HAMILTON, ONT. The horse clopped into the bar an hour or so after dark, arriving just a few minutes after the Grey Cup, and it was difficult to say, in that moment, which was the bigger attraction.
The Grey Cup shone bright under the low lights; the horse, surrounded by people snapping photos, stood at patient attention.
Is there anything more beautiful than the horse, in the bar, with the cup? sighed Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan Anna-Marie Smith, as she sat at a table full of CFL fans from across Canada, some of them old friends and others new ones just met.
This is the heart of the Grey Cup, its usual travellers will tell you.
Not just this, as in the Calgary Grey Cup Committees reception party at a Hamilton sports bar Thursday night, though thats part of it, too. This, as in the nomadic fan village that springs up around the CFLs ultimate weekend the Blue Bombers face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Sunday and the bonds they carry across generations.
At the next table over from Smith, Bombers fans Hank Huewen, Victor Switzer and Dave Kolochuk thought about how long theyve been sipping beers at events just like these. Combined, they have 73 Grey Cup visits between them; Huewen went to his first in Winnipeg in 1991, and was hooked.
People are just so friendly, Huewen said, adjusting a hat laden with dozens of Grey Cup pins. You can just walk up to a stranger from B.C. and start chatting with them, and 30 years later, you still see them.
They didnt see each other last year, of course. That was, in a way, the hardest part about the season that was lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the CFL title game is back, and its social quirks, too, but the shroud of COVID-19 hangs over the week. Some famous events, such as the Bombers annual Touchdown Manitoba party, are absent; others have been tweaked.
But fans are making the best of it, rolling the bitter pandemic experience into humour.
At the Calgary Stampeders-linked party, an organizer handed out pins. Heres one from 2020, which didnt happen, he said cheerfully, and heres one from 2021, that did.
Or there was the moment when Bombers fan John (Cooch) Couture settled down to chat with Huewen. As he greeted a reporter, he lifted the signature rubber chicken that hangs from his neck, and squeezed a honk from its chest: Even the chickens got a mask on, he said, pointing at the shroud of fabric over its head.
In a room full of Grey Cup regulars, Couture was one of the most familiar. Hes been to 48 Grey Cups, by his count, though its slightly more accurate to say hes been to every one thats actually happened since 1974.
Im including last year, cause it aint my fault, he said, as his friends roared with laughter. I still drank enough booze, even though there was no Grey Cup game.
That was hardly the same, though. Because like everyone else here, Coutures love of this event isnt really about the football.
In a way, thats the pretense, the spark that lights the whole shebang into a cozy and quintessentially Canadian fire, but its the people that fuel the flames.
The game itself, its important, and its not important, Couture said. You know what I mean? Because the Grey Cup for me, right now, is all the friendships, and everybody getting together. Its our truly, only pure Canadian sport. Its just us.
So to be back at the Grey Cup is the best day of my life, Couture said, before he remembered his wife was somewhere at another table, and quickly amended: No, I shouldnt say that. The best day of my life was when I got married. The second best day of my life was this Grey Cup week.
By the way, talk to all these regulars for awhile, and one begins to wonder: is it ever anyones first Grey Cup?
Consider a quick poll of fans, aboard a Thursday morning Swoop flight to Hamilton. One man said hes been to a dozen Grey Cups; another twice that number; one woman in head-to-toe Bombers gear said its only her sixth. Daryl Godwin, who lives in a small village in Saskatchewan, said hes been to every title game weekend since 2007.
As Godwin boarded the plane, his Riders sweater carving a conspicuous patch of green in a sea of Bombers blue, the other passengers broke into jokes, playful gasps and good-natured boos. Godwins mask covered the lower half of his face, but the twinkle in his eye showed he was smiling.
Next year, he called out, as he made his way to his seat. Next year.
Godwin knew the ribbing was coming, of course. Its all in good fun, he said, after landing in Hamilton; there is, after all, so much more that unites CFL fans than divides them.
He and his Bombers fan flight seatmate bonded over fishing, and above all, over the game and the league they so dearly love.
Its our league. Its the only league we have thats Canadian, that we can all be proud of, Godwin said. Its our game.
This is the event within the event; a world, within a world. Theres nothing like the Grey Cup, as those who know insist.
Still, its worth remembering not everyone knows: on a drive into downtown Hamilton, an Uber driver hummed for a moment when asked if the locals were excited about the Grey Cup.
I have no idea, he said, with a shy laugh. Is that something to do with hockey?
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.