How Regina and Winnipeg helped shape Canadian football

The rivalry between the Blue Bombers and Roughriders goes back to 1890 when Canadian football rules were being shaped.

Hello Flatlanders,

I hope everyone recovered from that downer of a Grey Cup last weekend.

If you missed it, the Toronto Argonauts were trailing 23-17. Yesterday they celebrated their win with a rally in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Square. 

The game was Winnipeg’s to lose. 

With 11 minutes left, a third Winnipeg Blue Bombers Grey Cup win was almost guaranteed last Sunday.

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But the Argos backup quarterback Chad Kelly entered the game, replacing starter McLeod Bethel-Thompson who dislocated his thumb, which changed everything. 

Kelly quickly completed four of six passes for 43 yards, leading to A.J. Ouellette’s six-yard ramble for the winning touchdown.

Oh well. We watch sports for the excitement and drama, even if it can sometimes be disappointing.

Deatrick Nichols of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers made a catch in warmup before the 109th Grey Cup game between the Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Mosaic Stadium on November 20, 2022, in Regina. (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)

At least the Blue Bombers turned the Riders’ dressing room blue for that weekend.

And Regina’s hospitality sector says the Grey Cup was a success for the local economy.

Teagan Littlechief, from White Bear First Nations in southeast Saskatchewan, also got her moment in the spotlight, singing the national anthem in three official languages—English, French and Cree.

But people seemed a little underwhelmed by the Grey Cup half-time show.

Football is older than Saskatchewan 

I recently learned that the Roughriders and the Blue Bombers, as we know them today, grew from local rugby clubs. 

A rivalry that goes back 132 years

In 1890, rugby players from what would become Saskatchewan went to Manitoba to play some games against the Winnipeg Football Club.

  • Saskatchewan became a province in 1905. (Manitoba became a province in 1870).
  • These early games created the rivalry between what would eventually become the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
  • If you want a summary of this year’s Labour Day Classic and the history of that game, check out The Flatlander’s past issue about our football madness

Organized football in Saskatchewan began in 1910 with the creation of the Regina Rugby Club. 

  • Three-down rugby football had found its way to Saskatchewan and some local men were interested in trying it. 

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Where did three-down football come from?

In the 1800s, an American named Walter Champ introduced the idea of scrimmage, downs and distance rules, which many Canadian clubs liked and adopted.

  • In his initial version of the game, there were five downs.

Football gets Canadianized 

In the early 1900s, a captain for the University of Toronto, John Burnside, became the namesake for a new set of rules, known as the Burnside rules, which included:

  • a reduction from 15 to 12 players per side
  • a decrease from 8 to 6 men allowed on the line of scrimmage when the ball was put into play
  • the “snap-back” system in which the ball was passed backward from a static line of scrimmage by the centre
  • a requirement for a team to make ten yards in three successive downs or lose possession of the ball

Rugby football teams across Canada eventually adopted these rules. 

Later, Regina helped revolutionize Canadian football in 1929 when they attempted the first forward pass in Grey Cup history, which is illegal in what we now know as rugby today.

The Grey Cup

The first Grey Cup game was played in 1909 between two teams from Toronto– the University of Toronto Varsity Blues defeated the Parkdale Canoe Club.

East versus west

Western rugby football teams from the Prairies weren’t allowed to play in the Grey Cup until 1921.

Eastern teams thought the teams out west could be better. 

  • Regina was western Canada’s dominant team, appearing in the Grey Cup six times between 1928 and 1934, but lost to the east every time. Sometimes very badly. 
  • In the eleventh Grey Cup in 1923 (they cancelled several Grey Cups because of the First World War), Queens University beat the Regina Rugby Club 54-0.

Winnipeg was the first western team to win the Grey Cup.

The Winnipeg Rugby Football Club, now the Blue Bombers, would be the first western team to win the Grey Cup in 1935 when they defeated the Hamilton Tigers, 18–12.

Recruiting American players

One of the reasons Winnipeg won its first Grey Cup is that it recruited nine American players by offering financial incentives. 

  • Winnipeg was tired of the eastern teams dominating the Grey Cup, so they cast a wider net for the best players. 
  • American players had been recruited by Canadian teams before, but Winnipeg was the first to import such a large number. 
  • Although doing this was controversial then, it led to the present-day rules about importing international players. 

Grey Cup by the numbers

Winnipeg’s last Grey Cup win was in 2021; had they won this year, it would have been three Grey Cup wins in a row, but alas, that did not happen.

  • Since then, the Bombers have been in 27 Grey Cups, winning 12.
Jamal Morrow of the Saskatchewan Roughriders returns a kick in the game between the Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium on September 22, 2022, in Regina. (Photo by Brent Just/Getty Images)

The Roughriders have been in 19 Grey Cups and won 4. 

