Division Final weekend, where dreams live on for two teams and two others go home feeling oh-so-close to reaching the pinnacle.
The belief is if you win the Division Final, well, anything can happen the next week when records are thrown out the window for the Grey Cup when East meets West.
For this look back at what would have been Western Final weekend, I’ve been debating which victories meant the most to all five franchises in the West.
Western Final victories have shown affirmation for organizations that what they’ve committed to paid off. There have been huge upsets, ending long droughts, ending long streaks, and signs of things to come.
So here it goes. I know you’ll likely think I’m out to lunch for your team so start the debate amongst yourselves. Which year was it that the Western Final win meant more than any other?
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The Calgary Stampeders’ top Western Final win rides in with their victory over the B.C. Lions in 2008.
In fact, this is a game that is part of the CFL in 40 being presented on Friday. I think it could be labeled the Mike Labinjo game.
But the biggest reason I place this at the top of the mountain for the Stampeders is that it was the first of six Divisional championships in the ongoing John Hufnagel era.
Hufnagel took over the Stampeders that season after the Stamps and Henry Burris couldn’t get over the hump.
Hufnagel turned Burris into an MOP candidate and while we didn’t know it then, he was turning the Stampeders into the New England Patriots of the Canadian Football League.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Choosing the Bombers was easy for me. You can call it recency bias but I picked 2019.
The Bombers’ season was full of adversity, especially from the midpoint all the way through to the Grey Cup game. After the Bombers blew away the Stampeders in the second half of the Western Semi-Final, they came into Saskatchewan to play the Riders in the first Western Final between the two rivals since 1972.
It was the quarterback the Riders gave up on in Zach Collaros, against the quarterback who took his job earlier in the season, Cody Fajardo.
While Fajardo wasn’t 100 per cent, neither were the Bombers, having to go into the playoffs with a quarterback picked up a month earlier and their main starter on the shelf.
But the 2019 season seemed like it was the one where general manager Kyle Walters and head coach Mike O’Shea were put on the hot seat. They’d been lingering around the top of the division for a while and had a fan base ready to see the end of their nearly 30-year Grey Cup drought.
What happens if the Bombers lose to the Riders in the Western Final, a second straight defeat in the Division championship? Well, we know the Bombers don’t end that 29-year drought and it’s unclear if Mike O’Shea and Kyle Walters see the giant extensions announced three weeks after that Grey Cup title.
The game itself was a sign the Bombers’ Richie Hall-led defence, like it had the week before, was going to lead the team to a path of destiny. They stuffed the Riders from inside the five-yard line twice in the fourth quarter to help hold on to the lead.
It must have felt extra special for the Bombers to also celebrate in a place that has been one of their toughest spots to win, with countless Labour Day Classic losses over the years.
To find the most important Western Final victory in Saskatchewan history was extremely hard. Of course, you only had four options that led to Grey Cups: 1966, 1989, 2007 and 2013.
They all hold their place but for me, it has to be the 9-9 Roughriders going to Edmonton in 1989 and taking it to the 16-2 team in the second half to make it to their first Grey Cup in 13 years.
The Roughriders were in the Western Final for 11-straight years, from 1966 to 1976. What happened next was 11-straight years out of the playoffs.
The drought was growing more and more frustrating that they even made a rap song (featuring familiar faces like Glen Suitor and Don Narcisse). Seriously, you should check it out 11 That’s Enough. You’re welcome.
Now, back to ’89 Western Final.
The Roughriders had some incredible comebacks that season but also had some serious heartbreak, losing games in the last minute. One week they lost a game when the BC Lions got two extra plays when the clock ran out thanks to pass interference penalties.
But after a win over the Stampeders in the Western Semi, the Riders were going to be led to slaughter by Edmonton.
In fact, there were members of the EE Football Team who were openly opining in the papers that they should roll to the Grey Cup.
The chatter worked its way into the Riders’ locker room and the big underdogs showed up that day and completely had the best regular-season team in CFL history on its heels.
Quarterback Tom Burgess had to come in and replace an injured Kent Austin and the team didn’t miss a beat. In the end, they shocked the world.
It’s a game still regarded as one of the biggest in Rider history to this day.
Edmonton Football Club
I don’t know if I have this one wrong and it may feel weird to say that 1982’s Western Final could be considered the most for a storied franchise, but let me defend myself.
Sure, 2005 and 2015 were big wins against their biggest rival that led them to Grey Cup victories, but let’s go back to 1982.
Edmonton had won four straight Grey Cups but this win is more meaningful because it was the beginning of the end.
Head Coach Hugh Campbell was already leaving to join the USFL and Warren Moon was entering the last year of his deal in 1983, with a trip the National Football League on the horizon.
The duo’s last hurrah together, north of the border, turned out to be the closest they ever came to losing a Western Final with a 24-21 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Yes, a streak of four-straight Grey Cups would still be the greatest dynasty in CFL history but it was fitting that Hugh left with another win and a year later would join forces in the National Football League with Moon, who couldn’t win without Campbell in Edmonton in 1983.
Now, flame away Edmonton fans. I need to know which Western Final was bigger. 2015 was a solid runner-up for me though.
We end with an easy one: The BC Lions’ 1994 Western Final victory over a dominant Doug Flutie-led Calgary Stampeders team. The Lions were coming off a dramatic win over Edmonton the week prior and with the Grey Cup in Vancouver that season, there was a drive for the Lions to be there to defend their own turf.
While it was Kent Austin that led the Lions to victory the week before, this time they needed Danny McManus to lead them back from a deficit with a miraculous late-game drive.
He hit his favourite target, Darren Flutie for the game-winning score and would give the Lions the rare opportunity to win a Grey Cup on their home turf.
That play still goes down as one of the biggest plays in Lions’ history and why McManus and Flutie are so highly regarded on the West Coast.