Lefko: CFL fumbles Labour Day tradition

Subtracting the Labour Day in Hamilton – or in this case Guelph – and not developing some alternative solution has created a void that will truly be felt on Monday. (CP/Aaron Vincent Elkaim)

There is no greater way for the Canadian Football League to curtail enthusiasm in the struggling southern Ontario market than to stifle the all-important staple of tradition.

The CFL trumpeted its history throughout 2012 to commemorate the 100th Grey Cup, pounding into the collective consciousness of Canadians the importance of embracing the past.

Whatever means it could to cobble together a year-long campaign of flashbacks to yesteryear, the CFL did everything to underline what made its product so unique.

But of all the things the CFL does right – and wrong, too, but it’s too easy to find fault – it has generally understood that Labour Day is a time for tradition; a time for the rivalries in Ontario and Alberta to renew memories from the past and create storylines for the future.

The tradition is simple: the Toronto Argonauts go into Hamilton to face the Tiger-Cats, whose fans come armed with various objects to hurl at the visitors – including balloons filled with urine – and obscenities that would make a foul-mouthed hooker blush.

If the Ticats do nothing right all season, their fans want them to beat the Argos on Labour Day to claim bragging rights.

Meanwhile in the West, the Calgary Stampeders play host to the Edmonton Eskimos in the Battle of Alberta. It’s a different mentality in Alberta versus Ontario because of the perception of the CFL in both provinces.

The fact the games in the East and West would follow one another allowed for a full day of footbal and reinforce to the players the importance of Labour Day and memories of past games.

The players who had gone through the wars could impart that to the newcomers so they would understand the true meaning of the Labour Day Classic, why it had such value and importance for the CFL.

But this year will be different: the Labour Day Classic has been reduced to only the West, while darkness will descend upon the East. With the Ticats’ longtime home getting razed in favour of a new stadium to be unveiled next year, the team is playing its games in Guelph. Alumni Stadium is a sandbox of a facility which is suitable for a university, but far below standards for a CFL team. That said, it is what it is as a temporary facility.

Monday would have been perfect for the annual Labour Day Classic between the Argos and Ticats because of the past tradition, even if played in one-third the size of the 29,000-and-change capacity seating at Ivor Wynne Stadium. Alumni Stadium could have been ideal for Labour Day, if only for the one year and to reinforce the story line of the old stadium.

However, when the CFL unveiled its schedule, the Ticats were playing in B.C. on the Friday preceding Labour Day, while the Argos were playing host to the Montreal Alouettes on the day after the traditional return to school. It drew some criticism at the time, but it really didn’t truly resonate until the day drew closer to Labour Day.

So Alumni Stadium will be silent while thousands of students descend on the campus for the start of a new school year. Apparently the stadium wasn’t available, which is hard to believe with all the planning that went into choosing Guelph as the temporary home for Hamilton.

It could have – and should have – been a wild atmosphere, but it will be the hustle and bustle of back to school without the sounds of smashmouth football CFL style.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Argos will be lucky if they draw slightly north of 20,000. The interest in the Argos, despite their Grey Cup win last year, has quieted down to almost a hush. Even the injury to starting quarterback Ricky Ray, sidelined for six weeks with a torn muscle in his throwing shoulder after starting off the season completing 75 per cent of his passes, hasn’t created that much of what could be described as ground-shaking news.

What’s interesting is that the Argos play host Tuesday to the Als, while the Ticats play host to the B.C. Lions on Saturday, completing the second half of their home-and-home series.

Shouldn’t this have been the Argos and Ticats in Toronto on Tuesday and a second game in Hamilton on Saturday? It seems to make perfect sense. Yes, the traditional Monday Labour Day Classic in Hamilton would have been compromised, but a back-to-back series in five days would have been ideal.

Look, this is what is done for Calgary and Edmonton and it goes back to the original fabric of the CFL when teams regularly did this.

Somebody fumbled this big time.

Two years ago there was a huge outcry from CFL fans, notably in Hamilton, because Montreal was scheduled to play the Ticats in Hamilton on Labour Day, while the Argos hosted B.C. three days before. Several people have commented on the Fan Forum of the CFL’s website about the schedule this year, notably the lack of an Argo-Ticat game on Monday, and complained that the CFL didn’t learn from what happened in 2011.

The CFL gave the Argos and Ticats $500,000 each to market themselves in 2012 and grow their respective fan bases in southern Ontario. Commissioner Mark Cohon talked with conviction about the initiative at the 2011 Grey Cup, realizing something needed to be done to fix the ailing market.

For all intents and purposes, the problem had been lingering long before Cohon took office in 2007 and really hasn’t changed in his tenure. He has done many things, but hasn’t solved what many others of similar purpose couldn’t magically undo.

Frankly, it was easy to market the CFL in 2012 with the 100th Grey Cup in Toronto, but the money allotted to the Argos and Ticats was a one-time thing. However the money was spent, it didn’t change the reaction or perception of the CFL in southern Ontario in 2013. You can’t solve something in only one year by throwing money at it, particularly when the issue has prolonged for decades. At best, this was a band-aid solution.

Subtracting the Labour Day Classic in Hamilton – or in this case Guelph – and not developing some alternative solution has created a void that will truly be felt on Monday. Tradition is what built the CFL into what it is, but removing elements of that fabric, even if only for a year, create an absence that is felt.

The fact it has happened twice in three years is unacceptable.

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