An International Fixture: When the CFL played teams from other leagues

An International Fixture: When the CFL played teams from other leagues
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An ‘international fixture’ has been played no less than 89 times by teams representing the NFL.

To some that number may appear way too high at first glance. Especially as up to now there have been a total of 28 NFL ‘international series’ games played in London and a further 4 in Mexico City.

So where are the other 61 games coming from? Well we know that these are not the first ‘international’ games, even in the UK.

International Games in the UK

From 1986 to 1993 the ‘American Bowl’ brought a variety of teams to these shores for pre-season exhibition games. Many of us, having only ever seen the NFL on TV up to that point were bowled over to see any live action.

The very first NFL game played on these shores was in 1983. That was the ‘Global Cup’. A match between the Minnesota Vikings and (then) St Louis Cardinals at Wembley.

The following year there was another game at Wembley as in 1984, the United States Football League (USFL) sent over the Tampa Bay Bandits and the Philadelphia Stars for a post-season challenge match.

Since 2007 we have had an annual regular season NFL match. An event that has become a focal point of the NFLUK calendar.

The First ‘International’ Game

Exhibition games have been played in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Australia as well as the UK.

The very first game we could designate as international occurred as far back as 1926.

This was a game played in Toronto between American Football League teams the New York Yankees & L A Wildcats. (The Yankees won 28-0).

Non NFL teams taking on the CFL

It was another 15 years before an international game was played. That would be in the 1940’s and the first recorded inter-league game between a Canadian and an American team.

In 1941 the Columbus Bullies of the third AFL took on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, later of the CFL. In doing so they became the first of only two major league American football teams to have ever lost to a current CFL team.

Columbus responded, however, by defeating Winnipeg twice in the next two games of the three game series. In fact, Winnipeg would only score 1 point in the remaining two games.

That was followed in 1948 by a match-up between the Montreal Alouettes and Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-America Football Conference.

The Dodgers highlighted the strength of the AAFC by defeating the Als 27-1 in front of 10,773 fans in Montreal. Montreal had held to a 6-1 deficit playing CFL rules in the first half, before the Dodgers pulled away playing under their league rules in the second.

The NFL – CFL International Series

You would never find those games mentioned in the NFL record and fact book sections on international series games. They did not feature NFL teams after all. The next ones do get a mention however making them ‘international series’ games!

Of particular note was the fact that these inter-league contests were again played under two sets of rules – CFL for the first half and NFL for the second.

The first of these cross border games occurred in 1950 & 1951 when the Ottawa Rough Riders twice hosted the New York Giants losing both games, 27-6 and 41-18 respectively.  Perhaps predictably, the Rough Riders performed better in the first half of these games under the CFL rules! (A report on the first game can be found here). 

1959-1961 – A flurry of games

Again, there was a gap before any more inter-league exhibition games were played. The next five were played between 1959 and 1961, with three of them featuring the Toronto Argonauts. The Argos took on the Chicago Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Cardinals losing pretty heftily each time.

Mind you, the 1959 match-up with the Cardinals did attract a crowd of 27,700 fans – a fantastic turnout at that time. In fact the congestion caused by the game was front page news the following day!

Despite losing the opening match 55-26, Toronto jumped out to a quick lead. It all came apart as they were worn down by the bigger Cardinal linemen and lost key players to injury. They also lost players to injury in the exhibition game against the Steelers and some were quick to question the wisdom of these games that were damaging the Argonauts roster. (Another 23,000 + crowd watched this game – the CFL teams may have lost the games and players to injury but they were doing good box office!)

The 1961 game between the Argos and Cardinals saw a return north of Sam “The Rifle” Etcheverry, who had signed with the Cards following a Hall of Fame career in the CFL.

As well as the game featuring the Argonauts, in 1961 the Montreal Alouettes hosted the Chicago Bears, losing by a score of 34-16. Once again, the first half was played under CFL rules, and the second by NFL regulations & the CFL team was much more competitive early on in the contest. The Alouettes led 9-7 before a scoring run of 27 unanswered points from Chicago, who also dominated the second half while playing under NFL rules. The biggest talking point of the game however was a bench clearing brawl, ignited by a late hit from one of the Als players on the Bears tackle Stan Fanning, that saw four players ejected for fighting.

The CFL signs off with a flourish

Also in 1961, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats took on the Buffalo Bills of the fourth AFL (this being the ultimately most successful iteration of a league by that name). The Bills became the only AFL (or NFL) team to lose to a current CFL team, and it was the last game between the CFL and AFL/NFL teams.

Yet again the CFL team flourished the most, entirely predictably under the CFL rules in the first half, leading by scores of 8-0 and 28-8 before the Bills really came to life. 12,000 fans turned out for this one, which was still a decent crowd but lower than the NFL stars drew.

It is surely worth noting that these games took place in August or September – making them pre-season matches for the American teams. They may have been exhibition matches, but for the CFL teams they came mid-season and this can only have been disruptive to their seasons – particularly in Toronto’s case with the injuries they sustained.

It remains highly unlikely that we shall see the likes of these cross league contests ever again. Scheduling would be an issue, and the concept of more games and the potential for more injuries undermining the business of their own league seasons would doubtless not sit comfortably with either CFL or NFL fans.

The Games

Ticket stub for the Cardinals Argos game. Image from bigredzone.com

A list of the international games played by CFL teams:

Winnipeg Blue Bombers 19, Columbus Bullies 12

August 26th, 1941, Osborne Stadium, Winnipeg. Attendance 4,500.

Columbus Bullies 6, Winnipeg Blue Bombers 0

September 1st, 1941, Osborne Stadium, Winnipeg. Attendance 4,500.

Columbus Bullies 31, Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1

September 10th, 1941, Osborne Stadium, Winnipeg. Attendance 3000.

Brooklyn Dodgers 27, Montreal Alouettes 1

August 28th, 1948, Delormier Statdium Montreal. Attendance: 10,773.

New York Giants 27, Ottawa Rough Riders 6.

August 12th, 1950, Lansdowne Park, Ottawa. Attendance 11,025.

New York Giants 41, Ottawa Rough Riders 18

August 11th, 1951, Lansdowne Park, Ottawa.

Chicago Cardinals 55, Toronto Argonauts 26

August 5th, 1959, CNE Stadium, Toronto. Attendance 27,700.

Pittsburgh Steelers 43, Toronto Argonauts 16

August 3rd, 1960, CNE Stadium, Toronto. Attendance 23,570

St. Louis Cardinals 36, Toronto Argonauts 7

August 2nd, 1961, CNE Stadium, Toronto. Attendance 24,376

Chicago Bears 34, Montreal Alouettes 16

August 5th, 1961, Molson Stadium, Montreal.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats 38, Buffalo Bills 21

August 8th, 1961, Civic Stadium, Hamilton. Attendance 12,000

Article adapted and updated from an article that originally appeared on the NFLGirlUK website by the same author.

Banner Image from Chicagobears.com

One thought on “An International Fixture: When the CFL played teams from other leagues

  1. When the NFL bailed out the CFL following its ill-fated United States expansion in the early 1990s I belive there was aslo a plan to stage games between CFL teams and the NFL’s World League teams (I think the NFL pulling the plug on the World League did for that though.)

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