November 25, 2014

Canada's pro football championship on TV

The Super Bowl, one might say, is America's version of the Grey Cup, the championship game of Canadian professional football.  I can't remember if I've discussed Canadian football much here, though I have on the other blog.  It's a game I first remember having watched when I was little; it was on Saturday mornings on Channel 11.  It must have made an impression on me, because I've remained a fan ever since, even though I've gone for years at a time without being able to see a game.  For a while in the early '70s, I even resorted to short-wave radio to pick up the CBC radio broadcast, listening through the static and interference as the Edmonton Eskimos won yet another Cup during their reign of terror over the rest of the CFL.

Anyway, the Grey Cup is coming up on Sunday, the Eastern champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats vs. the Western champion Calgary Stampeders, in the 102nd edition of the game.  Put another way, the Grey Cup had been big in Canada for over 50 years before the Super Bowl even started.  And here's the thing, the reason I'm bringing this up today: we all know that the complete broadcast of the first Super Bowl is one of the holy grails of lost television shows, despite the fact it was broadcast live on not one but two television networks.  Yes, it's true that a tape of the game did surface in the last few years, but a dispute between the owner of the tape and the owner of the broadcast rights (the NFL) has prevented it from being released to the public.  Other historic games have been lost forever, their video tapes being wiped so they could be reused.

The CBC, on the other hand, seems to have a tape or kinescope of just about every broadcast of the Grey Cup since it was first televised nationally in the mid-1950s  That means we're able to go back in time, to such games as the Fog Bowl of 1962, the Wind Bowl of 1965, the Snow Bowl of 1996, and other memorable games that had nothing to do with the weather.  Watching select games from that time period, one can see how radically the Canadian game has changed over the years; in the first broadcast I have, from 1955, touchdowns still counted for 5 points, rather than 6.  (It would change the next year.)  We see the size of the end zones decrease from 25 yards to 20, the hashmarks move a bit closer to the center (or is it centre?) of the field, and the replacement of the worn grass of early winter with artificial turf.  We see the passing game become the dominant form of offense, along with wide-open spread formations.  And even when Canadian football moves closer to the American game, it retains its distinctive touches, such as 12 men playing on a 110-yard long field.  For several years in the early '60s, ABC's Wide World of Sports expanded to three hours to present live coverage of the Grey Cup (back when it was played on Saturday), but it is the tapes from the CBC that survive.

As I mentioned, I have a copy of the 1955 game on DVD; here is the earliest broadcast I could find on YouTube, from the Grey Cup of 1958.  It comes in twelve parts, and you can click to each one in turn after this opening part.

Many of the older sports broadcasts that have survived, such as the 1961 NFL Championship game and the 1965 World Series, have come from Canadian broadcasts.  We should all be grateful that the CBC apparently took greater care of some of their sports footage than the American networks did!

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!