First & 10 | A chat with Chris Cuthbert

Just over a year removed from the moment, it has already been cemented as an iconic call for fans of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

As the clock hit zeroes at McMahon Stadium late last November, the moment was punctuated to a national television audience by Chris Cuthbert with this:

‘They have put the ‘WIN’ back in Winnipeg! The Blue Bombers – 2019 Grey Cup champions!’

Television and radio play-by-play types cherish these kinds of moments, and their calls occasionally become as memorable and as much a part of history as the event itself.

Think, for example, of Al Michaels’ ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ call of the U.S men’s hockey team winning gold over the heavily-favoured Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics; of Tom Cheek’s ‘Touch ‘em all, Joe’ after Joe Carter’s home run in the Toronto Blue Jays World Series victory in the 1993. Or, of Russ Hodges repeating ‘The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!’ after Bobby Thomson’s walk-off home-run in the 1951 World Series that is one of the most famous calls in sports broadcasting history.

A Grey Cup call comes on a somewhat smaller scale, but leaves no less an imprint on those engaged – particularly a championship-craved fan base that had seen 28 seasons pass without a title to celebrate.

Earlier this week I reached out to Chris, the long-time voice of the Grey Cup and the Canadian Football League on CBC and TSN before he decided to jump to Sportsnet this past summer to call hockey full-time on Sportsnet.

Over a 30-minute conversation we chatted about our passion for the CFL and the future of the league, his ‘put the ‘WIN’ back in Winnipeg’ call and that game being the last he will do for our three-down league.

“There is an interesting backstory to that call,” began Cuthbert from his home in Brampton, Ont. “It’s certainly not as spontaneous as I would have liked it, but I am pretty proud of it.”

A brief interlude here with some background to help provide context.

Cuthbert had been calling football while a student at Queen’s University in Kingston in the late 1970s when a friend who had answered a wanted-ad for a radio station in Yorkton, Sk. – CJGX  – was asked to send in tapes of his play-by-play work. Cuthbert’s buddy hadn’t called games and instead passed along the information.

Landing the gig, Cuthbert first met Stu Jeffries – the Richmond, B.C. born/Winnipeg-raised former ‘Good Rockin’ Tonite’ host who is still working in Toronto. Jeffries, it turns out, is an absolutely massive fan of the Blue Bombers.

“We’ve kept in touch over 40 years, more so after I started calling CFL games again, and with regularity he would text or e-mail me and ask how his Bombers were going to do,” Cuthbert explained.

“Probably over that 29-year wait I would have at least one text or e-mail every year from him. Many more than that, actually. I remember as it got closer in 2019 I said, ‘I think you guys can do it, and when you do it, this is what I’ll say. He would always say, ‘Love it! Love it!’ It almost became a running joke, as I would respond with ‘They’re ready to put the Win back in Winnipeg.’ I even mentioned it to him that Grey Cup week before the game.

“I hate to be self-indulgent, but I always thought he reflected all the trials and tribulations that Winnipeg fans had gone through. So, I guess you could say it was for him as a typical Bombers fan who was hungry to get back into the winner’s circle.”

There’s another Winnipeg connection to the chapter that followed Cuthbert’s stint in Yorkton. During his days in Saskatchewan, Chris did the play-by-play for the Yorkton Terriers. A job in the sports department at CJAD in Montreal had opened and Bob Dunn – another Winnipegger – reached out to former Winnipeg Jets play-by-play voice Curt Keilback to ask if he knew of anyone who, Cuthbert added with a chuckle, “would work cheap.”

Keilback hadn’t met Cuthbert before but had obviously heard his work and recommended the aspiring play-by-play man to Dunn. And from there a familiar voice to hockey and football fans all across this country had managing to wedge his foot into the sports broadcasting door.

Cuthbert turned 63 in September and admitted part of his decision to leave TSN and calling CFL games was the opportunity to be behind the mic for a Stanley Cup Final – this coming after he had landed his first Hockey Night In Canada job back in 1984.

Cuthbert called his first Grey Cup in 1996 and his last was Winnipeg’s win in 2019. Worth noting: the Bombers’ victory also meant that he had called championships for all nine CFL teams.

That was important to Cuthbert, as was the chance to be on the mic when the longest championship drought in Bombers history ended. In many ways, that also helped make up for the fact the game was a thorough beat down, and not a nail-biter.

“No doubt. Every year somebody says, ‘What we’re your favourite Grey Cup games?’ And they’re always the down-to-wire games, the overtime games,” said Cuthbert. “My first Grey Cup game was the 43-37 Argos over Edmonton win in the snow in Hamilton in ’96. There are others that come to mind immediately.

