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‘Year of the Rocket’ a blast from the CFL past

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In the world of gridiron football, the NFL reigns supreme. The league has become an entertainment behemoth, a multibillion-dollar monolith that is the closest thing to monoculture that North America experiences anymore.

But to the north, there is another football league with a storied history of its own.

The Canadian Football League has been around for a long time too – decades longer than its more prominent neighbor to the south – though it has never developed the same sort of all-encompassing hold on the general population. As the NFL exploded in popularity in the 1970s and into the ‘80s, the CFL – once an entity on more-or-less equal footing with its counterpart – began losing ground.

But in the early ‘90s, thanks to a bizarre confluence of timing and circumstance and a handful of bold and ill-conceived choices, a celebrated college star headed north and the CFL briefly found itself the talk of the sports world.

“Year of the Rocket: When John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, and a Crooked Tycoon Pulled Off the Craziest Season in Football History” (Sutherland House, $19.95) by Paul Woods is the story of that moment, where a trio of celebrated owners took control of one of the CFL’s most storied franchises and used their combined clout and cash to convince Notre Dame’s Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, one of college football’s biggest stars, to sign with them.

Woods goes deep into the situation, documenting the struggles that came from dealing with the sky-high expectations across the board; on the field and off, behind the scenes and in front of the world, these were circumstances unlike any ever experienced by the CFL. It was a whole new world – some of it good, some of it bad, all of it compelling.

1991 was shaping up to be a rough year for the CFL. The venerable football league was in a financial tailspin, with every team in the league dealing with some degree of economic hardship. Even the league’s flagship organization, the Toronto Argonauts, was in danger of succumbing to these harsh realities.

And then – it all changed.

A new ownership group took command of the Argos, including two of the most iconic Canadians of the day. There was John Candy, the beloved comedian and Toronto native who was a lifelong fan of the Argonauts, and there was Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, the consensus best hockey player of all time. Tough to find a pair that would be more engaging to a Canadian crowd. The third member of the trio was Bruce McNall, a rare coin and antiquities magnate who also owned the NHL’s L.A. Kings.

Suddenly, there was a new excitement surrounding the league. Still, there’s only so much buzz that can be generated by an ownership group. Ultimately, it comes down to the players on the field … but this threesome had a plan for that.

And so it was that Raghib Ismail, better known as “The Rocket,” – Notre Dame star, Heisman Trophy runner-up and one of the most hyped college football players ever – wound up the subject of a bidding war, one that found the Argonauts making him the highest-paid player in the history of football before he’d ever played a professional down.

But as it turned out, while there was room for short-term success, there was an underlying reality to the situation that would leave almost everyone involved dealing with some degree of disappointment. And while this period was relatively short in chronological terms, the impact from the situation would reverberate through the league for many years afterward.

As someone with a well-documented fondness for the CFL, “Year of the Rocket” was always going to hit right with me. Doubly so considering that in 1991, I – while not yet enamored of the gridiron of the Great White North – was only just ascending into general sports fandom and was rather fascinated by Rocket Ismail. This is a story I remember in the moment, though only the initial splash – the aftermath was something that I never knew.

Until now.

Woods has written a remarkably thorough deconstruction of the turbulent chaos that was the early-90s CFL. It is an eminently readable time capsule, a breakdown of the unique set of circumstances that led to such a wild ride – some of it on the field and so much more of it off. He handles so many aspects of the situation with deft delicacy. There was the massive pressure on Ismail to live up to the terms of his contract, both as a player and as a league ambassador. There was the genuine passion of Candy, who completely and utterly adored his time as an owner; his was a very real love of the game. There was the general shiftiness surrounding McNall – shiftiness whose depths would become apparent in the years that would follow. All of the ownership stuff – particularly anything involving Candy, who comes off as a combination of CFL Pied Piper and Dionysian saint.

Oh, and in the middle of all of it, an Argonauts team surrounded by a publicity circus the likes of which the league had never seen was trying to win a Grey Cup.

Well-reported and engaging, “Year of the Rocket” captures a moment in time unlike any in the history of any sports league – Canadian or otherwise. It brings together many of the main players, delving into their memories of a stretch that – however briefly – changed the landscape of professional athletics.

For fans of the CFL – or of sports in general – “Year of the Rocket” provides a concise and comprehensive account of one of the weirdest moments in pro sports, a time when a single massive splash produced ripples that expand outward to this day.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 September 2021 08:03

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