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November 13, 2020

Landry: The CFL playoff format of yesteryear that was beyond belief

The last time it happened was in 1986 and even then, almost thirty-five years ago, to many of us, it was thought to be an oddball blast from a strange, almost insane past.

The Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Ticats were contesting the CFL Eastern Final in 1986, and doing it in a two-game, total-points playoff series the likes of which hadn’t been played since 1972.

In what was a weird, anachronistic throwback to another time, when playoff football in the CFL meant multiple game finals were the norm and preparation scenarios that would make today’s player or coach spit-take their morning coffee were nothing more than run of the mill.

That Argos-Ticats Eastern Final of 1986 was the stuff of legend, featuring a big, big lead for one team and a furious comeback for the other; while it served as a decently appropriate homage to a grueling bygone era, it was merely a taste of what used to be quite a different Canadian Football League.

Let me tell you of a time in the CFL when playoff formats varied wildly from division to division, with combatants taking very different roads to get to the championship game. A time when a team once played – believe it or not – six playoff games to make it to the Grey Cup. A time when some teams ended up scratching and clawing their way through five playoff games in just fifteen days. A time when one team was victorious in its division final, then had to suit up for the Grey Cup Game just three days later.

A time when the West, incredibly, played a best-of-three final following a two-game, total-points semi-final, and the East played a two-game, total-points final steeped in lore, the most memorable of moments being when a head coach dared God to keep his team from closing out a series win after a Game One victory.

The last two-game total point series came in 1986 between two fierce rivals, the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (The Canadian Press).

Crazy stuff, all of it, especially when you compare it to what has been such a straightforward part of our playoff lives for decades, now; A one-game semi, followed by a one-game final, six teams taking part, with division winners getting a bye and a home date in the conference championship.

In 1973, the Canadian Football League standardized the playoffs for both the East and West with the format we know now, minus the crossover rule, which was introduced following the 1996 season.

The West had adopted the one and one framework the season before, in 1972, with the East lagging behind, one final two-gamer being played when Hamilton defeated Ottawa by a 30-27 aggregate, rallying after a 19-7 loss in game one.

Prior to that, the West had been wild, indeed. So had the East albeit it in a different manner.

Between the years 1952 and 1964, the West did something that is just about unimaginable today. Best-of-three finals were preceded by semi-finals that echoed the Eastern Final. That is, they were two-game, total points series. Imagine coming up with that formula in this day and age. You’d be laughed out of the board room – and out of the Players Association’s office.

That design caused some real meat-grinder conditions for teams. Playing a best of three – over the course of a week – was bad enough. If you finished first in the West, your prize was a bye into that final and the extra home game, if necessary.

If you were a semi-final winner, it meant you headed into that best of three having already played a troublesome two-game series. That could mean five games in as little as 15 days for one team, something that happened on a number of occasions.

“That’s crazy,” said B.C. Lions Head Coach Rick Campbell, reminded of the types of playoff scenarios that disappeared when he was just a toddler.

“I wouldn’t like it,” he said, comparing the old ways to the modern. “I like when each game is its own thing.”


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In the CFL’s pre-1970’s past, each playoff game was rarely its own thing.

In 1954 and in 1957, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers did just what I’d described to Campbell. They played 5 playoff games in 15 days. The first time, they lost the fifth game of the Final, to Edmonton. Three years later, the Bombers won the Western Final against Edmonton (the third game went to overtime) and proceeded to the Grey Cup one week later, where they were thoroughly trounced by the Hamilton Ticats, 32-7.

The Ticats would have had an advantage in that Grey Cup game, one that went beyond the relative luxury of playing close to home, at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. At the time, teams in the Western Interprovincial Football Union (the WIFU, consisting of B.C., Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg) played 16 regular season games, while those in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) – where the Ticats were stablemates along with the Toronto Argonauts, Montreal Alouettes and Ottawa Rough Riders – played 14.

As tough as Winnipeg had it in the scenarios I’ve outlined above, I can go one better, with the 1953 playoff year.

Not only did the Bombers play 5 Western playoff games that autumn, they were also forced to play a “Grey Cup Semi-Final” against the champion of the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU), one week after dispatching Edmonton in the Western Final.

Usually, the ORFU champion (they played mostly a 12-game regular season, by the way) would meet the winner of the IRFU for a spot in the Grey Cup, but in 1953, Winnipeg played a sixth playoff game in 25 days, beating the ORFU’s Toronto Balmy Beach in the semi-final.

