Brunt: Where the game matters most

Andrew Vaughan/CP

There’s only one place in Canada that matches Riderville’s passion for football: Quebec

There aren’t many other holdovers from Grade 6 math class that are still as handy as the good old Venn diagram.

Those simple graphics can be used to illustrate all kinds of things with great clarity—for instance, the state of Canadian football on the final weekend of November, when two championship games took place in the two towns where they mattered most.

And yet, never mind intersect, those circles didn’t even touch—instead they make a pair of perfect solitudes. Regina and Quebec City, utterly delirious about the same sport at the same time, and yet absolutely oblivious to each other.

The former most people understand, because the Grey Cup remains a television staple, the one day on the calendar when even those indifferent to the CFL honour their ancestors by tuning in. This year, for only the third time in its 101-game history, it was played in Regina, with the hometown team representing the West against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and for the green people, it must have been easy to believe that they were for those three hours at the very centre of the universe as their heroes thumped the eastern interlopers for just the fourth championship in the Riders’ long history.

All of the clichés about Saskatchewan football—cash-strapped farmers proffering bushels of wheat to pay for season tickets, a hapless team that for decades played the plucky underdog and sentimental favourite—hardly jibe with 21st-century reality. Saskatchewan is a prosperous place these days, a “have” province. It’s holding on to its young people, and even luring back some of its vast diaspora.

The Roughriders, who for all of their myth and lore were only kept alive by a telethon within not-so-distant memory, have become the focus of that new, muscular, swaggering Saskatchewan. There is nowhere in Canada where the CFL matters more, where football is so universal. Because of that, the community-owned Riders have become by far the most profitable team in the league. National television ratings spike whenever they play, and they enjoy astounding merchandise sales. Add a hometown Grey Cup victory as the cherry on that sundae, and what you have is an event without parallel anywhere else in the country.

Well, almost anywhere else.

One day earlier, in a place where the CFL causes barely a ripple, Quebec City was galvanized once more by the Laval Rouge et Or.

Canadians outside of la belle province have a vague notion that football is a big deal there, though most mistakenly tie that to the rebirth of the Montreal Alouettes in 1996 and their fortuitous return to fashion in tiny Molson Stadium. In fact, the sport was already exploding at the grassroots level by the early 1990s, and funnelled directly into a Laval University program that began the very same year the Als came back. At that point, it was the only place in the province where players could receive a university education in French and play the game.

In the distant past, football in Quebec was an almost exclusively Anglo domain, but suddenly there were hundreds of well-coached, highly skilled francophone kids coming out of high schools and CEGEPs. Laval had first crack at the cream of that crop, attracted private donors to help build Canada’s first million-dollar college football program (that number is now over two million), and soon enough began steamrolling the rest of the country. (Football eventually sprung up at the University of Montreal and the University of Sherbrooke to take the overflow, and right now you could argue that the Montreal team is the only one in the country capable of offering Laval a serious challenge.)

As with the many things that define what it is to be Québécois, the Rouge et Or and their near-instant success came to represent a convergence of language and culture—their team, their kids, speaking their mother tongue and kicking ass—becoming the next best thing to a national team.

Laval won their first Vanier Cup in 1999. On Saturday, in what was their ninth appearance in the championship game and fourth in a row, they won their record eighth national championship (the only loss came in double overtime against McMaster two years ago), beating a plucky University of Calgary team in front of a sell-out crowd in excess of 17,000 at the state-of-the-art PEPS stadium—with several thousand of those fans happily standing on the track that surrounds the field. The tailgating began at 6 a.m.

Folks in Saskatchewan would recognize that game, recognize that scene, recognize that passion, recognize the powerful sense of identification, of tribal definition. They’d even recognize the weather. More than anyone else in Canada, they speak the same language.

They do… except they don’t.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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