Photo credit James Hajjar
Dec 04, 2014
By Donnovan Bennett – Sportsnet TV Personality
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett
What an atmosphere. I’ve been to better CIS events. I’ve been to better football games. I’ve been to sporting events with better finishes. But I’m not sure I’ve been to a sporting event with a better atmosphere from start to finish than the 50th TELUS Vanier Cup at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.
The mostly pro-Carabins crowd was loud and proud. I’ve been fortunate to cover an NFL Monday night game and an NCAA March Madness Final Four. Although the crowds for both were considerably larger, I don’t recall hearing a noise louder than what my ears heard at field level in the fourth quarter when McMaster was driving in an attempt to win the game. As I boarded my flight back to Toronto that night my ears were still ringing. The culture in the stadium rivaled what you’d see at an NCAA football game at a Power 5 conference stadium. The excitement in the city of Montreal mimicked what you’d see during Grey Cup week in a host city.
As I stood on the sidelines listening to the national anthem being sung in a virtually sold out CFL stadium for a CIS championship, I was overtaken with pride and gratitude. The emotion was garnered solely because I was so thankful the hard work and sacrifice the student athletes on both teams exhibited to get there was being honoured with a stage fit for their level of dedication. I’ve long believed that NCAA athletes don’t dedicate themselves to the task of being great student athletes any more than CIS athletes, yet their opportunity to capitalize on that hard work by being given the pleasure of being put on a large stage with larger crowds has for too long solely been a USA collegiate occurrence.
The fact that Montreal was in the game after dramatically beating Laval acted as the perfect pre-game promotion. Laval losing at any time of year – never mind in the playoffs – is a national story. The historic 50th incarnation of the game being in Montreal for the first time ever added to the 2014 Vanier’s allure.
The opponents played a contributing factor as well. McMaster has steadily grown their fan base by reaching the Vanier in three of the last four years. MAC’s centrally-located campus in a neighboring province, just a bus ride from Montreal, made it possible for Marauders fans to take in the game.
Due to those extenuating factors, the spectacle that was the 50th TELUS Vanier Cup is hard to replicate year in and year out. As easy as it is to say Montreal is the standard bearer for Vanier Cups to come because of how well received this one was, that would be naive to the cold hard truth that the game would have taken on a very different feel if the combatants were Manitoba and Mount Allison.
So what is the elixir that cures all when it comes to showcasing our best and brightest student athletes? How can we make displays like Saturday’s game become the rule not the exception?
First off, creating an in-season following for our programs is paramount. Both Montreal and McMaster have made a concerted effort to engage their communities to be a part of the game-day experience for their football teams during the regular season. Having a devout fan base that has been engaged all year in the bank certainly helps when attempting to attract viewership once the weather gets cold and frightful.
Furthermore, building a program the greater community and alumni base wants to be associated with helps foster fans who are willing to travel to champion your cause when championships are on the line.
Although both Vanier Cup participants are very different, one of the things they have in common is that their recruits make a 50-year decision, not a five-year decision, when they sign a letter of intent. The amount of alumni I saw in the stands and around the stadium showed how tight-knit the football alumni network is at both programs. The zeal with which they enjoyed the moment was proof they still take satisfaction in the clubs’ successes. Both schools have alum who paved the way for their programs to become national powers years before they got their first Vanier. Both knocked on the doorstep of extreme greatness for a while and now, over the last four years, they both have separately knocked it down.
Ironically, the same can be said for our men’s basketball national championship. After slowly picking up steam over the last year, we’ve seen great momentum with an all-Ottawa final in the nation’s capital last winter, followed with the hometown Carabins defeating McMaster in the Vanier Cup in Montreal, all leading to the much-anticipated CIS men’s basketball final 8 in Toronto this winter. The venue choice – Mattamy Athletic Centre – has already garnered considerable attention. I hope in March, on the grounds of the old Maple Leaf Gardens, I can stand on the sideline and say this atmosphere and this setting has usurped what I witnessed in Montreal, and the snowball of great CIS championships continues to roll. I know the athletes will play their role, the only question is if the stage will be fit for their final scene.
Follow Donnovan on Twitter: @donnovanbennett