Henry Burris and the Calgary Stampeders will have a tough act to follow in 2009.
For three years, Burris endured the continual talk that he couldn't lead Calgary to playoff success after three straight disappointing first-round losses. But in 2008, Burris and the Stampeders flourished under first-year head coach/GM John Hufnagel, posting a CFL-best 13-5 record before dispatching B.C. 22-18 in the West Division final. They went on to cap their memorable season with a 22-14 Grey Cup victory over Montreal before over 66,000 partisan Alouettes supporters at Olympic Stadium.
The Grey Cup victory was Calgary's first since 2001, which also came at Olympic Stadium. But Burris and Co. won't have the luxury of resting on their laurels.
In 2009, the Stampeders will not only look to become the first CFL team since the '96-'97 Toronto Argonauts to successfully repeat as Grey Cup champions, but also become the first in league history to do so at home with next year's championship game slate to be played at McMahon Stadium.
The certainly have the pieces to contend again. Last year, Calgary boasted the CFL's top-ranked defence and No. 2 offence.
And that, Burris says, will be more than enough incentive for the Stampeders.
"Now, people are going to say we can't win it again," he said.
Burris certainly quieted his critics in 2008, posting career highs in passing yards (5,004) and touchdown tosses (39). Still, during Grey Cup week, Burris and kicker Sandro DeAngelis of Niagara Falls, Ont., were very public in expressing their disappointment after being overlooked in voting for the CFL's outstanding player and special-teams performer, respectively, during the league's awards banquet.
Burris was the runner-up to Montreal quarterback Anthony Calvillo (league-best 43 TD passes) while DeAngelis - the CFL's scoring leader with 217 points and a league-high 50 field goals - was second to Toronto kick-returner Dominque Dorsey.
Both had the last laugh, though, as Burris was named the Grey Cup MVP after completing 28-of-37 passes for 328 yards and a touchdown and rushing for a game-high 79 yards. DeAngelis captured top Canadian honours after booting five field goals against Montreal, including a decisive 50-yard kick in the fourth quarter.
One of the country's biggest football story this year was the NFL playing its first-ever regular-season game on Canadian soil.
A Toronto-based group shelled out a whopping $78 million to the Buffalo Bills for the NFL team to play eight games (five regular-season contests, three exhibition encounters) through 2012. That prompted a sense of anxiety among fans of the CFL, fearing it was the first step in the Bills eventually relocating to Canada's largest city and not only spelling doom for both the local Argonauts and nearby Hamilton Tiger-Cats but also dealing a death blow to the Canadian league.
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon admitted prior to the '07 Grey Cup that the NFL posed a real threat to the Canadian league. But he decided against speaking about the NFL in 2008, instead concentrating on CFL issues.
The series began with two games in Toronto, an exciting 24-21 exhibition win over Pittsburgh in August before a rather boring and mundane 16-3 loss to Miami in December.
The announced attendance for the regular-season game was 52,134 - which certainly seemed generous - and was short of the 54,000-seat capacity Rogers Centre has for football. But many fans in attendance in December sported the Dolphins' aqua and orange colours so while Buffalo was the home team it was only in name.
"It felt like we were on the road," said Bills tackle Jason Peters.
"It was cool, it was fun but Buffalo fans are a lot more rowdy," added Buffalo defensive tackle Marcus Stroud. "We could have used that rowdiness today."
Still, the attendance for both games - less than 49,000 took in the exhibition game - was very disappointing given event organizers are dishing out an average of $9.75 million per contest. Steep ticket prices, ranging from $75 to $575, certainly haven't helped as in both instances Toronto officials had to "distribute" tickets.
The CFL might have to deal head-on with the Bills next season as event organizers are looking at holding Buffalo's lone regular-season game in Toronto next year during the CFL season.
The CFL also lost a number of legendary figures such as Ron Lancaster, Joe (King) Krol, Ralph Sazio, former commissioner Jake Gaudaur, B.C. Lions president Bob Ackles, Hall of Famer Earl (Earthquake) Lunsford and Hamilton Tiger-Cats player Jamacia Jackson as well as commentators Leif Peterson, Don Wittman and Don Chevrier.
On the field, it was another record-breaking campaign for Winnipeg slotback Milt Stegall, who broke Allen Pitts' all-time CFL record of 14,891 receiving yards. And Stegall did it in style, eclipsing Pitts' mark on a 91-yard TD pass in a 39-9 road win over Toronto. It's another anxious off-season for Bombers fans as Stegall again considers retirement.
Montreal slotback Ben Cahoon broke former Saskatchewan star Ray Elgaard's record for most catches by a Canadian receiver (830). And Calvillo had a CFL-record 44 completions in a game against Hamilton, with he and Ticats quarterback Quinton Porter combining for 71 pass attempts, another CFL mark.
Hufnagel was one of four new coaches in the CFL this year, the others being Ken Miller in Saskatchewan; Rich Stubler in Toronto; and Marc Trestman in Montreal. Like Hufnagel, Miller and Trestman both enjoyed success in their first seasons: Miller led the Riders to a 12-6 record despite an abundance of injuries while Trestman led Montreal to a Grey Cup berth after finishing atop the East Division with an 11-7 record.
However, Stubler lasted just 10 games as Toronto's head coach, fired after posting a 4-10 record. Don Matthews, the CFL's winningest coach, was lured out of retirement to replace Stubler, but abruptly retired at season's end after going 0-8. A replacement has yet to be hired.
There will be other new coaching faces on the sidelines in '09. Mike Kelly takes over in Winnipeg after Doug Berry was fired following the Bombers' opening-round playoff loss to Edmonton. Kelly was the club's offensive co-ordinator between 1992 and 1996 and helped Winnipeg capture three regular-season East Division titles and appear in two Grey Cups.
Richie Hall, who spent 15 seasons as a coach with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, will make his CFL head-coaching debut with Edmonton. He takes over from Danny Maciocia, who left the sidelines to concentrate on being the club's full-time vice-president of football operations.
It was more of the same in Canadian university football as the Laval Rouge et Or defeated the Western Mustangs 44-21 for its fifth Vanier Cup title in 10 years on a snowy afternoon at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Hec Crighton Trophy winner Benoit Groulx cemented the victory with a 90-yard TD strike to Mathieu Bourette that put Laval comfortably ahead 34-7 just four minutes into the second half. The Rouge et Or finished the season with a perfect 12-0 record and earned head coach Glen Constantin his fourth national title.
Rutgers captured the second annual International Bowl at Rogers Centre, defeating Ball State 52-30 before 31,455 spectators. Running back Ray Rice, now with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, was the game MVP after rushing for a school-record 280 yards and scoring four touchdowns.
The Vancouver Island Raiders were Canada's top junior team in '08, defeating the Burlington Braves 35-8 in the Canadian Bowl. Tailback Andrew Harris, whose CFL rights are owned by the B.C. Lions, ran for 410 yards and scored four TDs.
Vancouver Island's victory came after former fullback Aaron Niedergesaess died in a car accident near Drayton Valley, Alta., on Sept. 30. Niedergesaess, 21, was a member of the Raiders' '06 national championship squad.