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This article was published 5/10/2014 (1020 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Over the decades, Winnipeg has contributed a great deal to the game of Canadian football, including 10 Grey Cup champion teams, numerous all-star players, legendary coaches and nationally acclaimed sports journalists. But did you know the CFL was founded at the corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue and the man who brought it all together was a Winnipegger?
Gerald Sydney "Syd" Halter was born in Winnipeg in 1905 and graduated from the University of Manitoba's faculty of law in 1927. He was a lanky, athletic 6-4 and participated in gymnastics and bowling, but his true calling was sports administration. He got his first taste of it as a student when he managed the Bisons junior hockey team.
After graduation, he went on to hold a number of prominent positions in the athletics scene. In 1931, he was president of the Winnipeg Athletic Association, in 1934 he became a longtime member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' board and in 1935 he was appointed president of the Amateur Athletics Association of Canada (Manitoba branch), the body in charge of organizing, promoting and regulating amateur sports activities in the province.
Halter rose to national prominence in 1937 when he was elected president of the Amateur Athletics Association of Canada, the forerunner to Athletics Canada. At 33, he was the youngest president in the organization's 53-year history and was appointed at a time some member groups, such as lacrosse, hockey and soccer, were pulling out because of its strict interpretation of amateur status. Halter was seen as a young upstart who was coming in to modernize the body for a new era.
At a meeting at the St. Charles Hotel in February 1942, Halter was elected president of the Winnipeg Football Club's board. He served just one term, as the following year he was off to serve with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot officer, administrative, retiring with the rank of squadron leader.
After the war, Halter re-established his corporate law career and was appointed King's Counsel in 1948. In 1953, he took on a new sporting challenge as commissioner of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU), the league in which the Winnipeg Blue Bombers played.
Aside from the odd exhibition game and the Grey Cup championship, the WIFU and its eastern counterpart, then known as the Big Four, had little to do with each other. Halter felt it was time "to organize Canadian pro football" so "all matters pertinent to it at this time can be handled on a national basis under the jurisdiction of a single central office." He then set out to create such a league.
The first step was the formation of the Canadian Football Commission (CFC) in January 1956. It was made up of representatives from each of the nine football clubs in the two unions, with Halter as registrar. Their job was to start smoothing out some of the long-standing differences between the leagues, including rules of play and regulations governing the use of import players.
After two years, Halter felt the time was right to take the next step. For two days starting on Jan. 18, 1958, the CFC held closed-door meetings at Winnipeg's Royal Alexandra Hotel (which was demolished in 1971). The purpose was to decide whether or not to merge the unions into a single league and, if they did, to choose a commissioner.
The only man considered for the job was the soft-spoken, eloquent Halter. At their final meeting before leaving for Winnipeg, the Big Four passed a motion stating they would only merge if Halter was appointed to lead the new league.
Halter said he would accept the position, but only if he enjoyed the sweeping powers he had as WIFU commissioner. This meant complete control over teams, from their executives and management to the coaches and players. He would be in charge of league officials, handing out fines and other disciplinary action, and be the sole arbitrator of disputes. His office would also choose the Grey Cup city and organize the big game.
On the first day of the meetings, the teams voted unanimously to establish the Canadian Football League (CFL). The WIFU became the Western Division and the Big Four the Eastern Division. Interdivisional play would have to wait another year, though, as more time was needed to blend rules and regulations.
On Jan. 19, delegates unanimously chose Halter as the CFL's first commissioner.
Halter worked hard for this $20,000 salary. He created the organization's bylaws, standardized the rules for player contracts, worked out an agreement with the NFL to prevent "poaching" by teams on either side of the border and negotiated the league's first national broadcasting deal. Through it all, he had to keep nine team owners in line.
One of his most memorable decisions was to halt play near the end of the 1962 Fog Bowl Grey Cup game in Toronto, a game Winnipeg won when it concluded the following day. Years later he said of the call: "It was a big decision but it wasn't an onerous one, because I had made up my mind five or six years before. We were always prepared for such an event, although we suspected it was far more likely to happen in Vancouver."
Another controversial ruling came after the Oct. 25, 1959 game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Blue Bombers in Winnipeg. Saskatchewan head coach Frank Tripucka dressed for the game and played quarterback, leading his team to a 37-30 upset victory. Halter disqualified Saskatchewan for using an ineligible player, and the points were awarded to Winnipeg.
Halter led the CFL for its first eight years, stepping down at the end of 1966.
When asked who a suitable replacement would be, Don Getty, the retired Edmonton Eskimo quarterback, said: "Every time I describe the man who would do the job well, I find I've described Syd Halter, but a Syd Halter with a flair for public relations."
Indeed, that was the main criticism of Halter. He was more interested in good governance than marketing, preferring to speak privately with reporters rather than holding large news conferences and shying away from TV and radio interviews.
Despite having to make a lot of tough, sometimes controversial, decisions, columnists such as Maurice Smith of the Winnipeg Free Press said, "Syd was interested solely in the furtherance and promotion of football, and all his legislations and rulings were effected with that end in mind."
After retiring from football, Halter continued to work for the advancement of amateur sport in the province. He was chairman of the Manitoba Horse Racing Commission from 1965 to 1971 and again from 1978 to 1981. Under his tenure, Assiniboia Downs expanded its thoroughbred racing season from 42 to 120 days, and a rural harness-racing circuit was created.
Halter, a lifelong bachelor, was a fiercely private man. Despite appearing regularly in the local press for over three decades, stories never delved into his personal life. After his death in Winnipeg on Oct. 24, 1990, his obituary in the Free Press consisted of only the date and place of his funeral.
In 1991, a number of people, including CFL commissioner Donald Crump, Sydney's brother, Aubrey, Duff Roblin and sports columnist Hal Sigurdson, pushed to have Winnipeg Stadium named the G. Sydney Halter Memorial Stadium, or simply Halter Stadium. The Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, however, stood firm in its practice of not naming its sports facilities after people.
For his life's work, Halter was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977 and has been inducted into the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame, Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.