Yes, some Calgary Stampeders’ fans rode horses into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel when the 1948 Grey Cup game was played in Toronto.
But no, they didn’t ride them into the elevators.
There were several notable “firsts” surrounding that game almost 60 years ago, which the Stamps won, 12-7 over the Ottawa Rough Riders.
It was the first Grey Cup win for Calgary after the team became the first (and still only) team to go undefeated in the regular season and playoffs. A Calgary halfback named Normie Kwong became the youngest player to win the Grey Cup at 18, and the first player of Chinese ancestry to do it.
It was also the first time Toronto enjoyed — some say endured — the onslaught of Stampeders fans, who arrived in two train loads to support their team.
When they got off the train, there was a flap jack breakfast waiting for them, courtesy of Toronto Mayor Buck McCallum on the steps of old City Hall. McCallum also rode a horse in the Grey Cup parade.
But it was at the Royal York Hotel that the Calgary fans were the most boisterous.
No one could describe it better than the late Jim Coleman. Here is what he wrote in his column for The Globe and Mail on Nov. 29, 1948, two days after the Saturday game (courtesy of a book of his columns edited by Jim Taylor):
“The football game for the Grey Cup was contested officially in the stadium and was continued unofficially in the hotel lobby. At 5:01 p.m. the goalposts were borne triumphantly through the front doors and were erected against the railings of the mezzanine.
“At 5:02 p.m. two platoons of bellboys circumspectly removed the potted palms, flower vases and anything that weighed less than three thousand pounds.
“The gaudily caparisoned Calgary supporters were boisterous and noisy but well-behaved and courteously declined to ride their horses into the elevators. Any minor untoward incidents were occasioned by youthful local yahoos who suffered from the delusion that the consumption of two pints of ale and the acquisition of a pseudo-western twang entitled them to ride the range astride any convenient chesterfield.”
Such shenanigans are not tolerated today, says Melanie Coates, a spokesperson for the Fairmont Royal York. No horses in the lobby.
But when the Grey Cup was in Toronto last year, staff brought carrots out to a horse that made it to the door of the hotel, escorted by Calgary fans. And they did manage to get the horse’s hoof print on the hotel guest book.
The stadium Coleman mentioned in his column is Varsity Stadium. The game was sold out — though record of the attendance is hard to come by — but there was a report that several people served 10 days in jail after being arrested for scalping tickets. They got $25 for $1 tickets.
That young halfback for the Stamps is now the lieutenant-governor of Alberta. Kwong came out of high school in 1948 and was later traded to the Edmonton Eskimos, where he starred for 13 years.
In an email to the CFL.ca, Kwong wrote: “The whole season was exciting because we had players like Keith Spaith, who was the first American, NFL-style quarterback to join a CFL team. That gave us a chance to learn a different style of play.
“Of course, the game in Toronto was different from anything I had experienced before. The energy, enthusiasm and sheer volume of the Calgary fans was unbelievable. They took Toronto by storm and set a new standard for Grey Cup celebrations … leading up to the game, during the game and on the crazy train ride back home to Calgary.”
The highlight of the game was the “sleeper play,” outlawed by the CFL in 1961. The Stamps scored a touchdown when Norm Hill hid near the sidelines (he actually flopped onto the field, face first). And when Spaith threw the ball Hill caught it while lying on his back. The score was referred to for years as the “sitting touchdown.”
There was little sitting for Calgary fans that weekend (a little nap was more likely, here and there). And in 2009, when the Grey Cup is played in Calgary, fans hope to be on their feet again. Just don’t expect any spurs in the saddles in downtown Calgary hotels.