CFLs shoulder more than Cup pressure

November 26, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- They will never be the same.

Not the Grey Cup, not the Canadian Football League.

Not after the Baltimore CFLs leave their historical imprint on three-down football north of the border.

The prestigious, 82-year-old Grey Cup will be Americanized tomorrow when the CFLs meet the B.C. Lions at B.C. Place.

Baltimore is the first U.S.-based team to play for the championship of Canadian football.

"What we have done this year will change the league forever," CFLs owner Jim Speros said.

It is a premise abhorrent to some in Canada, yet redeeming to others. One of the league's most sacred rules -- the roster quota on Americans -- figures to be trashed in the transition.

Each Canadian team is limited to 17 Americans on a 37-man ros

ter. (There is no quota for U.S. teams.) But there is a proposal in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement that reportedly would increase the number of U.S. players to 22, 25 and 27 over the next three years.

With each step Baltimore took in the playoffs this season, Canadians felt their job security more threatened. Indeed, protecting the home turf has become a central theme to the Grey Cup.

And B.C. coach Dave Ritchie was happy to wave the Canadian flag at a news conference this week.

"There are an awful lot of good Canadians up here," he said. "Some of our better players have a 'C' on their forehead."

Still, Ritchie's general manager has no difficulty finding the wisdom in the CFL's southern expansion.

"The success in Baltimore is terrific for the league," said Eric Tillman. "All of us on this side of the border owe a debt of gratitude to Jim and Don [Matthews].

"Without Baltimore, expansion might be viewed as a flawed concept. . . . Expansion is critical for this league to develop to the level we all aspire. Baltimore has been the shining star. I think Memphis, under Fred Smith, will closely mirror that success."

Mike McCarthy, a consultant to the Ottawa Rough Riders this year and a longtime CFL executive, takes it one step further.

"This is the turning point in the history of the CFL," he said. "What more could the league want [in a championship game setting]? Before B.C. got in the game, they were expecting a crowd of 35,000 to 40,000. Now it could be a sellout.

"It's the U.S. vs. Canada. The game will be unreal. You will see history being made. It's the CFL at its finest."

It's the CFL entering its next phase, anyway. With Memphis expected to join the league next season, league executives can see a U.S. television contract within reach. The success or failure of CFL expansion hinges on such a contract.

"If it's done right, this will take off in the States," said Jim Popp, Baltimore's director of player personnel. "A franchise like ours has put it in the right direction.

"Everybody in the States has known that Memphis was trying to get a team in the NFL for years. Now they're with us. And we should get more. With that stability, with the new markets, we can get a TV contract in the U.S."

For the CFLs, there is another element to their historical journey. Baltimore is the first expansion team in an established sport to compete for the league championship in its inaugural season.

"It's a tremendous accomplishment what we've been able to do

here," Speros said. "It's really an unbelievable task we've taken on in nine months.

"The focal point of the whole season has been the Grey Cup, to be champions as a first-year team. This may be the only time in history this happens."

The players are not oblivious to that.

"No matter what happens, this first-year expansion team has been able to compete for the championship," slotback Chris Armstrong said.

"If I never play a game again, I'm part of that. No matter how it happened, we're here."

And the implications are clear. "Whatever the outcome of this game, it's going to be different all around," said Baltimore tackle Neal Fort. "It'll be more competitive between the Canadians and Americans. There will be more of a rivalry.

"Next year, they will come after us because of the pride factor."

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