It was spring in Winnipeg in 1930 – the early days of the Great Depression – when Leland ‘Tote’ Mitchell gathered together some local businessmen discuss the future of rugby in our fair city.
A World War I vet, Mitchell had helped run the Tammany Tigers rugby club and taken them to the 1925 Grey Cup where they fell 24-1 to the Ottawa Senators.
The Tigers played their last game in 1929 and a year later morphed into the Winnipeg Football Club, which swallowed up the Garrison – made up of Army servicemen – and then merged with the St. John’s Tigers in 1933.
The ‘Winnipegs’, as they were known then, fell to the Toronto Argonauts in the 1933 Grey Cup semi-final, but were back two years later to make history.
Yes, on December 7, 1935 the ‘Winnipegs’ captured the 23rd Grey Cup with an 18-12 victory over the Hamilton Tigers in front of 6,405 fans at the Hamilton Amateur Athletic Association to become the first team from Western Canada to win the championship. Critical in the win was the work of the franchise’s first superstar, Fritz Hanson, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a 78-yard punt return in the third quarter.
The headline in The Winnipeg Free Press the next day screamed: ‘Zowie! ‘Pegs Win.’
It was during an exhibition game with the University of North Dakota when the Winnipeg Football Club was first called the ‘Blue Bombers.’ Free Press sportswriter Vince Leah referred to the team as the Blue Bombers – they were now wearing blue uniforms after beginning in green – in a reference to boxing heavyweight champion Joe Louis, aka ‘The Brown Bomber.’
The Blue Bombers would fall 4-3 to the Argonauts in the 1937 Grey Cup and then 30-7 in another matchup with their eastern rivals in the 1938 Grey Cup. But in 1939, the club would close out its first decade in existence by claiming its second championship in an 8-7 victory over the Ottawa Rough Riders. The Blue Bombers TD came from Andy Bieber, while Art Stevenson would kick the winning point with 45 seconds remaining. Hanson was again spectacular, with 126 yards rushing in the victory.
- Leland ‘Tote’ Mitchell was one of the original founding fathers of the Winnipeg Football Rugby Club in 1930 and its first manager. He was later named the Bombers’ first honorary life member.
- 1935 was the first Grey Cup broadcast on the radio and the first time a team had won with Americans in their lineup – the Winnipegs had seven, including Fritz Hanson, Greg Kabat and Russ Rebholz.
- Hanson, who held the nicknames the ‘Galloping Ghost’, ‘Twinkle Toes’ and the ‘Perham Flash’ – his home town was Perham, Minnesota – was part of four Grey Cup championship teams: three in Winnipeg in 1935, 1939 and 1941 and a fourth in Calgary in 1948. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a charter member in 1963, was part of the inaugural class of the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1984 and added to the club’s Ring of Honour in 2018.
- Hanson arrived in Winnipeg in 1935, choosing to sign here for $800, a new overcoat and a chance to be close to his home in Minnesota rather than sign with the New York Giants for $1,000.
- Another early football legend in Winnipeg was Russ Rebholz – ‘The Wisconsin Wraith’ (his hometown was Portage, Wisconsin). He came to Winnipeg in 1933 after playing and coaching the Salamander Water Polo Club in Japan. He, too, was a charter member in the CFHOF and the WFC HOF.
- The Winnipegs first called Wesley Park home before moving to Osborne Stadium in 1935. They would call that location at the intersection of Osborne and Broadway home until the opening of Winnipeg Stadium in 1953.
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