canada together, and have some fun," said 29-year-old Wlodarski.
"There have always been the true fans.. and yes, we don’t really show up that much but the city can see it now — that the Argos fans are here, and… (we) bleed blue."
Lori Bursey, who runs the official Argos fan club, says CFL fans deserve credit for sticking it out in a city with a myriad of professional sports clubs including hockey, baseball, basketball and soccer teams.
"This town needs this shot in the arm," said Bursey, who started the club in 1991 and now boasts more than 350 registered members.
"It’s no secret that this city yearns for a winner and I would think it would be so important not just for the league but for the city, for it to be part of this great historical Grey Cup."
But if this week leading up to the big game on Sunday was any indication, the Calgary Stampeders have luck on their side.
On Thursday, Stamps fans rode their horse Marty into the upscale Royal York Hotel to recreate a tradition that was started in 1948. The lucky superstition almost didn’t happen until the hotel called the group back after seeing the 15-year-old stallion trotted all over town.
On the same day the CFL also made a compromise with the team, agreeing to allow their horse mascot Quick Six to stand in the sidelines of the big game but didn’t go as far as letting it charge up and down the field — as is done during regular season Calgary matches.
At the start of the week, the Calgary Grey Cup Committee had vowed to "paint this town Calgary!" and bring the Cup back west.
Calgary fan Dennis Schwartz says whether you’re rooting for the West or for the East, the Grey Cup faceoff will no doubt unite Canada.
"It’s 100 years and it’s totally Canadian," said Schwartz, who drove in from Harrow, Ont., near Windsor.