Hall: 20 years since Edm-Cgy LD rivalry exploded
Twenty years after the fact, as we head into the OK Tire Labour Day Weekend, Davis Sanchez sees no reason to plead innocent or act coy about his role in the infamous Labour Day Brawl of 2003.
Now a football analyst for TSN, Sanchez says he knows exactly why Edmonton wide receiver Ed Hervey snapped and swung his helmet in the thick of the melee at McMahon Stadium.
Sanchez absolutely realizes he was the intended target of the misguided helmet swing that clipped head linesman Brent Buchko — a play still shown repeatedly in the lead-up to every Alberta version of the Labour Day Classic.
“Ed and I obviously had some history,” says Sanchez, a former Calgary Stampeders cornerback. “Ed grabbed me from behind and horse-collared me and threw me on the ground from behind in the melee on the sidelines.
“Ed is a much, much bigger guy than me. And when he did that, my instant reaction — or more my choice of recourse — was to swing up and take a shot at him. And I took a shot at him, on my knees, at his groin, because he was on top of me.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
“That’s why Ed was upset enough to try to kill me with his helmet,” Sanchez says. “Because I had attempted to punch him in the groin just moments before that.
“I don’t think it got caught on camera, but, certainly, Ed knew.”
Did he ever.
“You never think you’re going into a brawl when you’re playing a football game,” says former Edmonton defensive tackle Randy Chevrier. “But gosh, there was a lot of bad blood, there was a ton of blood.
“No one no one will ever say, ‘We want to have a fight.’ But in hindsight, you look back and you say, `Gosh, is there anything more Canadian than a brawl between Alberta — Edmonton and Calgary — in a football game?’”
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On Sept. 1, 2003, the Calgary Stampeders arrived at the Labour Day Classic riding a six-game losing streak in the first year of the post-Wally Buono era.
Edmonton, on the other hand, roared into Calgary looking for a fifth straight victory.
“There were a lot of characters on both teams that year,” Sanchez says. “Edmonton had Hervey, and Donny Brady and Singor Mobley. I think A.J. Gass was on that team as well.
“And Calgary was a talented group full of misfits — a bunch of talented guys from different places with checkered pasts.”
A capacity crowd of 36,251 packed into McMahon Stadium that September afternoon in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“Calgary was not a very good football team,” says Hervey, now the assistant general manager with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “They were not at our level.”
Maybe not, but quarterback Marcus Crandell and the Stampeders defied their record that day, staking out a 19-10 lead through two quarters of play.
“It was a Labour Day Classic as you would like it to be with a full stadium,” says Dave Jamieson, who was, at the time, the vice-president communications and broadcast for the Edmonton football club.
“It was an intense game. And the crowd was loud and raucous and probably well lubricated.”
Mayhem broke out at 6:41 of the third quarter. On second-and-four, quarterback Ricky Ray scrambled out of the pocket towards his own bench.
Calgary defensive lineman Garrett Smith shoved Ray out of bounds, sending the future hall-of-famer hurdling over the Edmonton bench where he crashed into a jug of Gatorade.
“Football quickly became 1970s hockey,” says Jamieson, who dashed to the press box elevator to get down to the Edmonton bench.
Chevrier was minding his own business on the bench when the brawl broke out.
“I guess from my hockey background, there’s certain things that you don’t stand for,” Chevrier says. “You don’t stand for anyone messing with your goalie. And, in football, you don’t stand for anyone messing with your quarterback.
“Ricky Ray was clearly out of bounds. He wasn’t a threat to gain any more yardage.”
Chris Cuthbert and Chris Walby called the game live for the CFL on CBC.
“The benches are clearing,” Cuthbert exclaimed. “Shades of the Flames and the Oilers, and there are a number of Stampeders coming across the field.”
One of those Stampeders was defensive coordinator Jim Daley, who engaged in a heated verbal exchange with Edmonton guard Kevin Lefsrud.
“We’ve talked about this rivalry over the years,” Cuthbert said. “But I don’t remember, in a decade of these games, seeing anything like this.”
Those words proved prophetic. Obscured by a crowd of angry football players, Sanchez hit Hervey where it hurts, and the Edmonton receiver swung his helmet in retaliation.
“Ed was obviously so angry with me — and I don’t blame him,” Sanchez says. “And Ed didn’t realize there were people between me and him, including the referee.”
For his part, Hervey remembers his teammates hauling him away from Sanchez.
“Terry Vaughn came from behind, grabbed me by the shoulders, and was yelling in my ear, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’” Hervey says. “And then Rick Walters, he just had this look of fear on his face. He was like, ‘Ed, you hit the ref!’”
Hervey was ejected from the game for rough play, and Jamieson escorted him off the field.
“Ed still had some opinions he wanted to share,” Jamieson says. “I said, ‘Shut up, Ed,’ which in hindsight is not the way I should have addressed him in his state of mood at the time.
“And the ref looks at me and says, ‘He’s all yours, now.’”
Hervey and Jamieson marched towards the tunnel adjacent to the end zone where the crowd met them with a chorus of deafening boos.
“I thought, ‘Man, people really hate us. And why are they throwing beer at me?’” Jamieson says. “I got soaked. The Molson, or the cans of whatever they were selling at McMahon, man, that stuff can fly.”
Hervey and Jamieson clomped down the hallway, opened the locker-room door, sat down and stared at one another.
“I’d like to apologize for telling you to shut up,” Jamieson said.
“Jaimo, that’s fine,” Hervey replied.
Out on the field, Edmonton looked more than fine when Ray — clearly recovered from his encounter with the Gatorade jug — connected with slotback Jason Tucker for a 64-yard touchdown. The major gave Edmonton a 22-19 lead.
It was short-lived. On the ensuing kickoff, James Hundon zipped and zagged 103 yards to the end zone to put the Stampeders back in front for good.
“I remember it was magic,” says former Calgary head coach Jim Barker. “Almost like, God looked down on me and said, ‘Jim, no matter how bad things are, you can still win games.’”
In the days that followed, the brawl dominated sports headlines across the country. Hervey was suspended for a game and docked one game’s pay. Sanchez was fined an undisclosed amount for his part in the melee and Daley was also disciplined.
On Friday Sept. 5, Edmonton and Calgary suited up for the Labour Day Rematch, at Commonwealth Stadium.
At the time, Hervey and Sanchez disagreed on just about everything, but they both said they should receive a cut of the ticket revenue from that game.
“I wasn’t allowed to play in the rematch,” Hervey says. “But I do remember the stadium was full to capacity with people expecting another fight.”
“Me and Ed deserved a piece of the gate,” Sanchez says. “The crowd was expecting more fireworks.”
A sell-out crowd of 62,444 attended the grudge match that Friday, with Edmonton blanking Calgary 38-0.
That set the stage for Edmonton to ultimately hoist the 2003 Grey Cup in November with a 34-22 victory over the Montreal Alouettes.
“Labour Day was a defining moment for that season,” Hervey says. “It showed how dominant our team could be. You don’t condone or like to fight or any of that other stuff. But I’d rather be in a fight with my teammates than running away from it.”