  • The last win for the Riders was in 2013 in front of a home crowd at Taylor Field.  

Both Regina and Winnipeg have hosted the Grey Cup four times each.

  • Over the 109 years of Grey Cup tournaments, Toronto has hosted it 48 times.
  • Only 18 Grey Cups have been held in the Prairie Provinces, as Calgary and Edmonton each hosted five times.  

How the Roughriders got their name

In 1924, the Regina Rugby Club became the Regina Roughriders.

  • Ottawa’s rugby club had been called the Rough Riders since the 1890s but dropped the name in favour of the “Senators” in 1924, so Regina grabbed it. 

The origins of the Roughrider name aren’t clear.

  • One theory is the name came from the North West Mounted Police, who were called Roughriders because they broke the wild horses used by the force.
  • The second theory is that it is a tribute to the Canadians who fought with Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt’s troops were known as the Rough Riders. 
  • Ottawa would become the Rough Riders again in 1931 until they folded in 1996. The Ottawa Redblacks started playing in 2014.
  • Confusingly, the Regina Roughriders’ colours were red and black until 1948. 
  • Roosevelt’s infantry wore red and black, so Regina’s colour choice could support that team name’s origin story.  

How green became the colour

1948 was the year the team became the Saskatchewan Roughriders and made their colours green and white.  

  • The colour change wasn’t a deliberate marketing rebrand.
  • The Roughriders needed new uniforms, and an executive team member Jack Fyffe found a set of green and white jerseys at a surplus store in Chicago, so that’s how that happened. 
  • The team went from the Regina Roughriders to the Saskatchewan Roughriders because the Moose Jaw and Saskatoon football clubs folded, and the Roughriders became a provincial franchise.

Always blue and gold

The Blue Bombers’ colours were always blue and gold, even back in 1930 when they were first founded as the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club, called the Pegs for short.

  • In 1936, the ‘Pegs became known as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
  • The name, which Vince Leah, then a writer for The Winnipeg Tribune, coined, referenced the great American boxer Joe Louis was known as the “Brown Bomber,” and the name stuck. 

Football theatre

If you’re in Regina this weekend, you can check out the play, #34, at the Globe Theatre about Saskatchewan Roughrider legend George Reed

Local football history on YouTube:

Correction: Readers have continued to write me about the 10-gallon pail mentioned in one of our Halloween ghost stories from Saskatchewan

One reader Ken said:

A cousin just sent me several ‘haunted tales from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and one of the articles talked about the Fenwood woman who kept money in a 10 ‘gallon’ Rogers syrup pail. Please note that there is a typo as Rogers Golden Syrup came in 10-pound pails, NOT 10 gallons! A 10-gallon pail would be huge and never existed.

My mother talked about walking to a country school in the 1920s carrying her lunch in a Rogers Syrup Pail.

I really enjoyed your stories, otherwise, and have signed up as a subscriber.

Thanks, and keep up the good work.

The writer, Alan, who sent in the story, wrote me as well. He said:

It should read a 10-pound syrup pail, not 10 gallons; I was asleep at the keyboard. My apologies.

I also did some more research, and indeed Rogers syrup pails came in 10-gallon pails. For anyone feeling particularly nostalgic, you can buy them on e-Bay

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. Cancer claims ‘sweetheart’ wolf at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo. 
  2. Manitoba looks to change Vital Statistics Act to accept traditional Indigenous names with new law
  3. Manitoba’s wild-caught fisheries pursue new markets with sustainability push
  4. Astum Api Niikinaahk: Winnipeg’s tiny homes project getting ready to welcome its first residents
  5. Rural Manitoba town looks to double its footprint

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. U of Sask. Huskies hoist Hardy Cup after 23-8 win over UBC Thunderbirds
  2. ‘This small town has a big heart’: Ukrainian refugees settle in rural Sask.
  3. Sask. man turning small hamlet into tourist destination
  4. ‘I freaking love it:’ Saskatoon soccer superfan going for Guinness record at FIFA World Cup. 
  5. Bison returning to the land at Batoche thanks to Métis Nation—Sask., Parks Canada agreement 

Your holiday stories

Don’t forget. The Flatlander is looking for local holiday stories. So tell us about your Christmas traditions, favourite childhood gifts, or community holiday tales here

For instance, I remember one Christmas; my family sang karaoke in front of my uncle’s wet bar in his now vintage wood-panelled basement, which was built with a $1,500 home-improvement matching grant courtesy of the Grant Devine government in 1986. To me, that basement, which, to this day, remains the same, represents a particular time in Saskatchewan’s political history.

Until next week…

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

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