As they prepare to play in the 100th Grey Cup game this coming Sunday, the Toronto Argonauts look like they've righted their once-sinking ship just in time.
On Thursday night, in the second-floor Koerner Hall lobby, Canadian Football League executives and coaches mingled with players past and present, all of them squeezed into suits and ties. The members of a Western University marching band scrambled to get themselves organized. It was nearly time to honour the 2012 football season’s top performers with the annual CFL Player Awards.
When all the trophies—which also recognize players in the Canadian University system—had finally been handed out, Toronto Argonauts’ receiver and kick returner Chad Owens found himself named the League’s Most Outstanding Player, beating out his fellow nominee, running back Jon Cornish of the Calgary Stampeders. Owens was not a surprising selection; he led the league in both receiving and kick return yardage, and he broke the CFL’s single-season combined yards record, set by the legendary Pinball Clemons in 1997.
But both Cornish (who ended up taking home the award for top Canadian-born player) and Owens have a grander prize in mind: the Grey Cup, for which their respective teams will compete on Sunday evening at the Rogers Centre. Resting on a jerry-built podium, the ancient trophy occupied a somewhat lonely corner of the lobby on Thursday night, posing for a few photos but otherwise forgotten amid the excitement. The Cup will be on everyone’s mind by the end of the weekend, however, when it will be awarded for the 100th time.
And while Owens’ Thursday-night victory will be of no real use to the Argos come Sunday, it also can’t hurt, especially in the CFL, where confidence is a vitally important intangible. “It’s a momentum league,” said Argos’ veteran running back Jeff Johnson earlier on Thursday. “When you get momentum going, and the guys in the locker room believe together, collectively, that you’re going to win, you’re virtually unstoppable.”
Up until just a couple weeks ago, “unstoppable” was not a word that was likely to have come up in a conversation about the Argonauts. In fact, many of the years that followed the team’s last Grey Cup win in 2004 were painfully lean. Together, they paint a woeful picture.
There was the missed opportunity to play in the Grey Cup at home in 2007, when the favoured Argos managed just nine points during a losing game with Winnipeg in the East final. There was 2008, when a 4-6 start led to the firing of head coach Rich Stubler; his replacement, Don Matthews, then the winningest coach in league history, would go 0-8. There was 2009, when the Argos managed somehow to have a worse season than the one that preceded it, finishing with just three wins against 15 losses. And there was 2011, when the team won a scant six times. Even this year, the Argos struggled throughout the season, finished with a so-so .500 record, and were nobody’s pick to go on a post-season run. They may not have thought it possible themselves.
“I don’t think there was many guys in that locker room that believed that we would be here,” admitted punter Noel Prefontaine. As the wins began to string together—in Regina and Hamilton to close the regular season, then at home to Edmonton and in Montreal in the first two rounds of the playoffs—the team gained confidence. “Belief is one thing, right? Going out and doing it is a totally different thing,” Prefontaine said. “And what we did is we went out and did it.”
After Thursday morning’s practice, at which simulated crowd noise poured at deafening volumes from the Rogers Centre speakers to prepare the team for the unusual experience of playing before a packed house, Johnson echoed Prefontaine’s sentiment. “We’ve steadily got better,” he said. “Here we are at the end of the year playing our best football, definitely, of the season.”
And in the CFL, being at your best at the end of the season is all that matters. In a league in which six of eight teams make the playoffs, the regular season becomes almost entirely disposable. The 2000 B.C. Lions, for instance, lost more games than they won during the regular season but ended up as Grey Cup champions. The next year, Calgary accomplished the same feat.
Prefontaine, who broke in as a rookie with the Argos all the way back in 1998, knows this, and knows that it cuts both ways, too: “You need to peak at the right time, and we’ve obviously done that, right? But Calgary has done the same thing on the other side.”