If ever there was a perfect subject for a CFL book, the league's brief foray into the U.S. from 1993-1995 is it. The odd stories alone could fill any number of volumes, from parking-lot practices and training camp marriages in Las Vegas to players sleeping above circus animals in a barn in Shreveport to the announcement of an Orlando franchise that didn't happen. Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willes' new book, End Zones and Border Wars: The Era Of American Expansion In The CFL, includes the fascinating details on all of those and many more stories, but it's much more than just a collection of unusual anecdotes. Willes thoroughly explores the CFL's weirdest era, looking at the factors that led the league to U.S. expansion, how each of the separate teams did over the years, and the overall impact of the American era on the league, making a strong argument that while U.S. expansion itself failed, it may have proved crucial to the CFL's survival. In the process, he's put together one of the best CFL books in ages.
The brilliant side of End Zones And Border Wars is how it hits the topic of U.S. expansion from a wide variety of angles. Want solid top-down details on what led CFL leadership to start, carry out and then abort American expansion? They're there, thanks to Willes' own interviews with the likes of then-CFL commissioner Larry Smith and then-league-CEO John Tory, plus extensive and well-used quotations from newspaper articles from the time. Looking to see what the era was like for coaches and executives? There are some great tidbits from Willes' interviews with Wally Buono, Brendan Taman, Jeff Reinebold and many others. Perhaps the funniest material comes from the various reporters Willes interviewed about expansion era weirdness. One of the best is Sportsnet columnist Stephen Brunt's description of the 1994 press conference at an Orlando Hooters, streamed back to Canada via a satellite feed, that was supposed to announce a new CFL franchise in the city:
At the appointed hour, a picture popped up on the TV screen of a dais with a microphone.
"We were watching and nothing happened," says Brunt.
"Nothing continued to happen, and pretty soon, it became obvious that nothing would happen. Finally a hotel security guy or a maintenance guy walked up to the podium, leaned into the microphone, and said, 'I don't thing anyone's coming.'
Then the screen went blank."
Another amazing tale comes from Darrell Davis (then of The Regina Leader-Post, now with CJME and the Football Reporters of Canada), on Saskatchewan reporters trying to catch a cab from the stadium to the airport after a Roughriders' game against the Shreveport Pirates:
"We phoned six cabs," says Davis. "They all said they'd have someone right over. Finally, someone says 'We don't go there. It's too dangerous. If I were you I'd get the hell out of there.'"
Davis saw a light in the Pirates' offices and went to investigate. The team's equipment manager answered the door holding a .367 magnum.
'I've got to have it,' he told Davis. 'I've been robbed twice.'"
Beyond the hilarious failures, though, Willes also goes into substantial detail on the successes, such as the Baltimore Colts/CFLers/Stallions, who delivered a remarkable two seasons in the city before moving to Montreal in 1996 once the NFL announced its return to Baltimore. He includes a great chapter on the 1994 "Battle Of The Border" Grey Cup between the Stallions and the B.C. Lions and what that meant for the CFL, fascinating tidbits on how Canadian franchises like the Lions and Alouettes came out of bankruptcy into long-term success following the American era, and thoughts on how TSN helped keep the league afloat. Perhaps the most interesting part, though, is his early argument in Chapter One (backed up throughout the book) that the U.S. expansion era was critical to the CFL's survival, illustrated by comments from Buono (who was the head coach and general manager of the Calgary Stampeders during that time):
"Larry Smith gets a lot of criticism for expansion, but the only choice was to get the expansion money to keep teams and the league afloat," says Buono. "Unfortunately, that motive wasn't the right move, but it was all we had to keep the league going. Teams were hurting. The league office was hurting. We needed the money. It bought time for everyone. You can say what you want about Larry, but I guarantee that money allowed the Stampeders to survive"
That's an element that isn't often discussed when speaking of the U.S. expansion era, but it's a crucial one. The stories of all the craziness that happened during the CFL's American era are worth recounting, to be sure, and many of the decisions the league made during that time definitely could have been improved. Many of their choices in owners, cities, coaches and stadiums were significantly flawed, and that's a big part of why the U.S. era was so short-lived and had so many zany moments. As Willes' book shows, though, American expansion helped keep Canadian clubs afloat in the short term, and the lessons learned during it were a critical part of the league's survival to the present day. It's an incredibly entertaining read, full of countless hilarious stories, but it also makes valuable points about that era and what it meant to the CFL.