The CFL West division is a powerhouse. It’s head and shoulders above the east, and for anyone born since the eighties it has always been this way. The fact that all five teams west of Ontario right now have as good or better record than all four teams east of Thunder Bay isn’t so interesting. What’s really interesting is that the CFL West has been like this for a generation.
Started With Eskimo Dynasty
The Warren Moon-led Edmonton Eskimos won five straight Grey Cup championship runs from 1978 until 1982 . This was the first sign of the west taking control of Canada’s cherished football empire. Though Alberta had little say in parliament under Pierre Trudeau and his national energy program, Albertans were at least getting some revenge on the gridiron with the greatest dynasty in Canadian football history.
The first real sign of how tough the west would become came in 1981, when the Ottawa Rough Riders sputtered through a 5-11 season. They made it to the Grey Cup and even put a scare into the 14-1-1 juggernaut Eskimos. Edmonton needed a late Jay Cutler field goal in the dying seconds to prevent both an upset and league-wide humiliation.
This was the first year of the official merger between the two football conferences. How could a 5-11 team come that close to winning it all when the poor farmers in Saskatchewan couldn’t snap out of their eventual eleven-year playoff drought with a respectable 9-7 finish? It was like a scene out of a twilight movie. But even more bizarre is how it’s still like that, even to this day.
Crossovers: the West Feasts on the East
The crossover format was introduced in 1996, allowing the fourth-best team in one division to cross over and take the third spot in the other divisional playoffs when they have a superior record. The west has played in the eastern round nine times, and will undoubtedly hit double digits in November. Meanwhile, the east hasn’t managed to return the favour even once! It’s created some very poor matchups, lacking any real rivalry in the eastern playoffs.
In the twenty east-versus-west games played so far this season, the west leads 17-2-1. The Alouettes are the only eastern club to beat any of the five bullies from the west. Edmonton has just as many wins as the entire east division combined, and the Eskimos haven’t even played as many games than the Argos or Redblacks!
Why It’s Always Been This Way
Some insist it is complete mystery. But those who know better realize the answer lies within the fanbase. The league is fuelled by its prairie base of community-owned franchises in Saskatchewan, Edmonton and Winnipeg. People in Calgary have real pride in their team too. Even the B.C. Lions have a loyal – if relatively small – group of diehards, powered by some of the best corporate support in the country.
Ottawa and Hamilton are enjoying strong fan support again, but it took brand new stadiums to bring that out after decades of turmoil and uncertainty off the field. Since Larry Smith left the Alouettes, that team has faded from relevance in that town again and Montrealers have quietly but surely found other things to do with their summers, such as praying for the Expos to return. And in Toronto, CFL fans are…Toronto. You get the picture. Fans out west care far more deeply than people in the east ever will.
Western fans put far more pressure on their organizations to step up and be accountable than the eastern teams do. The Argos didn’t have a General Manager when free agency opened back in February! Could you imagine the reaction to that happening in Saskatchewan? There would surely be manure dumped on somebody’s lawn to pay for that – see Paul McCallum’s missed playoff kick in 2004 for details.
Playoff Format Change Won’t Help
The one-sided standings show no sign of changing any time soon. Surely the calls will continue to grow for new commissioner Randy Ambrosie to do away with this east-west playoff format altogether. But this idea would destroy what is left of division rivalries and make the eastern cities tune this league out even more than they do already. The Ottawa Redblacks took advantage of a weak division to win a Grey Cup last November. The CFL is more popular in Ottawa than the NHL right now because of it. Changing the format would be financial suicide for the league.
The best anyone can do about this now is to tell the Redblacks, Alouettes, Argos, Ticats and their fanbases to quit complaining about a lack of respect from the rest of the CFL. If they want to be taken more seriously, than it’s time for them to earn it.
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