Aging Grey Cup a story in survival

CanWest News Service
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CALGARY - Like most aging folks, the ol' Grey Cup has some medical challenges on the cusp of its second century on Earth.
"The Grey Cup? It's doing good considering it's 100 years old," said Mark DeNobile, executive director of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. "It's getting a little old in the tooth."
A little old in the tooth? Try really old.
Officially, Calgary is hosting the 97th Grey Cup this week, but Governor General Earl Grey, donated the chalice back in 1909 as the award for the top amateur rugby club in Canada.
And the age shows, with the Grey Cup living a hard life by any standards.
Throughout the past century, the Grey Cup has been sat on, dropped and head-butted. In 1947 the trophy survived a fire in the Argonaut Rowing Club. In 1970, police found the national treasure in a locker at Toronto's Union Station.
"It's ridiculous how popular this trophy is," said Calgary Stampeders tackle Jeff Pilon. "It's a history book of blood, sweat and tears."
And a history book running out of pages.
The CFL added a new plate around the base of the mug to list the names of 2008 Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders. Four more plates will be added through the 100th Grey Cup.
After that, major surgery is expected. The Grey Cup is not like the Stanley Cup, where the horizontal rings can be removed and retired permanently to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Grey Cup's plates are vertical. Removing one would destroy the whole continuity.
During the next four years, the CFL and the Hall of Fame must decide how to keep the mug in circulation. A new base is a possibility, as are new nameplates.
"There's going to be lots of talks between the CFL and ourselves over what the next phase is," DeNobile said. "We may retire the entire base, and have a new base with a similar look."
The problem is a good one to have, DeNobile said, considering the number of close calls and near misses for the treasured mug over the last century.
"There's all kinds of stories from being left at the Toronto train station to teams leaving it in bars and having to run back and get it," he said. "There's all kinds of stories about what guys do with it."
Some of them are fit for print in a family newspaper. Some are not.
The hard years have taken a toll. Trips to the proverbial operating room are not uncommon for the Grey Cup.
There was the emergency procedure in a Winnipeg welding shop back in 2006 after B.C. Lions offensive lineman Kelly Bates broke the Cup in two during the on-field victory ceremony.
"It broke in the right place," DeNobile said. "The Lions took it home with them in one piece the next day back to Vancouver."
Routine maintenance work is done every February once the Cup is returned to the Hall of Fame by the champions of the day.
"Sometimes when we get it back, it's very scary," DeNobile said. "It's very fragile. So that scares us. But I would say everybody has the utmost respect for it. They take care of it."
Some minor damage is expected each year after 10 gruelling weeks travelling from coast to coast to spend a day with each and every player for the winning side.
"You are going to get little dings or bumps," DeNobile said. "That happens all the time. So we just pound them out or fix them or tweak them. And then we have to get the names inscribed on it."
During the celebration period, the Grey Cup visits schools, office towers, farms, nightclubs (although drinking establishments are frowned upon), black-tie dinners, mines and oilfields.
Just last year, the trophy was trucked in to visit Miguel Robede's dad, a proud woodcutter in Saint-Joseph de Beuce, QC.
"We went over the gravel roads and through the countryside and the roads were all zigzag roads with a lot of deer around," said the Stampeders defensive lineman. "And then we finally arrived in civilization. It wasn't a nice road, but we were in a 4x4, so I don't think we harmed it too much. We made sure we handled it with white gloves. It's something you have to respect wherever it goes."
The Cup flew all the way to Afghanistan last summer for a special visit on Canada Day.
"It was really emotional to see the troops with it," DeNobile said. "Everywhere we went there was a Saskatchewan Roughrider fan. They just happened to have guns that day."
The sight of the Grey Cup at the Kandahar Air Base moved one soldier to tears.
"I believe his uncle played a long time ago," DeNobile said. "It was the first time he had ever seen the trophy and his uncle had passed on."
Here in Canada, Lord Grey's mug is a regular guest at charity dinners.
So is Grey's NHL counterpart.
"We keep seeing Stanley," DeNobile said. "And we certainly don't take a back seat to Stanley.
"It all comes down to if you're a sports fan, they're the two biggest holy grails in Canada. We don't worry about being in anyone's shadow."
The Stanley Cup has full-time handler in Phil Pritchard. This week, two Canadian Football Hall of Fame board members will escort the Grey Cup around Calgary.
"They wear white gloves at every event," DeNobile said. "It is a museum piece. The Stanley Cup is treated the same way.
"The less fingers, the less human hands on it without gloves, the better."
DeNobile has advice for people who run into the Grey Cup this week on their travels throughout the city.
"The unwritten rule is that you don't lift it over your head unless you've won it," he said. "There's no set rule about it in black and white. But we tell the people, 'Don't lift it over your head.'"
The players themselves will no doubt treat the Cup like a pariah until Sunday rolls around.
"The rumour will go around to not touch the Cup, because that's bad luck," DeNobile said. "Some won't even look."
The Cup will no doubt survive the rejection.
After all, it has survived everything else.
At least to this point.

Calgary Herald

Organizations: The Grey, Calgary Stampeders, CFL Canadian Football Hall Argonaut Rowing Club Hockey Hall of Fame B.C. Lions NHL Fame board

Geographic location: CALGARY, Canada, Toronto Winnipeg Vancouver Afghanistan

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