Written By Steve Daniel
The Winnipeg Football Club holds a truly unique place in Manitoba history as a kind of catalyst for drawing people together with a common interest and we have drawn plenty of that over the years – more than eleven million since 1936 when it first seemed prudent to measure traffic through the turnstiles. A look at the team’s first logo suggests that this prudence, along with principles of commerce and industry formed the team’s initial vision at the foundation of the football club in 1930. It is these and other core values that continue to be reflected in our present more dynamic brand, but with the continued recognition that as a community-owned team we are responsible to our long-time and supportive fans. With this relationship at the heart of the team we can look back on our history as an important part of Manitoba culture. Yet the vision of the Winnipeg Football Club has always adapted to a changing CFL landscape as well, one where competition is intense, both for financial and on-field success. This is reflected in a commitment by players and management alike to get to the Grey Cup every year, and in creating a return for the very people that support and in fact own the team at the community level.
Media guide histories tend to be all about dates and statistics and ours is no different in that respect. But if there is a single statistic that best defines our team over time, it is that between our very first and most recent Grey Cup victories, between 1935 and 1990 that is, no team made more trips to the Grey Cup than the Winnipeg Football Club’s 21 appearances. Considering the fact that our individual players seldom appear at the top of the CFL’s all-time leaders lists (with the notable exception of all-time great Milt Stegall), it becomes a source of pride in being able to focus on team success. In presenting our history here, the 2013 Blue Bomber media guide takes two distinct perspectives on the club’s past and present, that of providing essential information about who we are now, but also where we have been and the players and coaches that have led the team along the way.
The periods where the Bombers have been the most successful share one factor in common, that of finding and maintaining a core of long-service veteran players who know how to win. The path we have taken since the club first formed out of earlier Winnipeg teams has featured many such Hall of Fame performers at its heart. The first solid core, wearing the Blue and Gold uniform and Blue Bomber nickname adopted during that time, emerged in the mid-1930s with stars such as Russ Rebholz, Fritz Hanson and Jeff Nicklin. Bomber teams of the 1930’s and 1940’s, following the 1933 merger with the more experienced Winnipeg St. John’s team, featured stars such as Lou Adelman (1930-39), Lou Mogul (1932-42), Bill Ceretti (1933-49), Greg Kabat (1933-40), Bert Oja (1935-37), and Art Stevenson (1937-41). Playing at newly-constructed Osborne Stadium, these players contributed to a 40-14-1 record between 1935 and 1943 and seven Grey Cup appearances in nine years.
After WW II, the Blue Bombers returned to the Grey Cup four times but fell short to the Toronto Argonauts almost annually from 1945 to 1950. These disappointments would soon be offset by a long stretch of dominant Winnipeg teams. This next strong player core developed in time for the construction of Winnipeg Stadium and the strong run from 1952 to 1962. This 11-year stretch can certainly be viewed as the Golden Age of Bomber football, but was by no means the only one. The early 1950’s featured star QB and punter Indian Jack Jacobs, end and kicker Ches McCance, Hall of Fame halfback Tom Casey and tackles Buddy Tinsley and Dick Huffman. These “60-minute” players frequently went both ways seldom going to the bench at all. And no team better reflected that solid veteran core than the 1959 Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
There have been 32 players over the club’s 80-year history that played 10 or more seasons in Winnipeg with a staggering 13 of them having played on the 1959 Grey Cup championship team, and few led any statistical category in the West that year. Under Head Coach Bud Grant, this unit went 12-4 in the regular season, swept Edmonton two straight in the Western Final, and dominated Hamilton 21-7 for their second straight CFL title. Grant’s teams won a stunning 75 of 96 games between 1957 and 1962 on the way to four Grey Cup wins. This era featured unforgettable Bomber stars like Leo Lewis, Ernie Pitts, Herb Gray, Steve Patrick, Frank Rigney, Gerry James, Ron ‘Pepe’ Latourelle, Roger Savoie, Farrell Funston, Gord Rowland, Norm Rauhaus and the player recently voted by all Canadian football fans as the top performer of the 1960s – quarterback, defensive back and leader Ken Ploen. Many of them achieved HOF status after their retirement having played only for Winnipeg in their careers.
Following the retirement of the players from this central group, the period from 1966 to the early 1980s was a down time for the club as the powerful teams in Calgary, Regina and Edmonton took their turns in dominating the west. That is indeed the cyclical nature of Canadian football and again showed that the development of a long-serving core leads to post-season success. The era was not without its stars however as all-time Bomber greats of this period included QBs Don Jonas and Dieter Brock as well as John Bonk, Jim Washington and Mike Holmes. By the early 1980s however, the next great Blue Bomber clubs began to re-emerge. In the 13 years between 1982 and 1994, the team reached the Division Final 12 times, led by stars such as Chris Walby, James Murphy, Joe Poplawski, Tom Clements, Stan Mikawos and Bob Cameron. The Bombers made it to five Grey Cups between 1984 and 1993 winning three times. This group produced the last Cup for Winnipeg in 1990 with an all-time modern day record 50-11 win over the Eskimos. Since 1993, the club has made three more trips (2001, 2007 and 2011) and has hopes of returning there, only this time, coming away with the trophy that has eluded them many times before.
From the mid-1990s up to the present day, the Bombers have been led by stars such as QB Khari Jones, defensive lineman Doug Brown, tailback Charles Roberts and kicker Troy Westwood. The finest player of this era however has been receiver Milt Stegall, now retired and still a strong contributor post-career to the organization. This has actually been a recurring theme to see the club’s front office, advisory and governing boards dotted with players and other community members alike. It is a vital part of our history that club members have always included off-field workers that frequently go unnoticed.
Many of these contributors may be found in the Builder category in the club’s own Hall of Fame. This group includes Canadian Football Hall of Famers D. Wes Brown, Arthur Chipman, Frank Hannibal, Joe B. Ryan and many others from coaching, executive and staff levels. They have contributed substantially to the financial and organizational well-being of the team, one that is truly “team management by committee”, and is reflected in yet another set of numbers. The club has averaged more than 20,000 in attendance each and every year since 1971, and as a percentage of capacity the Bombers’ attendance is probably unmatched elsewhere over the long run.
If there is a common thread to be found throughout the history of the Winnipeg Football Club – it is the relationship between the fans and the team, and their close connection through the team’s players. The Blue Bombers may thus be seen not so much as separate from their very loyal following, but in fact consisting of that very foundation in a close relationship where success matters on and off the field. This is a relationship in which the facts and figures presented here are overshadowed by the memories derived from more than 80 years of community history.