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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “CFL”

Exiled to the CFL


Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)

This “fictional memoir” (which presumably means much the same thing as “semi-autobiographical novel”) gives an account of Exley’s drinking, time in mental institutions and ardent New York Giants fandom, among other things. It ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with Exley sitting down and writing a semi-autobiographical novel, making the book a sort of record of its own creation. Along the way, there are a few references to Canada.

Football on the Glacier

One of the key elements of the book is Exley’s obsession with (or, to put it in contemporary terms, “man-crush on”) Frank Gifford. They were at USC at the same time (though they never knew each other), and Exley follows Gifford’s career as a pro, becoming a fan of the New York Giants and going to watch them play at the Polo Grounds. Exley also develops a fascination with Steve Owen, who coaches the Giants during the early part of Gifford’s time there, but is fired a couple of years before the team wins a championship. When Exley hears about Owen’s death, he decides to go to his funeral, and reflects on Owen’s post-Giants career:

It was Owen who over the years kept bringing me back to life’s hard fact of famelessness. It was for this reason, as much as any other, that I had wanted to make the trip to Oneida to make my remembrances. After the day at the Polo Grounds I heard of Owen from time to time, that he was a line coach for one NFL team or another, that he was coaching somewhere in Canada — perhaps at Winnipeg or Saskatchewan. Wherever, it must have seemed to him the sunless, glacial side of the moon.  (70-71)

The path of Owens’ career after he leaves the Giants is clearly one of decline. To be a line coach in the NFL, after having been a head coach, is a significant step down, and to end up coaching in the CFL marks an even greater fall, to the sort of job no one would take unless they had no better options. The very vagueness of the reference — “Winnipeg or Saskatchewan or somewhere” — reinforces this, suggesting the narrator isn’t sure where Owen went but the specific place doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that it’s in Canada, and nothing in Canada matters.

The comparison of Canada to the “sunless, glacial side of the moon” further emphasizes the magnitude of Owen’s decline — he’s been utterly cast out of society into a harsh, depopulated wasteland — and brings in by implication the common idea that Canada is cold. Our country is portrayed as a place of exile from a better and more civilized world for a football coach just as surely as it is for an academic in a David Lodge novel.

And how marvellous is that phrase, “life’s hard fact of famelessness”? This idea — Exley’s desire to achieve fame, and at the same time his self-loathing rage at his inability to do so — is central to the novel, and makes Owen into a kind of avatar of the author’s self-image. And so, in a way, Canada becomes the gloomy resting place of those afflicted by famelessness, the most shameful of all American diseases.

The Upstate New York Connection

We have noted before the tendency of writers from, or writing about, upstate New York (including Lorrie Moore, Chris Kraus and James Salter) to show a greater — and perhaps more accurate? — awareness of Canada than American writers generally, no doubt as a result of our geographical proximity. Much of A Fan’s Notes also takes place in upstate New York, and this scene, from a series of reminiscences about Exley’s father, emphasizes that closeness:

In 1938, the day before President Roosevelt snipped the ceremonial ribbon opening the International Bridge spanning the Thousand Islands and uniting the U.S. with Canada, it is told, apocryphally or otherwise, that my father beat that exemplary poseur to the punch, with wire cutters severed the cable which had been strung across the bridge’s entrance to bar hoi polloi, climbed into the back seat of a convertible roadster, and had himself driven over the arcing, sky-rising span, while in imitation of F.D.R. he sat magnificently in the back seat, his jaw thrust grandly out, and, hand aflutter, bestowed his benedictions on the lovely and (one somehow imagines) startled islands.  (30-31)

By “International Bridge,” Exley must mean the “Thousand Islands Bridge,” which opened in 1938, when Roosevelt was president, and the fact that a bridge is all it takes to “unite” our two countries emphasizes our proximity. Exley’s father’s ability to drive across the bridge so easily before it has opened could be read as a reference to our “undefended border” with the U.S., which is a theme that has come up several times before. And we have already noted President Roosevelt’s connection to Canada (he owned a cottage on Campobello Island), which is probably not being alluded to here but is still interesting given his opening of the bridge.

But beyond the obvious fact that Canada is directly north of the U.S., there’s really nothing being said about our country; it’s as if we exist only by virtue of our geographic relationship with the U.S. The bridge to Canada is a staging-ground for one of Exley’s father’s legendary adventures, but there is no suggestion that he would use it to actually travel to Canada.