“But you never say your favourite game was a blowout. This one was different. I watched it again the other day, particularly the fourth quarter, to listen to what kind of energy I had. I remember the 100th Grey Cup and at halftime you’re thinking, ‘Man, it’s over’ (Toronto defeated Calgary 35-22 after being up 24-6 at halftime) and it becomes so anti-climactic that it’s disappointing. I never felt like that during this game because I respected Hamilton enough that they might have a big comeback. I hadn’t dismissed that they might mount something late.

“But when you start watching the game again you realized not only was it the end of the drought, but what a complete performance it was,” Cuthbert added. “There were so many storylines to talk about… if you weren’t talking about Zach or Andrew Harris or two guys from the same high school who were dominating the game in Harris and (Nic) Demski, the defence line was a terror, (Adam) Bighill was making plays, Mike Jones was amazing in the secondary, Thiadric Hansen, Shayne Gauthier… it was all phases.

“It just seemed like play after play they were making a statement. And the fact that it was 29 years since their last title… there was something different about this. It was a blowout, but it was special.

“I did feel when I re-watched on Saturday that it will be one of the most memorable games for me for reasons other than the score. It was pretty cool.”

Nobody asked me, but I’ll chime in with this: that is cool. Pretty damn cool. And thanks for the great call and all those years in CFL booths across the country, CC.

More from Cuthbert and other notes in our weekly instalment of 1st & 10…

1. The decision to leave CFL telecasts to do hockey wasn’t an easy one for Cuthbert. He grew up a fan of the Ottawa Rough Riders and has the three-down game in his blood.

“It was an emotional decision to leave in large part because I knew I was leaving the CFL,” he said. “I felt it on Labour Day, I felt it during Grey Cup week and I’ll feel it in the future… I’ll always watch with some sadness that I’m done when they get back to it.

“I’ll miss the day before as much as I’ll miss game days because those moments are special. One day I’d like to dig up all my notebooks and transcribe them… I think there would be a decent book there. I don’t know if it would ever get written.”

Attention would-be publishers: I don’t know how many Bombers and CFL fans would buy the book, but yours truly would be at the front of the line to put some dollars down…

2. It’s not just being in the booth on CFL game days that Cuthbert will miss. This is a small league and over time a guy builds great friendships with some, solid relationships with others.

Cuthbert had an interesting tidbit related to that from November of 2019 – and in relating the story the other day he got choked up recalling it.

“Here’s another story because it meant a lot to me… It was the Saturday, the day before the Grey Cup. By the end of the week you’ve talked to most of the principles and you’ve got most of the information, but you’re still looking for a tidbit or two that might be great in the game (telecast),” he said.

“I remember going up to Paddy Neufeld, remembering that he had been traded right before the Riders winning the Cup, which I think a lot of people saw coming in 2013. He wasn’t a part of it and there was all he had been through with injuries and whatnot, in and out of the lineup and reconsolidating his position in 2019. I wanted to get his take on how much it would mean and everything else.

“Halfway through the conversation he turns it back to me and thanks me for what I’ve done for the league.”

Cuthbert paused here to gather himself, before adding:

“I’m emotional thinking about it because it hit home. So, you’re not supposed to cheer for teams but, man, there were some people you were cheering for, for sure.”

3. Just FYI, I’ve probably watched the 2019 Grey Cup six times now, including TSN’s rebroadcast a week ago.

But the idea of watching the game again while some of the players provided commentary was superb. Andrew Harris, Brandon Alexander, Neufeld and Jake Thomas all provided their thoughts while watching the game last weekend and it’s worth checking out.

The link is here on our Facebook page.

Near the end, Thomas jokes that he thought he was being punk’d when head coach Mike O’Shea indicated he would be the first player to take the Grey Cup from commissioner Randy Ambrosie in the trophy presentation. He also summed up his thoughts near the end of the rebroadcast.

“It was 29 years long overdue,” said Thomas while watching the celebration scenes with Neufeld. “I wish I would have won eight Grey Cups in my eight years but, Paddy, you’re a guy who can attest to this… the longer it took the sweeter it was.”

“What I would do to just play in that game again and have that experience,” added Neufeld. “To celebrate with the team, teammates and family and fans… it’s just so cool.”

4. The official one-year anniversary of the Bombers 2019 Grey Cup came and went on the 24th, and it brought some great reactions from fans and especially the players.

Some of the best:

This one, for the record, was my favourite response:

5. A couple of podcast plugs…

The ‘Handled Internally’ podcast Darren Cameron and I host is getting a lot of love from Bombers faithful, and our episode with the legendary Bob Irving of CJOB is now available on iTunes and Spotify.