Meanwhile, the Ticats finished their 14-game regular season in a tie for first with Montreal, the two of them meeting in a best-of-three IRFU Final, which Hamilton won in two straight.

Hamilton played two fewer regular season games and four fewer playoff games in order to reach the Grey Cup that year. They beat Winnipeg in that game, but it was close. Final score: 12-6.

The Blue Bombers found the shorter route to the Grey Cup Game was much more palatable, gaining a bye to the Western Final in 1958, 1959 and 1962, winning the Grey Cup – against Hamilton – each time. In 1962, the Bombers defeated the Calgary Stampeders in the Western Final, in three games. The Stamps, incidentally, played 5 playoff games in 15 days that year.

The East, as mentioned, had it a little easier, even with two divisions to contend with. By the time the CFL was formed in 1958, both the IRFU and ORFU had been deciding their conference winners in a number of ways, most notably with two-game, total points series, followed by a one game Eastern Final versus the other division’s champ.

One season, though, provided an extremely tough test for the Toronto Argonauts, who wound up playing in a Grey Cup merely three days after winning their conference crown.

It was 1952, and the Argos first took on Hamilton in a best-of-three IRFU Final, winning in three. They followed that up with a win over the ORFU’s Sarnia Imperials, on November 26th.

On the 29th, the Argos met Edmonton in the 40th Grey Cup Game, winning by a score of 21-11. Edmonton had fought through five gritty playoff tests to get to the game, but then waited 18 days for the Grey Cup. Toronto had played five post-season games – including the Grey Cup – in 15 days. There’s a “rust vs rest”
scenario for you.

In 1956, the IRFU switched to a format that it would use through its name change to Eastern Football Conference (1960), right up until the end of the 1972 season; A one game semi followed by a two-game, total-points final. The WIFU (it became the Western Football Conference in 1961) would use its best-of-three final format until 1971, though the semi-final was changed to one game instead of two, in 1965.

Both formulas would provide plenty of drama.

The most famous moment – at least in the East – came in 1969, when flamboyant head coach Leo Cahill led his Toronto Argonauts to a 22-14, opening game win against the Ottawa Rough Riders. It was then that Cahill declared that only an “Act of God” could keep his Argos from moving on to the Grey Cup game. A lot of bluster, that, from a guy whose team had only an eight-point cushion at the halfway mark. In game two, the Rough Riders were God’s team, alright, donning broomball shoes and burying the Argonauts in an overwhelming 32-3 home field win.

The late Leo Cahill meets with QB Joe Theismann on the sidelines during an Argos playoff run in the mid-1970’s. Cahill would lay claim to the most famous two-game total point series moment in what is simply known as the ‘Act of God’ prediction (The Canadian Press).

The Argos had felt the pain of Game Two earlier in the decade as well, hammering the Ticats in the 1961 conference championship opener, by a score of 25-7. In game two, at Hamilton, the Ticats beat Toronto, 20-2, meaning the total score was knotted at 27 apiece. In an overtime that was timed and without a “sudden death” scenario, Hamilton quarterback Bernie Faloney led the Tabbies to four more touchdowns, the Argos mustering not a single point. Final score of that second game? 48-2, Hamilton. It was the kind of hurt that Toronto would feel again, some 25 years later.

The two-game Western Conference Semi-Final of 1963 would be a memorable one for Saskatchewan Roughrider fans, and one that would serve as the moment a legendary quarterback would begin to emerge.

Routed by Calgary by a score of 35-9 in the first game, the Riders fortunes looked bleak, bleak, bleak, as the second game began, at Taylor Field in Regina. The stands were far from crowded, you might say, with most people believing the game was nothing more than a formality.

But by halftime, the Riders had all the momentum, and fans were streaming into Taylor Field to see if their team might actually pull it off. Which they did, largely on the strength of a massive passing game on the part of young quarterback Ron Lancaster, in his first year with the Roughriders. The Little General pulled off The Little Miracle, firing five touchdown passes and rolling up 492 yards through the air, as Saskatchewan downed the Stampeders 39-12, taking the two-gamer by an aggregate of 48-47.

Campbell’s father, Hugh, played in that semi-final and one more of the two-game variety. He also played in four best-of-three Western Finals, as a member of the Roughriders’ receiving corps.