Fishing in Canada (Again)

Canada is mentioned in relation to one of Exley’s girlfriends:

She was spending a lot of time with her sister because her sister’s husband, Ronald, had just died of a heart attack. Her sister had found him on the davenport. There had been a smile on Ronald’s face. He was probably dreaming of fishing in Canada because he went there every year, the two of them went together. “Ronald loved to fish,” she said dolefully. “Oh,” I said.  (148)

The connection between fishing and Canada, in the context of salmon, was the subject of one of our earliest posts, and appeared more recently in our post on the stories of John Cheever. I’m not sure there’s anything new here; the portrayal of Canada as a place Americans go on fishing vacations is in line with the idea of Canada as a less developed, more “wilderness” nation than the U.S. where Americans can go to escape their everyday lives (see also the Canadian cottage).

The Fraudulent Surgeons of Montreal

And then there is also this, in relation to a train journey:

I found myself drinking beer and eating ham sandwiches in one of these booths with a Marine sergeant returning from Korea, a vernal-cheeked coed with large breasts, coming from some cow-sounding college in Pennsylvania where, she had loftily announced, she was studying veterinary medicine, and a goateed and fraudulent-looking surgeon travelling to Montreal.  (176)

It’s hard to draw too much from that; the association of the “fraudulent-looking” surgeon with Montreal may suggest that Canada is a bit of a backwater when compared to the U.S., the sort of place where fraudulent medical practitioners can take advantage of the ignorant populace — but it’s hard to say.

In Conclusion (Almost)

I suppose it’s a testament to how much ground we’ve already covered in the last three-plus years here at Wow — Canada! that while there are a number of references to Canada in A Fan’s Notes, there’s not much new. We get the idea that Canada is cold, that the CFL is an inferior league to the NFL, and that Canada is easy to get into (undefended border) but somehow a less advanced or developed nation than the U.S., which makes it a great place to go fishing (wilderness) but not to go for a medical procedure (fraudulent surgeons). But these are all familiar ideas about our country, and it is beginning to feel as if there are a limited number of ways of portraying Canada that recur throughout the works of different authors.

And Finally…

This isn’t a direct reference to Canada, but it seemed worth at least a brief mention. Much of the novel takes place in bars (no surprise there, I suppose, given that it’s about a failing writer); this is from a description of one of them:

Invariably from some nook in the room a life-sized, cardboard, and Technicolored waitress named Mabel winked forever lasciviously and invited one to shout, “Hey, Mabel,” and demand a bottle of Black Label.  (265)

This refers to Carling Black Label, an “iconic Canadian brand” (as they say in the “ad biz”) that became popular outside Canada (which is the standard Canadian way of measuring success), in both the U.S. and the UK. Exley is describing one element of the “Hey Mabel — Black Label” ad campaign that ran in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, and the way he describes the cardboard waitress as “invariably” part of the bar’s milieu indicates how established the Carling brand was as an element of American popular culture (you can read this brief history of Black Label if you’re curious). Here’s a sample of the TV ads that helped make Black Label so successful in the U.S.:

Animated version:

Later on, this series of ads was successful in the UK:

Sadly, due to my age, I don’t recall any of these classic ads from when they originally aired; what I remember is the early 90s Black Label campaign, when Black Label became a popular brand with the hip downtown crowd. The ads were a riff on the 60s originals in the way so much 90s “culture” was a “meta” reference to something that had come before:

I guess it seemed cool at the time.


That Little Development League to the North


David Waldstein, “As N.F.L. Prepares for Longer Extra Points, C.F.L. Offers a Preview” (NY Times, August 16, 2015)

The title above is the actual headline of the article, but if you look at the photo you’ll see the teaser that appeared at the top of the front page of the Sports section: “Long extra points make Canada’s league a laboratory for the N.F.L.”

Having read that, it’s not even necessary to read the article; everything you need to know about the American attitude to Canada is already expressed that one word, “laboratory.”  This is a classic instance of the way Americans see Canada, and anything that happens here, not as significant in its own right, but only insofar as it could have an impact on the U.S. Canada is visible only through an American lens: the CFL, in the view of the august New York Times, is not an independent national league with its own long football tradition (the league was founded in 1958, but the first Grey Cup was awarded in 1909); it’s nothing more than a development league, a “laboratory” where rules experiments can be tested in a consequence-free environment before they’re incorporated into the NFL, where the games, and therefore the rules by which they are played, really matter.

