Nov 28, 2014
By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
There have long been debates as to what is the best location for the new generation of Vanier Cups.
From 1965 to 2003 the game never left Toronto, but gone are the days where it is just assumed and expected the game will be held in the Rogers Centre every year by default as it was from 1989-2003. When the Sky Dome was a jewel of our country, and people would make the long trek just to check out the new digs, it made sense.
In the 90’s and even early 2000s it was done somewhat out of necessity as so many of the CIS institutions had grass fields. From a logistics stand point playing on a natural surface in late November was far from practical and extremely dangerous. This is no longer the case as the vast majority of CIS institutions play football on artificial surfaces. Yet as much flack as the Rogers Centre has been given as a venue, it housed a record crowd of 37,098 fans for Laval vs. McMaster 2.0 in 2012.
That was also the last year the Vanier Cup was coupled with the Grey Cup just as it was in 2011 at the new BC Place. Last year the Vanier was back at its most frequent locale of late, Laval’s TELUS Stadium in Quebec City. The best fans in CIS have hosted 3 of the last 5 title games. Even in their first year hosting back in 2009 when Laval wasn’t in the game, it was a sellout. Both Queen’s and Calgary’s fan bases travelled and Rouge et Or ticket holders braved the cold to show that they are great CIS football fans, not just Laval football fans.
In 2006, Griffifths Stadium at the University of Saskatchewan hosted not just a great Vanier Cup game but the entire town, with the help of an army of volunteers, put on a great Vanier week that felt like a mini Grey Cup. Yet many people attribute the success of the 2006 Vanier Cup to the fact the hometown Huskies were in the game.
There is a faction of the interested Canadian football population who feel the game is best coupled with the Grey Cup, the benefits including a shared spotlight with the professional version of Canadian football. With the games often falling on the same weekend if they are in different cities, football fans and journalists alike are forced to decide which event they are going to attend.
The devil’s advocate is that the game is just an undercard to the main event that is the Grey Cup and gets lost in the shadow of Grey Cup week. Not to mention, not every Grey Cup venue is created equal. Although it worked great in BC and Ontario, in Saskatchewan for the 101st Grey Cup in 2013 there were literally not enough hotels in Regina to host both games simultaneously. I vividly remember the CIS award winners being rushed off stage and out of the media room backstage to make room for the incoming CFL award winners. Whether perceived or real, being an afterthought is not the experience you want these CIS athletes to have on their biggest stage.
So what is the right solution? Smart minds are on both sides of the aisle. Like any complicated topic filled with nuance I long thought there was no proverbial right answer. Is the intimate setting of a sold-out 18,000 plus at Laval a better in-game experience than a half sold out CFL stadium? Does the comfort of having the game in a made for TV CFL venue outweigh the benefits of having it on a university campus that may not have the built in infrastructure to put on a week’s worth of festivities plus a large scale sporting event? Does the benefit of having more eye balls on the game when it’s coupled with the Grey Cup outweigh the fact that those eyes are not fixated on the Vanier but constantly shifting towards the Grey Cup festivities?
Maybe it’s taken us 50 years and a perfect storm of upsets to get to a place where we have found the ideal scenario. The historic 50th Vanier Cup will take place in a most likely sold=out CFL stadium that also happens to be on a university campus. With the buzz of Montreal’s incredible playoff run, the hometown is a wave of blue and white in support of the Carabins. Since the completion of the Uteck Bowl, the Vanier Cup has been a major news item amongst the local press. Although ticket sales were doing well early, they’ve skyrocketed after the Uteck Bowl victory so much so there is a concern the Montreal Alouettes won’t have enough tickets to meet the demand.
It’s a CFL stadium but it’s the smallest in the 9-team league and still has an intimate feel but is expansive enough to be an impressive site on TV. McMaster being a national brand getting to their third Vanier in four years certainly helps the national profile as well, but more so it’s the best of both worlds as it’s in a world-class city known for hosting big events but not in tandem with another big event that overpowers it.
If this Vanier atmosphere is as electric as is predicted, the CIS community might have stumbled on the template moving forward. Certainly you can’t predict the home team being in the game every year but there are locations in this country where a similar Vanier week makes sense. With both Ottawa programs now fielding strong programs, TD Place in the nation’s capital is a great option. At 24,000, the venue is an optimal size and has already shown to be a great host to the Panda Bowl between Ottawa and Carleton.
Investors Group Field is a bit bigger at 33,500 but has a university tie in as it’s home to both the Manitoba Bisons and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Right in the middle of the country it’s a centralized location. This is not to say that bigger CIS stadiums like Griffifths Stadium or TD Stadium in London or even CEPSUM in Montreal shouldn’t be considered along with TULUS in Laval. However, internationally recognized cities like Ottawa, Winnipeg, and in the case of this year Montreal might give the CIS game the showcase it needs as it continues to grow while keeping the nostalgia that gives our game its charm.
Congratulations and good luck this week, City of Montreal. Your unprecedented support of the Vanier Cup might become trailblazing if you keep it up on Saturday.
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett