30 Years Ago – the 1991 Grey Cup Game
In the run up to that game in, (unusually for now), December, I thought it might be interesting to do a series on the recent decade anniversaries of the big game. Starting with 50 years ago, then 40, 30 and so on.
We started with the contests from 1971 & 1981. So now we are jumping forward another decade to the 1991 game. This contest saw a matchup between the 13-5 Toronto Argonauts and 11-7 Calgary Stampeders. For this one 51,985 fans were on hand at Winnipeg Stadium to see the Argos run out 36-21 winners.
The Run up to the Game
It seems odd to us in the UK, as since BT sport started showing the CFL, the Stampeders have been an ultra successful outfit. But, following their 1971 win they had a mostly uncompetitive run. From 1972 to 1991 they went without a championship. This nineteen year run saw the Stamps go 151-174-7. They would not return to the Grey Cup until this game in 1991, or win it again until 1992.
Even worse was that during the 1980s, the Stampeders were the only CFL team that did not win a playoff game. By the mid 1980’s years of declining attendance were taking a toll. However, a ‘Save Our Stamps’ campaign in 1986 was successful in lifting season ticket sales and restoring the club finances somewhat. In 1991 the team went from being community owned into private ownership. And here they were back in the Grey Cup.
This was no normal period in the history of the Toronto Argonauts. After winning the Grey Cup in 1952, the Argos would not win it again until 1983. A 31 year title drought. During that time the Argonauts put together a 169-259-8 record. Now they were back in, compared to that, a mini-drought. Because they had not won the Grey Cup in the ensuing 8 years.
But 1991 was something very different. This was a year that had seen the Argos bought by a group lead by L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall, NHL great Wayne Gretzky and legendary comedian/actor John Candy. They signed college football standout Heisman Trophy winner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. Football though is a team sport. Rocket Ismail was just the headline act for the Argonauts. They also had 8 players elected CFL All-Stars this season.
Head Coach Adam Rita, had a lot of personalities to deal with on and off the field in 1991 but managed it all well enough to become Coach of the Year.
1991 Grey Cup Playoffs
The two teams took slightly different roots to the title game. Calgary had finished 11-7 behind a 12-6 Edmonton Eskimos team. Which meant they had to go via the Division semi-finals.
In the semi-final Calgary won an amazing game, coming from behind by a score of 31-15 at the half to outlast the 11-7 BC Lions 43-41. They did so off the back of a 28 point outburst in the third quarter then holding off a comeback.
Which led to a visit to Edmonton. In the West Final they did it again. This time down 26-15 at the half they ran out 38-36 winners thanks to 20 fourth quarter points.
For Toronto it was much more straightforward. They had won the East Division, and hosted the East Division Final agains the winner of the semi-final. That transpired to be a 9-9 Winnipeg team who were the defending Grey Cup champions. The East Division title game was a romp for the Scullers. In front of 50,000+ fans they eased to a dominant 42-3 victory.
The 1991 Grey Cup Game
1991 saw the first time that the Grey Cup was played in Winnipeg. Or should that be Winterpeg? The temperature at kickoff was minus 16 degrees Celsius, making this the coldest Grey cup game ever contested. By halftime the wind chill had it down to – 35.
Toronto went into the 1991 Grey Cup as favourites. But they had their problems. Raghib “Rocket” Ismail had picked up a concussion in the Eastern Final, and sarting QB Matt Dunigan had a lingering shoulder injury and it wasn’t certain he would start.
The game started in dramatic fashion. Argos defensive back Ed Berry intercepted Calgary QB Danny Barrett’s first pass ateempt and ran it back 50 yards for a pick six. Lance Chomyc booted the extra point for a 7-0 lead. Chomyc hit a single for Toronto and they led 8-0. Calgary got moving a little later in the quarter and Barrett ran in a touchdown of his own and a Mark McLoughlin convert brought the scores closer at 8-7.
Calgary took the lead in the second quarter from a McLoughlin Field Goal, but Chomyc responded for Toronto so the Double Blue lead 11-10 at halftime.