The attitude continues in the article:

The National Football League will also introduce longer extra points this season, and with its two-month head start, the C.F.L. has become a test laboratory for the new extra-point rule, which will add more uncertainty to games, and perhaps more excitement.   (S6)

The phraseology is a little more gentle there, making the CFL’s status as a laboratory sound more like an accident of chronology than an essential aspect of its nature, but the idea persists.

And later in the article we get this:

Higgins, Daniel and Bede all said that the kickers in the N.F.L. were generally superior to their C.F.L. colleagues….   (S6)

So even the key CFL figures who are quoted in the article (Alouettes coach Tom Higgins, CFL statistician Steve Daniel, and Alouettes kicker Boris Bede) admit that the CFL is inferior to the NFL. (I’m not saying this isn’t the case, of course, only that it’s another element of the paternalistic view of Canada expressed in the article.)

All this shows that football is yet another arena in which Americans tend to look down on Canadians and see us as their adorable, bumbling little cousins, not up to the high professional standards set by leagues and athletes in the U.S., but still trying our best to keep up, and occasionally useful when we allow Americans a glimpse of how rules changes might work out in their own league — though needless to say (except that, of course, they do say it), the much higher skill level of NFL players makes the comparison a bit tenuous.

It’s Glacier Season in Canada!


Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Nov. 26, 2013)

As you may have guessed if you visit this space occasionally, I read a fair bit (too much) about football during the NFL season. Every week I tell myself that I won’t write about football columnists here, and then every week I read something that is too good to resist.

Next week I’m definitely going to write about something literary. But I just can’t let this, from Gregg Easterbrook’s latest Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, slip by. He’s talking about the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their victory in the Grey Cup:

Underdog Hamilton trailing host Saskatchewan 24-3 in the second quarter of the Grey Cup — Canada plays its title game in November, before glaciers cover the fields — the Tiger-Cats faced third-and-goal, the CFL equivalent of fourth-and-goal, on the Rough Riders’ 3.

He hasn’t noticed that Roughriders is one word – a discussion we’ve had before – but at least he’s conversant in the basics of three-down versus four-down football.

But glaciers? Really? Have we come no further than that? Do Americans still have so little notion of what Canada is actually like that mainstream columnists can get away with jokes about glaciers advancing across our country every December? And this from a writer who believes in global warming and so must be aware that glaciers are actually retreating, not advancing.

Yes, America, it’s true – glaciers cover Canada every winter. But just like Canadians themselves, Canadian glaciers are so polite that they stop 1.6093 km (one mile, for your convenience) away from the US border so that you won’t be bothered by the massive sheet of ice that covers our northern land for four months every year.

I like Gregg Easterbrook’s column – I don’t always agree with him, and I could do without the sci-fi references, but overall I think he’s an intelligent and insightful writer and a well-educated man. And yet, when it comes to Canada, this well-educated and intelligent American instantly sinks to the lowest cliche available to make a joke at our expense. Really, it’s a bit dispiriting.

I suppose that’s what I get for reading too many football columns.

The CFL Doesn’t Count, Right?

Hey, did you know Peter King now has his own shiny new website where he can talk about the NFL all he wants? Well, he does. It’s called The MMQB (not to be confused with the website devoted to office furnishings), and this is from his Tuesday, September 3 “Mailbag” column:

BRIAN BROHM LIVES! “On the Bonus Baby QBs part of MMQB, you listed Brian Brohm as “On The Street”. While, yes, he’s out of the NFL, he’s actually with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, plying his trade and continuing his dream, and who knows, like Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie and Dave Dickinson, maybe makes it back to the NFL. I can see how someone might say “that’s just semantics”, but it’s not like he’s given up the dream and is selling insurance, or, like JaMarcus Russell after getting released by the Raiders, holed up in his mansion and feeding his face.”


Important point, Kevin. Thanks for making it.

Unlike the writers of many similar “letters” columns, King doesn’t tell us where his correspondents hail from, but my first thought was, Kevin must be from Canada. Followed immediately by, In fact, he must be from Hamilton. Who but a Hamiltonian would know the name of the Tiger-Cats starting quarterback? (I certainly didn’t – and the quarterback is the most visible position. It’s not like we’re talking about the backup right guard or something.)

