This article was first run on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day on June 6th, 2019.
The Canadian Football League and the Canadian Military have gone hand in hand long before the CFL actually became a league in 1958. In fact, over the past 110 years the Grey Cup was not presented a mere four times and that was because of The Great War.
Well, and a “rules dispute” between the I.C.F.U. and C.R.U. in 1919.
June 6th is the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, the day in which 14,000 Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Normandy for a battle that would eventually lead to the liberation of Europe.
Leading up to this anniversary, I began thinking of the multitude of names engraved on the Grey Cup and wondered how many of these names served their country.
Short answer: a lot.
Here comes the slightly longer answer.
How about John Newton? He was the captain of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, the very first Grey Cup team in 1909. Newton then coached for several years before enlisting in the University of Toronto 57th Battery of Canadian Field Artillery. He served in The Battle of Passchendaele and Battle of Vimy Ridge before being awarded the Military Cross. Reading his diary over a century later is nothing short of incredible.
Fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders will know the name Piffles Taylor quite well. Taylor joined the Regina Rugby Club in 1914 and in 1916, he joined the Royal Flying Corps and became a fighter pilot. Despite being shot down, losing an eye and spending a year in a German prisoner of war camp, Taylor returned to the Regina Rugby Club in 1919, leading them to the Hugo Ross Trophy after a victory over Calgary. His glass eye even popped out on the field during a game before he put it back in and continued on. Taylor Field was named in his honour in 1947. [Heck, there’s a podcast named after him too]
Mike O’Shea, current head coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, has strong ties to the military as well with his father serving in World War II and his maternal grandfather serving in World War I.
After Captain Arnie Charbonneau had his name engraved on the Grey Cup in 1940 with the Ottawa Rough Riders, he enrolled in the 14th Army Tank Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Motta Montecorvino in Italy. There is now a scholarship in his name.
It has been said that the Grey Cup doesn’t belong to the league or the players but rather the people. If you had any doubt about how important that trophy is to the people, read this story about how Mr. Charbonneau’s 96-year old wife with failing eyesight was able to feel her husband’s name in the trophy.
The W.I.F.U. (Western Interprovincial Football Union, now the West Divison) and I.R.F.U. (Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, now the East Divison) both suspended operations in 1942 so it was thought the Grey Cup would also take a break. Instead, the Canadian military thought the game would be a big help when it came to boosting morale so teams were created at bases across the country to compete for the trophy.
The Toronto RCAF Hurricanes beat the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 8-5 in the first ever non-civilian Grey Cup game in 1942. Seven members of that championship team were killed in combat during the Second World War.
The underdog Hamilton Flying Wildcats defeated the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers 23-14 to win the 31st Grey Cup in 1943. They were led by head coach Brian Timmis who enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1915 after lying about his age. His great grandson, Mercer Timmis, was drafted by the same franchise in 2018.
A few months before D-Day in 1944, one of the coolest gridiron football games in history happened in London, England at White City Stadium.
It was the Central Base Section “Pirates” taking on the Canadian Army “Mustangs” in a hybrid rules game where the first half would be contested under American rules and the second half under Canadian rules. Over 30,000 spectators, with Spitfires on guard, watched the Canadians take the game 16-6. The Americans won the sequel “Coffee Bowl” 18-0 so we won’t talk about that one.
The Mustangs team included many accomplished football players on Canadian soil too.
Brig. Gen. Denis Whitaker was a star quarterback for the Hamilton Tigers in the late 1930s and became one of the most decorated Canadians during the Second World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work in the Battle of Dieppe in 1942. Whitaker commanded the 1st Battalion, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry in the 1940s and left the army in 1951. He was Honorary Colonel from 1972-1992.
Paul “Pappy” Rowe joined the Canadian military in 1940 and had his life spared during the Dieppe raid when his landing craft engines failed, preventing him from landing on the beach. He was wounded by shell fragments from a German 88 in February of 1945. Still, Pappy returned home to Canada and led the Calgary Stampeders to their first ever Grey Cup in 1948 and the only undefeated season in the history of Canadian football. His son, Bob, wrote his biography in 2012 as his father continues to be recognized today.
The last amateur team to win the Grey Cup did so in 1944 when the Navy Combines beat the favored Hamilton Flying Wildcats 7-6. While Al Hurley and John Crncinch had their names engraved on the Cup, Moe Segal was left off because of an unfortunate injury that prevented him from dressing for the title game.
Members of the 1944 squad did not receive championship rings until 1969 when CFL Commissioner Jake Gaudaur (who also served in World War II) helped members of the team purchase one. They were inducted into the Canadian Armed Forces Hall of Fame in 1995.
Perhaps the most famous Canadian Football League war story is the story of Blue Bomber legend Jeff Nicklin. Nicklin was a star, helping Winnipeg capture the 1935 Grey Cup becoming the first Western team to do so. He was also a part of the 1939 championship team and was deployed to Europe in 1942 with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
I wouldn’t exactly say his football accomplishments were finished there though. Nicklin scored the final touchdown in the “Tea Bowl” in 1944.
He was named the Commanding Officer of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and was one of the first Canadians to jump on D-Day in 1944. Nicklin did so with a broken shoulder…that he suffered while playing football. He was killed on March 24th, 1945 just months before the war ended.
Today, the CFL honors the Canadian Armed Forces by holding appreciation nights in every stadium during the season and by holding ceremonies during playoff games every November. The Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Trophy is given to the player that best demonstrates the attributes of Canada’s veterans and, as noted in the comments by Ea Spitzka, the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy is presented to the West Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Player.
The Royal Canadian Legion estimates that there are 60,000 living Canadian veterans that served during World War II with an average age of 92 so on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, “remembering” is more important than ever.
Every November Canadians wear their poppies to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and it’s no coincidence that the Grey Cup takes place around that time too.
5 thoughts on “We Remember”
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Very well done. If I might add The Jeff Nicklin Trophy is given to the Western Outstanding Player.
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That’s great. Thank you!
Well done, Travis.
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Really interesting! Thank You for the stories.