“He did mention about the wear and tear,” said Campbell, of his father. “That it was such a grind to play several games in a matter of a few days.”

“You’d just run out of gas,” Campbell continued. “And the rosters were smaller too.”

“You’d have to be tough. And get a lot of sleep, I would think.”

By 1972, the West had had enough of beating up its Grey Cup-bound teams with a best-of-three conference final. Beginning that season, the one game final became standard. The East would carry on with its two-game conference final that year, with Hamilton beating Ottawa, but it would mirror the West beginning in 1973, with one game semis and finals.

It was the last time we’d see the craziness of multi-game playoff match-ups in the CFL.

Or so we thought.

Which brings us back to 1986, with the Argos and Ticats squaring off in a relic from the fuzzy, telecast-in-black-and-white past. The two-game, total points series had returned.

I thought it was a weird situation, having been only 8-years-old when the league last had a multi-game playoff match-up, and remembering nothing of it. My father, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eye. He likely relished a return to the old days, even though playoff football of that era wasn’t exactly kind to his beloved Argos.

He wouldn’t be alone, either. “I thought it was good,” Russ Jackson had said to me when I interviewed him for another story about old-time playoff football, a few years ago. “I enjoyed it.”

The 1986 Argos finished first in the East, and wound up mostly dominating the Ticats in a game that Toronto would win, 31-17. Any year prior to 1986, as far back as 1973, and they would have been Grey Cup bound.

So why were they not home and cooled out? Why did they need to return to Exhibition Stadium to play Hamilton again? Why had the two-gamer returned?

Before the era of the crossover playoff spot, CFL governors had had enough of sad-sack Eastern teams finishing third and gaining a semi-final playoff spot merely because the fourth place outfit was an even sadder sack. Between 1974 and 1985, every single East team that finished third in the division was under .500 on the year. Eight times, during that stretch, the fourth place finisher in the West had a better record.


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1981 was particularly galling, perhaps stinging Eastern pride the most, while raising Western ire to the max. The Ottawa Rough Riders made it to the Grey Cup after finishing the regular season with a 5-11 record and they actually placed second in the East that year. The Montreal Alouettes, at 3-13, secured the final post-season berth in the division, while over in the West, Saskatchewan wound up fourth and out of the picture, with a record of 9-7.

Even though the years 1984 and 1985 did not see a fourth place finisher in the West secure a better record than the third place team in the East, the die had already been cast by a decade of below-sea-level Eastern teams. A remedy was demanded and concocted.

It was simple: If a fourth place team in one division finished with a better record than the third place team in the other, that fourth place team would be granted a playoff spot. However, it was not a crossover playoff position, as we know it now.

When the 1986 season closed and the fourth place Calgary Stampeders had a better record than the third place Montreal Alouettes, the CFL West was thrown into a situation where its four playoff teams would each take part in the semi-finals, and that meant that first-place Edmonton would not get the usual perk of a bye into the division final. To offset that, the Argos and Ticats would need to take part in a two-game, total points East Final.

That’s why the first-place Argonauts did not gain a Grey Cup berth after beating the Ticats in game one. They’d merely reached halftime after their victory at Ivor Wynne Stadium.

A week later, the Argos continued to pull away, leading the second game 15-3, well into the second quarter, boosting their aggregate to 46-20.
The Ticats scored a touchdown to make it a nineteen point differential, and a Toronto turnover almost immediately following that gave Hamilton an easy score to cut the lead to 12.

A huge comeback was brewing.

The Argonauts could not bail the rushing water fast enough, and Hamilton roared all the way back to take the second game 42-25, winning the series 59-56. It was an appropriate tip of the hat to days gone by.

And that was the last time we witnessed a multi-game series between playoff teams in the CFL.

If you ask, some might say they’d love to see a return to the old ways, but Campbell would not be one of those who’d endorse it.

“Actually, that would not be safe,” he said, and it’s hard to imagine any modern football player, coach or manager disagreeing.

“I’m sure there were (business) reasons for it. But from purely a football standpoint, the answer would be ‘no’ for most people.”

Just too taxing, too demanding, too dangerous. Those are reasons we will never see a return to the days of best-of-three finals and two-game, total-points series, all squished together in frenetic late Octobers and Novembers. They had to have been mad, we think.

A half a century and more ago, however, it wasn’t madness at all. It was just business as usual in a very different CFL.

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