Is it just me, or does King’s seven-word reply seem a little dismissive? It’s not exactly a heartfelt mea culpa. A reader has proven that King – again – has no idea what he’s talking about, and he brushes it off with a “thanks for pointing that out”.

Here we see a major American sports journalist’s total ignorance when it comes to Canada – and more than that, the fact that his ignorance has no ramifications whatsoever. King doesn’t even seem to feel bad that he equated being a starting quarterback in the CFL (which some might say is (almost) success) with being “on the street.” Why not? Because he knows no one (other than “Kevin”) will really care. CFL, on the street – same difference, right? It’s not like it’s a real league.

I can’t take too much offence at this, since I don’t actually follow the CFL myself, but I have to admit I expect a slightly higher standard from major sports journalists. At the very least, doesn’t King have minions to check his facts for him before he goes to print?

While we’re at it, we might as well close the circle on Brian Brohm and the CFL; in one of those coincidences that proves the universe is not random after all, but in fact governed by a supreme being with a perverse sense of humour, Brohm also came up this week in Bill Barnwell’s “NFL Contenders” column at Grantland. This is from the section on the Green Bay Packers:

Worst-Case Scenario: Rodgers is attacked by his stalker in the Cheesehead from the insurance commercials and misses two-thirds of the season, forcing the Packers to start Seneca Wallace. And then, when B.J. Raji accidentally drops his boom box on Wallace, the Packers have no quarterbacks on the roster and are forced to turn to Br … Brian Brohm, their former second-round pick who was last seen in the CFL. What, who did you think I was talking about?

We’ll ignore the Brett Favre joke. Barnwell is exhibiting a fairly typical attitude of smirking superiority toward the CFL – the phrase “last seen in the CFL” suggests our northern league is a career black hole into which unsuccessful NFL players disappear, never to be seen again – but at least he’s aware that it exists and knows Brohm is playing there. I’d say that puts him a few rungs higher up the journalism ladder than King, anyway.

Incidentally, that’s a lot of big-time American press coverage for the Tiger-Cats starter; probably more than he gets in The Spectator. I hope he can handle it.

Freaks Belong in the CFL!

“Tebow headed north of the border?” ProFootballTalk (Dec. 22, 2012)

This video is a bit old now, but it contains so many central ideas about the CFL versus the NFL that it’s worth a look:

Peter King is rather like the Thomas Friedman of sports journalism: he plays the “reasonable man” who offers a wise and balanced point of view, but he’s nothing more than a mouthpiece for relatively conservative conventional wisdom. Between him and Florio, however, they cover quite a few clichés about Canada in a relatively short space of time. Here are a few highlights:

Go to Canada, hone your craft, win championships. (King)

This is the essence of King’s advice to Tebow – because obviously anyone who has played in the NFL will automatically become the best player in the CFL and be guaranteed to win multiple championships simply by showing up. Tebow’s unconventional mechanics and poor accuracy – King calls him a “sideshow” at one point – won’t be a problem up north because, as everyone knows, it’s an inferior league that welcomes players who are essentially circus freaks.

What are you talking aboot? (Florio)

Florio leads off with this classic (or should I say stale? a matter of perspective perhaps) American joke about Canadian pronunciation and gets a big laugh with it. I have to admit I still don’t get this one; is it an accent thing? I feel like I pronounce “about” properly (rhymes with “trout,” not “toot”).

He should exhaust all opportunities at the NFL level before he gives up. (Florio)

Playing in Canada is tantamount to giving up, since no one who had a chance to be even a third-stirnger for an NFL team would choose the CFL. There’s probably a fair bit of truth to this, at least in terms of how players perceive the NFL versus the CFL.

If it doesn’t work in Jacksonville, then you ship him to Canada. (Florio)

The CFL, apparently, is a gulag for failed NFL starters.

He’s not accurate enough. (King)

By this, King means Tebow isn’t accurate enough to succeed in the NFL; of course that won’t interfere with his ability to win multiple championships in the CFL, as King mentioned earlier.

How many games do they play up in Canada? Sixteen? Nineteen? Twelve? (King)

This casual exposure of gross ignorance is greeted with laughter from the other two talking heads; no one can be expected to know how many games they play in that crazy Canadian league! It’s remarkable that someone purporting to be a journalist can get away with remarks like this, and needless to say it’s only acceptable because he’s ignorant about Canadian football; no outlet would pay Peter King a nickel for his opinion if he didn’t know how many games were played in an NFL season, or by major league baseball.

