On Sunday, November 25, the 106th Grey Cup will be played at Edmonton’s ample Commonwealth Stadium. This is Canada, and this will be Edmonton in late November, so it will be cold, as is fitting for Canada’s other storied tournament. Think of the Grey Cup as the Stanley Cup’s kid brother if you will.
What is the Grey Cup and how exactly is Canadian football different from it’s more famous and wealthier cousin south of the border, NFL football?
Only in Canada, eh?
The 4th Earl Grey, Canada’s Governor General (the Crown’s representative in Canada) had a cup to give away and nothing to fill it with. His plan to donate a cup to celebrate amateur hockey in Canada, because of the Stanley Cup having gone pro in 1907, was suddenly forced to cool down after Sir Montague Allan donated the Allan Cup to amateur hockey.
That meant that the 4th Earl Grey had to find another sport and rugby football – as it was often still called until well into the 20th century – became the next choice for his planned cup. The Governor General was reported to have had doubts which caused delays and resulted in the Grey Cup being readied only a couple of weeks before the Dominion rugby football championship of 1909: a battle between the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and the Parkdale Canoe Club held on December 4th , 1909. The cup made it to the match and the Varsity Blues won 26 – 6 in front of around four thousand fans.
From 1916 through 1919 the Grey Cup was cancelled due to World War I and then as a result of conflicts between the various amateur leagues over the still-evolving rules. The cup was reportedly found in storage, dusted off, and the tournament resumed in 1920.
During WW II, from 1942 to 1945, the Grey Cup was played between military teams but by the early 1950’s the game was moving towards a professional league. In 1954 the last amateur league to participate in the Grey Cup, the Ontario Rugby Football Union, dropped out and the game quickly became a contest between professional teams. In 1956 the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Western Canada Rugby Football Union (WCRFU) withdrew from the Canadian Rugby Union (CRU) and formed the interim Canadian Football Council (CFC) in preparation for a true professional league.
In 1958 the CFL, or Canadian Football League, was born. Since then the Grey Cup, despite its amateur origins, has been the championship game for the CFL. It is usually played in November and occasionally has been played in early December.
Stuck on 3rd Down
Ok. So, what are the differences in the rules between CFL football and NFL football? And why are the two games so similar and yet different?
North American football evolved from various games, but especially from Rugby Union Football which is still played today around the world, especially in Europe and in the Southern Hemisphere countries of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Rugby union was invented at the Rugby School in England in the mid 19th century and soon after various forms of rugby football were being played in both the U.S. and Canada.
In May and October of 1874, a series of matches between McGill and Harvard Universities became a turning point and led to the Ivy League and the evolution of a distinct type of game in North America compared to rugby union football. Here are a few of the rules from 1874:
vi. The ball may be caught on the bounce and carried; the player so carrying the ball may be “tackled” or “shouldered”, but not hacked, throttled, or pommelled. No player may be held unless in actual possession of the ball.
vii. In the event of any player holding or running with the ball being tackled, and the ball fairly held, he may at once cry “have it down”; but he need not do so until his own side comes up.
viii. A goal can only be obtained by kicking the ball from the field of play direct (i.e. without touching the dress or person of any player of either side) over the cross-bar of the opponent’s goal, whether it touch such cross-bar, or the posts, or not: but if the ball goes directly over either of the goal posts it is called a poster, and is not a goal. A goal may be obtained by any kind of kick except a punt.
ix. A match shall last for three half hours –it shall be decided by the majority of goals, or in the event of no goals being obtained by the majority of touch-downs; three touchdowns counting as one goal.
One can see that there was a need to impose a little order as hacking (tripping with the legs), throttling (choking with your hands or arms), and pommelling (hitting with your fists) were banned in rule vi. But also, the scoring emphasized what today is called a Field Goal and placed a relatively low value on touchdowns, today the main form of scoring in both the CFL and NFL and awarded 6 points plus a 1-point conversion nowadays in both games. And matches nowadays are played with 2 halves of 30 minutes each, (divided into 4 quarters with 2 quarters per half), plus overtime if necessary.
As the game evolved, the Canadian game was a little more conservative and unwilling to adopt the innovations that the American game was constantly introducing. For example, the forward pass – a staple of the North American game – was not allowed in the Canadian game until 1929. Here then, are the main differences between NFL and CFL rules:
- Size of the field: CFL football is played on a longer and wider field: 110 yards long and 65 yards wide. NFL football is played on a field 100 yards long and 53 & 1/3 yards wide. The end zones are longer in CFL football as well.
- CFL football has 12 players on the field per team while NFL football has 11 players per team, whether the offensive, defensive, or specialty (kick off coverage, kick off receiving, punt, and field goal) teams.
- CFL football allows only 3 downs to gain 10 yards while NFL football has 4 downs in which the offensive team must gain 10 yards to continue its drive. The CFL rules are the original rules from early in the 20th century used in both countries at the time.
- The ball used in the CFL has a slightly different set of allowable sizes which may make it slightly larger or smaller than an NFL ball (both balls are allowed a range of sizes) and the CFL ball has a white stripe while the NFL ball is unstriped.
- CFL football has no fair catch rule for punt receivers, unlike NFL football. Instead, the punting team must be at least 5 yards from the receiver when he catches the punted football before they can tackle the punt receiver. No-yards is the penalty if they are deemed too close by the referee.
- In CFL football, offensive backfield players (any player in the offense not lined up on the scrimmage line but not including the quarterback) are allowed to be in motion in any direction before the snap as long as they do not cross the scrimmage line before the ball is snapped.
- The rouge: the famous 1-point play unique to the CFL: Here’s basically how it works. It’s similar to a safety except a safety is when an offensive team with possession of the ball is tackled or the ball is deemed dead in their own end zone. A rouge or a single is when a team punts away the ball into the opposing team’s end zone and the ball is then deemed “dead” in the possession of the opposing team in its own end zone. In other words: punt the ball into the other team’s end zone and try to tackle the player with the ball in his end zone.
Diversity is Strength
While all eyes will be on Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on November 25, back in August there was a ceremony that combined one of Canada’s pastimes with Canada’s great tradition of immigration and diversity. On August 18, 2018, 50 new Canadians took the oath of citizenship and then headed to Commonwealth Stadium to sing O Canada along with fans, coaches, and players before a CFL game between the Edmonton Eskimos and the Montreal Alouettes. It was a proud moment for them but also for the fans and players, reminding them of Canada’s roots as a nation of newcomers and migrants. Here’s a couple of quotes from the event:
Becoming a Canadian citizen is a significant milestone in an individual’s immigration journey, and it is important that we recognize the many contributions immigrants bring to our country. I am honoured to officially welcome new citizens to a country that embraces diversity, equality and respect for all, as diversity is our strength.
—The Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship
Football—like citizenship—is the ultimate team game. It requires people of every size, strength, and skillset to work together as a team to achieve great things. Our new citizens, and our players, are part of a proud history that has made our league and country stronger.
—Randy Ambrosie, Commissioner of the CFL
Oh, and the final score? The Edmonton Eskimos beat the Montreal Alouettes 40 – 24; scoring 4 touchdowns (7 x 4 = 28) and 4 field goals (4 x 3 = 12). But in a fitting touch, Les Alouettes scored a rouge, (or single point), in the third quarter. Their only point in that quarter. You really do have to love the CFL in all its splendid quirkiness.