The teams exchanged singles before Calgary got another 3 pointer from McLoughlin to lead 14-12. Once again it was a lead they couldn’t hold. Dunigan tossed a 48 yard touchdown to Darrell Smith for a 19-14 lead after three. It was proving a see-saw affair.
Rocket and the special teams swing it in the fourth
Toronto extended their lead to 22-14 after Chomyc slotted through three more points. But the Stampeders were far from done. They drove their way downfield and Allen Pitts hauled in a 12 yard touchdown reception to bring it back to 1 point difference – 22-21 to Toronto.
Then “The Rocket” played his part in a game winning sequence. Because on the ensuing kickoff return Ismail lived up to the hype. He returned the kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. Now the Argos led 29-21. Any chances of the Stampeders getting back into it died as they fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Argos’ special teams made the recovery. Toronto converted that into a 36 yard touchdown pass from Dunigan to Paul Masotti to round out the scoring 36-21.
Ismail broke the Grey Cup record for a kickoff return with his 87 yarder. And his 183 overall return yards were also a new Grey Cup mark. He took home the 1991 Grey Cup MVP award for his efforts.
What Came Next – Toronto
The teams went in divergent directions straight after the 1991 Grey Cup game. Although both would go on to see success in the coming decade.
The 1991 Toronto Argonauts had an incredible season. On and off the field. John Candy was promoting them wherever they played, they were grabbing headlines, pulling in crowds, and most importantly of all, winning. It wasn’t to last. By 1992 they were back in the pack with a 6-12 season.
For Toronto then the immediate aftermath of this season would see a sharp decline. From 1992-1995 they would go 20-52 as part of a downward spiral for the team on and off the pitch. Toronto missed the playoffs the next two seasons, and Ismail was gone after the ’92 campaign.
The Argos were sold a year later. In December, 1993, McNall pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud. Admitting to attempted frauds covering US$236 million. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison. Then on May the 5th, 1994, the Argos were sold to TSN Enterprises. Less than two months earlier Candy had sadly passed away at just 43.
However, under new ownership they returned to relevance. By 1996-97 they were able to record back to back 15-win seasons and capture their second and third titles of the decade.
One thing is clear, the Argos have had some serious ups and downs. The following decade was much the same. During the 2000’s they went 80-98-2. With highs (42-29-1 from 2004-7) and lows (7-29 from 2008-9). That decade saw them appear in and win one Grey Cup in 2004.
The Argonauts are one of only two teams to win the Grey Cup more than once in the 2010’s. (The other being Calgary) Toronto picked up the trophy in 2012 & 2017.
The one thing Toronto did not manage, (again) throughout the decade was consistent success. Over that time they went a regular season 75-105. (Going 4-14 in back to back seasons in 2018 & 2019 really hurt those numbers). The Boatmen appeared in the playoffs on five occasions and went 6-3 in those games.
What came next – Calgary
Calgary, after years of frustration were about to become a dominant force in the CFL. A 13-5 Stamps outfit would win the Grey Cup the very next year.
After winning it all in 1992 the Stampeders became a pretty dominant outfit in the 1990’s. From 1993-1999 they went 92-34 in the regular season and recorded six first place Divisional finishes, and appeared in 3 more Grey Cup games, winning again in 1998.
They started the 2000’s by going 20-15-1 and winning another Grey Cup title in 2001. From 2002-2007 they were less competitive going 43-64-1 with the nadir being a 15-39 run of form from 2002-4. However, by the end of the decade they were competitive once more going 36-17-1 from 2008-10 and lifting another Grey Cup trophy in 2008.
That success remained in the 2010’s. Arguably the Stampeders can claim to have been the CFL team of the decade in the 2010’s. Calgary appeared in the playoffs every year of the decade. They contested the Grey Cup on five occasions, winning it twice in 2014 & 2018.
Across the decade they amassed an astonishing 132-46-2 record. They appeared in the playoffs ten times and went 10-7 in playoff games. This year they have qualified for the CFL playoffs for the 16th consecutive time – the fifth longest such run in CFL history.
Banner Image: Candy & Rocket celebrate. Image from vervetimes.com