This November, Edmonton will host the 106th Grey Cup and Festival, the fifth time the Canadian Football League’s title game will be played at Commonwealth Stadium. Thousands will descend on the city for a few days of typically polite Canadian revelry during the “Grand National Drunk.”
In a previous life I was the PR guy for the Edmonton Eskimos, which gave me a front row seat for close to 400 games, including 10 Grey Cups and half-time shows. Compared to the Super Bowl, which features the hottest artist of the day or the most available classic rock icon, the Grey Cup’s mid-game festivities have been decidedly more modest in their offerings.
From my PR vantage point, I witnessed kids riding sheep who were more interested in eating end-zone grass, and dogs chasing … pretty much anything. Who could forget the steamy night in Ottawa, when John T. “The Original Renegade” Henry’s halting version of “Sweet Caroline” was met with a thunderous hail of boos from the hometown faithful?
For those not familiar with the half-time show, it’s the punctuation point in the game where teams leave the field and recharge their batteries. For the fans, it’s their chance to flee in search of booze, burgers and bathrooms. Those left in the seats talk amongst themselves or stare blankly at the empty field waiting for the action to resume.
Football in America has a rich history of marching bands, majorettes, cheerleaders and cavorting mascots, a show within a show. Meanwhile in Canada, the 1990 Grey Cup marked a veritable sea change for the grand old game, as fans in Vancouver and the millions glued to their TVs witnessed an awkward mash-up of tae-kwon do combatants with Serbian and Hungarian dancers – simpler times, indeed.
Things got progressively better when budgets got bigger and the shows became more than ribbon dancers and tumbling. I recall that on the last Sunday in November, 16 years ago here in Edmonton, the celebration had nothing to do with football and everything to do with a certain world-famous Canadian singer. A few days before the game itself came the announcement that Shania Twain would grace Commonwealth Stadium with her presence.
With a booming introduction of, “ladies and gentlemen, the world’s most successful female solo artist ever!” and a burst of fireworks, there she was, resplendent and oh so very Canadian in a yellow puffy jacket, mukluks and tuque. “It’s great to be back in Canada and great to be home!”
It took all of 22 seconds into the eight-minute performance to win over the heavily bundled crowd, who lumbered to their frozen feet to sing along with Twain’s big hit, “Up!” In a flash it was over. Two months later, Shania would perform at the Super Bowl in the warmer climes of San Diego, the first person to ever play at both games in the same football season.
But Edmonton can lay claim to being first, and CFL fans never looked at a half-time show the same way again.
Dave Jamieson talks sports, and sometimes half time shows daily on TSN1260 in Edmonton. He thinks Grey Cups are the biggest and best parties he’s ever been to.
This article appears in the November 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton