The hardest part of herding a horse into a hotel, as you might imagine, is that you never know when it will shit all over the place.
"You have to watch what he eats in the morning," Brad Greenslade said on Friday, a few hours before he and the Calgary Stampeders Grey Cup Committee would bring their horse into the lobby of the Holiday Inn on Carlton Street in downtown Toronto.
Apparently for "Tuffy," a loaner horse from outside of Toronto, it didn't matter. The shaggy jet black horse made it all the way into the check-in desk, where a gift basket of horse-friendly food and bagpipers awaited him before he reminded the hundred or so people that were feting him that they and the hotel were all at the mercy of his digestive system.
Disgusting mess aside, the Stampeders fans watched their Grey Cup tradition turn 68 on Friday. They first brought a horse into the lobby of Toronto's Royal York hotel in 1948, capping a five-day train ride out east for the Grey Cup. They've been doing it ever since (the mode of transport improving over the years), whether their team is playing in the big game or not.
Video by Chris O'Leary
Four years ago, Greenslade and the group earned full points for degree of difficulty when they put special booties on their horse and got him into the entrance of the Royal York hotel in downtown Toronto. The posh, time-warp of a hotel, maybe somewhat against its wishes, honoured the tradition and both parties managed to avoid Friday's pungent, gag-inducing situation in front of the hotel's high-paying customers.
But even then, the horse could only hold on for so long.
"He was pretty good for a while then we were in a TV studio and he just… " Greenslade said, his face dropping and his hands jutting out to his sides, with an action that said it all. "And I got caught in the crossfire when that happened."
A reveller in 22 Grey Cups and in his 10th year with the Calgary Committee, Greenslade knows the risks of his role perfectly well. Grey Cup week is laced with its share of oddities and Calgarians parading a horse into a hotel, especially when it's in a dense urban area like Toronto, leads the charge.
"Every year (fans) look for it," he said. "I've been getting several calls, everyone talks about it. 'Is the horse going into a hotel this year?' That starts probably a week or two out and you look forward to it."
Enjoying his 28th Grey Cup, John Ryerson has heard fans of every ilk and silk in the CFL make their claim as to why their team is the best.
Whatever they throw at the Halifax native, Ryerson has them beat. His team—the little-known Atlantic Schooners—has now gone 32 seasons undefeated.
"There was a franchise," Ryerson begins. "Atlantic Canada had a CFL team. In 1984, they were awarded a CFL franchise. But anyway what happened was the one condition on (the franchise being granted) was they had to build a stadium.
"This," he says, walking over to a table with the team's logo—a schooner riding four waves, one for each Atlantic Canadian province—"the name came from a maritime-wide naming contest. When they didn't build the stadium, (the franchise) collapsed."
Standing outside of Room F at the Toronto Convention Centre, Ryerson was run off his feet as he set up what he figured would be the biggest party of Grey Cup week. He ran away mid-sentence when his beer vendor arrived (note: no offence taken; the beer has to come first) and was constantly focusing on the T-shirt and jersey display that he and some of his 26 volunteers were assembling.
For the last nine years, he's financed a lobster-heavy East Coast flavoured party (all proceeds go to a food bank) for the Schooners that matches up to just about everything the other nine functioning teams in the league put together. He charges $20 for a ticket in a room that can hold up to 2,500 fans of a football team that the Globe and Mail once perfectly described as stillborn.
Ryerson saw something else.
"Being in marketing, I figured out that if we had a franchise and we never played a game, then we were probably still undefeated and we still have a perfect record. Maybe we want to stay that way," he laughed.
Ryerson grew up in Nova Scotia, but spent 16 years in Regina. That's where he found the Riders and fell in love with the way the fans fell in love with their team. "I was a true Roughrider fan. You know how they are," he said.
Moving back to Nova Scotia, he felt happy to be home. But come football season, he felt something else.
"Really, believe it or not, I had withdrawal," he said, laughing. "Football became a part of me out there and then there was none."
He continued to go to Grey Cups and one year in Hamilton, after chanting and singing with friends about the team that never set sail in Halifax, people around him suggested he throw a Schooners party to join the ones that the active teams in the league put on.
"CFL fans from around the league just gravitated to it because it was something different," he said. "They were accustomed to seeing the same thing for 100 years. This new thing has a… how do I say it? A lasting effect. I would not be surprised if we weren't the biggest party at this Grey Cup, which is amazing for somebody that doesn't have a team."
The legend (if you want to call it that) goes that the late Jim "Shaky" Hunt, a Toronto Sun columnist who passed away in 2006 and covered an astonishing 50 Grey Cups in his career, grew bored of the standard Xs and Os talk at the Grey Cup's annual coach's media conference. So for his own amusement, Hunt threw a curveball at the coaches.
"What is your position on your players having sex the night before the Grey Cup game?" he would ask. It's a tradition that now lives on through Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones.
The average sports fan might only think of moments from games—Danny Maciocia celebrating a win unaware that he was only on second-down in 2005; The 13th Man in 2009; Brandon Banks' Grey-Cup-winning touchdown that was called back in 2014—but for the fans that go to Grey Cup week every year, the memories that survive are different.
"We've got 26 volunteers that take time off of work, come up here and work 14 hours a day and fly home on Sunday, never go to a game," Ryerson said. "The interesting thing about it is we do it out of a labour of love. I don't know how to explain it beyond that. That's the way it is."
"I'm here until Monday," Greenslade said. "If I get tickets to the game, I get tickets to the game. It's not about that. It's really about meeting people.
"Every year you're making new friends and seeing old friends. I've got some people coming up from Hamilton (Saturday) that we met in '96 at the Grey Cup. They invited us into their house for dinner that week. I haven't seen them in about 10 years and they're coming out to enjoy some of the festivities. It's just the camaraderie and all the CFL fans coming together."
As we're talking, two fans walk by us in Baltimore Stallions jackets, carrying the flag of the lone team from the ill-fated US expansion of the 1990s to win the Grey Cup. They beat Greenslade's Stamps in 1995. He was at the game.
"These guys come every year," he said. "That was my first Grey Cup, going to Regina. They beat Doug Flutie."