We traveled to Ottawa in November to attend Canada’s biggest celebration, the Grey Cup Festival. A crazy weekend of Canadian football where fans come from coast to coast to take part in this annual event. The championship game of the Canadian Football League takes place in a different city every year, and this year, in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, it was taking place in the nation’s capital. And when we arrived, Ottawa was all set to stage what Canadians like to call “the greatest game on the planet”.
Casey’s family has attended the Grey Cup for the last 22 years. It’s a family thing and they never miss one. They are not that big of football fans. In fact, I think I may have seen them watch only a game or two since I’ve known them. But, let me tell you, they love the Grey Cup. They love the preparation, the atmosphere, the events prior to the game, the energy in the stadium and, of course, the excitement of the big, final match. The Grey Cup has a way of entertaining people who don’t follow the sport. For them, and many others, it is not just about football — it’s a celebration of Canada!
We arrived in Ottawa on Saturday. After checking into our hotel, the Westin Ottawa, we took the free OC Transpo shuttle to the Grey Cup Festival site in Lansdowne Park. Inside the bus was a sea of football jerseys and toques. I had been warned, but I still hadn’t realized what the Grey Cup atmosphere was like until I was there. Seeing people from all across the country coming together and celebrating the league in their team colours is an impressive sight.
Our first stop on Saturday was the Adidas Grey Cup Partner Lounge. It was a small but very funky party where we had a few drinks and picked up some festival gear, including an Adidas Grey Cup 105 player hood which I loved. We also got invited to a concert of Canada’s oldest rock band, Trooper. It was hosted at The Arena at TD Place, and was packed. When the concert started, I realized I was the only person in the Stadium who had never heard of this band and did not know a single word of their lyrics, including their famous hit “Raise a Little Hell“, which the Canadian’s belted out in unison as if it was a second national anthem.
I am sorry if I offend some Trooper fans, but I was not really into their music. Although I loved seeing everyone dancing and having a great time, I was more interested in what was going on around the Arena. We grabbed some (really, really expensive) beer and walked around chatting with people and participating in the different activities available in the fan zone, like this cool 3D picture we took at the TSN stand.
After the concert, the night was stilly young, so we headed to what I am told is the always popular Riderville party. It didn’t matter that the Saskatchewan Roughriders failed to make it to the Grey Cup this year, their fans brought the party anyways. It was one of our favourite events! A great party filled with nice people, drinks and entertainment, green outfits, watermelon hats and other extravagant costumes. I got the chance to pull some moves on the dance floor and meet Gainer the Gopher! Also a huge shoutout to the cheerleaders for their acrobatic show.
Sunday was the big day. Kick off wasn’t until 6pm, but there was stuff going on all day. The whole city is a giant party where the really impressive thing is the fans. Every team is represented at the Grey Cup, even though there are only two clubs playing.
We started the day at the official Grey Cup Tailgate Party, which is free admission for game-day ticket holders. While local bands played live music, hundreds of fans, many with painted faces and dressed in the most bizarre costumes, drank and ate in a festive spirit before the game.
Around 4pm, we headed into the Stadium to check out our seats and get a sense of the place. We took some pictures when the Stadium was still empty and the field was still green, completely ignorant of what was about to happen. Less than half an hour later, it started to snow. I remember myself getting excited about it and even said “this is so cool!”. A very different feeling from what I thought by halftime. It continued to snow, and snow, and snow some more.
The field looked beautiful covered in snow, but it was cold. Actually, it was literally freezing (-5C). Although the hot spiked apple cider was helping, I still needed to pay several visits to the washroom to warm up under the hand blow drier, which was an appreciated tip from Casey, a cold weather veteran who didn’t even break out in a shiver. Late in the first half, in what I initially thought was a great act of chivalry, he offered me his oversize winter mitts. I realized the truth though when he complained that he was so toasty under all his layers that he was sweating. It reminded me of the scene in Dumb and Dumber when a similar chain of events leads to Lloyd complaining as he’s being strangled by Harry (who was wearing an extra pair of mitts), “Harry… Your hands… are freezing!” I could have killed him.
By the time of the kick off, a full stadium with more than 36,000 fans were cheering for the 105th Grey Cup. What happened next? We got the full Canadian experience. An amazing game under a cold but beautiful snow fall, in a field completely covered in white where players were sliding around and dozens of people were constantly shoveling the field. To top it off, international pop icon Shania Twain come into the halftime show on a dogsled and Mounties carried in the trophy for the Champion, the Toronto Argos, who managed to beat the Stampeders after an incredible comeback.
This weekend at Grey Cup was an amazing experience, definitely one I’ll never forget. I was happy to be part of this family tradition for the fist time and I fell in love with Ottawa. If you’ve never been to the Grey Cup Festival, you should definitely add it to you bucket list.