CFL commissioner sees lot of Grey Cup in successful Olympics

Mark Cohon optimistic about everything from the 100th anniversary Grey Cup to Ottawa to Toronto, reports John MacKinnon.
March 5, 2010cohen
Ottawa Citizen
By John MacKinnon

CFL commissioner, Mark Cohon wields a certain cachet, but when he met Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team goalie Shannon Szabados during the Olympic Games, he was just another wide-eyed patriot.

It was at a CanFund soiree, aiding the philanthropic concern that raises money for Canadian athletes. When the gold medal-winning star learned she was meeting the CFL commissioner, her eyes lit up.

“‘I’m a huge Eskimos fan. I can’t wait for Grey Cup,'” Cohon recalls Szabados saying, referring to the CFL championship game to be held here next November.

“I was just as excited to meet her as she was to meet me,” Cohon said. “We (the CFL) have this amazing power. Canadians, whether you’re a gold-medal athlete or whatever, you love this league.”

Cohon spent four days at the Vancouver Games, finding the whole street-festival atmosphere strangely familiar.

“I joked that it kind of felt like a Grey Cup with Finns, Swedes and Russians,” Cohon said. “And someone said, ‘Well, it’s really like 17 Grey Cups in a row.'”

One in a row will work for Eskimos fans, who would love to see their club competing in the championship game at Commonwealth Stadium next November. And Cohon, three years into his mandate as the CFL’s honcho, knows that the CFL’s showcase brand is powerful, indeed.

“I see a lot of brands now starting to jump on the Canadian patriotism bandwagon,” Cohon said. “We don’t need to because that’s part of the authenticity of this league.

“We’re already part of the culture of this country, and people understand that. I really believe our Grey Cup is a mini-Olympics every year. I think we can create that sense of pride in being Canadian that we just felt for the last 17 days.”

The facts are in when it comes to Grey Cup festivals of recent times, including last year’s Rider Pride dominated Cup in Calgary.

For the CFL, a special Grey Cup is coming in 2012, the 100th anniversary. The site, widely speculated to be Toronto, will announced in May or June.

“I want to make sure that is a Grey Cup for the whole nation,” Cohon said. “Vancouver made this Olympics not just Vancouver’s Olympics, they made it the Olympics for the whole country.”

So, among myriad topics being batted around this week at the CFL’s annual winter congress are creative ideas on how to make that 2012 Cup truly Canada’s Cup.

Vancouver organizers were wildly successful with the Torch Relay, so Cohon muses that perhaps a cross-Canada football run might work. Rather than the usual mini-concert at halftime, a show that celebrates 100 years of the Grey Cup.

Cohon was upbeat on a variety of league issues, including the revival of the franchise in Ottawa, which was granted a conditional franchise, pending a commitment to rebuild Frank Clair Stadium.

Ottawa city council is expected to vote in June on the details of the Landsowne Live project that includes a revamped stadium, as well as retail and other components.

“We’re still aiming for 2013 to get that franchise back into the league,” Cohon said. “The whole project won’t be done, but the stadium will be completed, according to my understanding from the (Ottawa ownership) group.”

With B.C. Lions owner David Braley having assumed ownership of the Toronto Argonauts, Cohon considers that critical file resolved, at least for the next several years, unorthodox as it clearly is.

Asked whether he viewed the situation as transitional, Cohon said, “Ultimately, David has said he doesn’t want to own two franchises. I think ‘transitional’ gives too short a window. I think David is there to help turn around Toronto and improve the franchise there.

“So, I see, in three to five years, there will be some (ownership) transition on his teams. But I think it will take some time because he knows he’s in for the long haul.”

Already, Braley has installed ex-Stampeders executive Jim Barker as head coach in Toronto, so Cohon believes things are on the road to recovery in the CFL’s pivotal franchise.

“It will take time,” Cohon said. “They’ve got to win some fans back. They’ve got to win some games.”