Now having said that, I have to admit that I don’t know how many games they play in the CFL either. I’m sure it’s more than sixteen.

Pause for research….

A quick look at the 2012 schedule for the Toronto Argonauts shows they played 18 regular season games (Peter was close with 19) plus three playoff games. (They conveniently won the Grey Cup last year, so their schedule represents the full gamut.)

That took me all of a minute, Peter. Do some research! Don’t you have interns to find this stuff for you?

At the end, King goes into full Angry Schoolmarm mode, jabbing his finger and shaking his wattles in what used to be known as “High Dudgeon”. Everything, apparently, is the fault of the evil New York Jets:

I blame the New York Jets. The New York Jets totally hurt this kid…. The Jets are the ones who are to blame for this whole mess. (King)

OK, Peter. As long as we have someone to blame.

A Rough Ride in Dallas

Boys will be Boys by Ron Pearlman

Jeff Pearlman, Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty (2008)

I borrowed this book from the library and it had lost its dust jacket somewhere in its travels, so I had to photograph the spine. Here’s the cover image for those who desperately want to see it.

The Cowboys traded up with New England for the top pick in 1991, hoping to land Notre Dame receiver/kick returner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail. When the Heisman Trophy winner demanded a five-year, $15.5 million deal (and threatened to jump to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League), the Cowboys were again mocked in league offices. Dallas “settled” for defensive tackle Russell Maryland of Miami—then landed six more draftees who would become key additions, including Alvin Harper in the first round and little-known defensive back Larry Brown of Texas Christian in the twelfth.  (p. 101)

This passage illustrates Jimmy Johnson’s expertise in the draft; one can’t help but pity Ismail, thinking the CFL held any promise for him and thus missing out on his chance to be part of a team that won three Super Bowls.

He did, of course, win a Grey Cup with the Argos. Is that a consolation prize?

That’s a minor reference to Canada, but things get better:

Hence, when Aikman went down against the Giants Johnson decided Dallas’s new starter would be a freckle-faced redhead whose resume was highlighted by unexceptional stints with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League and the San Antonio Riders of the World League. Jason Garrett didn’t even have much in the way of a college background—he played at Princeton, where he was named the 1988 Ivy League Player of the Year…. Garrett took the field at Texas Stadium on November 14, strolled into the huddle, and showed the poise and moxie of a six-year-old…. He attempted six passes in three offensive series, completing 2 for 25 yards. By late in the first quarter Johnson had seen enough.  (pp. 205-206)

I find sportswriters love to start paragraphs with words like “hence,” even if they don’t really make a lot of sense in context. It’s odd that Garrett played for two teams with the word “Riders” in their name, and then for the Cowboys. Horse obsession? Louis L’Amour fan? Yet another illustration of Fate’s bizarre sense of humour?

The point here, obviously, is that experience in the CFL doesn’t really add up to much when you’re on the big stage of the NFL. Our beloved Canadian Football League appears as a home for second-rate players who simply don’t have what it takes to play “real” football. And when you consider that Garrett was “unexceptional” even by CFL standards … that’s most damning of all. A CFL star (is there such a thing?) would struggle in the NFL; an undistinguished CFLer like Garrett doesn’t stand a chance.

And the Ottawa Rough Riders … nothing cries “amateur” quite as loudly as a league where two teams have the same name – it’s the sort of thing that happens in schoolyard pick-up games, where everyone wants to be the Wolves. And yet the CFL tolerated the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the league at the same time. (Pedants will point to the different spelling, but really.)

Even more pathetic, the name is taken from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Rough Riders cavalry regiment: here we are, supposedly carrying on the proud tradition of Canadian football as distinct from American, and not one but two of the teams in our national league have a name (the same name) that refers to American history. Why not the Ottawa Loyalists or the Ottawa Voyageurs – anything that is, at the very least, ours?

(As a side note, Ottawa does seem to have trouble with team names. To take just the most obvious example, their NHL team is called the Senators, but their logo is a picture of a Roman legionary. If words mean anything it should be a fat man in a toga.)

Hence, I will now demonstrate my taste and sophistication by not making the obvious joke about Garrett having had a “Rough Ride” with the Cowboys.

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