Our latest episode (now available on The W Hub), which aired during Grey Cup Unite, featured Al Couture, the club’s Director of Health and Performance/Head Athletic Therapist.

Al spoke of Chris Streveler’s toughness during last year’s Grey Cup run and had some other stories about his years growing on the job. Interestingly, it’s guys like Couture and Head Equipment Manager Brad Fotty that have long had a good feel for a room and a team’s chances.

“There are seasons that have started in the past that I know are headed for disaster,” Couture said. “First day, or first two-three days of training camp, I know we’re done. That becomes really frustrating as the years start piling up and as you start to get experience you know you’re probably not going to make the playoffs and if you do it’s going to be a short exit.”

Asked for the indicators, Couture added:

“I don’t want to name names and soil some individuals, but when you see a certain culture start to develop, or even the talent… I don’t have a problem saying that the team that Coach O’Shea and Kyle (Walters) inherited in 2014, in my opinion, was one of the worst rosters I had seen. You don’t understand the kind of damage that does; not picking well in the draft affects you down the road for years.”

It’s good stuff for fans who want to dive in for another inside look.

6. Reason #4,562,844 why I love this league.

7. Good luck to Ryan Rigmaiden in his new role with the B.C. Lions as their Director, U.S. Scouting. Rigmaiden spent the past three years with the Bombers as their Director of College Scouting and had previously worked with the Lions from 2013-17.

No word on how the Bombers might replace Rigmaiden, knowing the responsibilities may shift with changes to the football operations cap.

8. Sorry to hear of the passing of former Bombers fullback Chris Johnstone this past week. ‘Stoney’, as his teammates called him, played with the club from 1993-95 after first beginning his career in Edmonton in 1986.

He was an East Division All-Star in ’93 and – get this – one of eight Bombers on offence on that all-star squad which included seven more on defence and two on special teams.

9. This week’s good reads:

A huge shout-out to The Sun’s Paul Friesen for his ‘Against All Odds’ series looking back at the Cup run from last November. The link to the final chapter is here.

While we’re handing out bouquets, this story from Taylor Allen of The Free Press about Adam Bighill and his wife Kristina dropping in for a socially-distanced visit to super fans Lisa Fourneaux and Miles Martin last weekend was also well done.

Also, Global Winnipeg’s ‘For the W’ one-hour special was a super recap and included interviews with Andrew Harris, Chris Streveler, Mike O’Shea, Zach Collaros and Wade Miller.

It is being rebroadcast Saturday at 4:30 p.m. for those who may have missed it and want to set their PVR and the link is here.

10. We started with some stories from Chris Cuthbert and we’ll wrap with one from him, too.

Chris and I are both of around the same vintage and both grew up with the CFL introduced us as part of a fandom that is passed down from one generation to the next. I asked him about the resiliency of this league being tested with the Coronavirus, and mentioned that the criticism the CFL taken over the last few months has both bothered and worried me about the league’s future.

“I think I’ve been worried for about 40 years,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’m with you… I resent sometimes how the criticism is framed. I think CFL players are the most under-appreciated athletes in mainstream sports.

“I watched my colleagues do the Grey Cup Unite last Saturday night and if you saw the interview they did with Doug Flutie, he had such an eloquent answer about how special the Grey Cup was to him. He said it wouldn’t have been any more special had it been a Super Bowl.

“I’ve always been frustrated by the way some people portray the league. Football fans in the States, I don’t think, for example, that they are as dismissive of any college team other than those that play in the SEC. It’s football. These guys are ultra-talented. I’ve had to pull back a few times from the Twitter keyboard when I see these comments from the Toronto crowd about how these guys couldn’t be a college team and then Alex Singleton goes out and has a 15-tackle game.

“I had Alex on before the 2016 Grey Cup during a Leafs broadcast and I got Tweets, ‘Why would you have that guy on?’ And yet guys continue to go down there and prove what the level of football is up here and how special it is.

“Part of the reason I love it so much is – and I’ll use Andrew Harris as an example – the CFL provides an opportunity for a guy like him to grow in the game and become as dominant as any player anywhere there has ever been in the league. I’m always going to be a huge proponent.

“You and I, we’re cut from the same cloth. We’ll go down swinging defending this league.

“But I’ll also go back to this: when I did my first Grey Cup game in ’96 it was probably the low-point for the league. I had people say, ‘I’m glad you got to call one, because there might not be another.’ Here we are with a 2021 schedule and hopefully there will be many, many more.”

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