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EDMONTON – The first voice heard in the documentary, Western Swagger, the story of the Edmonton Eskimo comeback victory in the 1981 Grey Cup, is that of a prominent Canadian, teasingly saying: “Bet I know what’s on your minds — who won and who lost.”
From the second voice, and a blunt, matter-of-fact one at that, come these words: “In my world, whoever is left standing won — period.”
The first speaker is then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who was seated beside then-premier Peter Lougheed at a news conference to announce the deal the Canadian and Alberta governments crafted to normalize relations following the fiasco of the National Energy Program (NEP).
The second voice, velvety soft, in striking contrast to his junkyard dog on-field toughness, is that of legendary middle linebacker Dan Kepley, one of a number of key Eskimos of that era — Dave (Dr. Death) Fennell, head coach Hugh Campbell, kicker Dave Cutler — whose insights inform the film.
Just like that, seconds into his 60-minute contribution to the TSN documentary series Engraved on a Nation, director Barry Greenwald establishes that his take on the fourth instalment of the Eskimo five-in-a-row, 1978-82 dynasty is structured as a series of stories told in parallel.
In this case, the film weaves several threadlines: the NEP and the economic hardship it helped cause; the constitutional discussions to repatriate the Canadian constitution; the separatist aspirations of then-Quebec premier Rene Levesque; and how the Eskimos functioned as a force of social cohesion, a rallying point for a city whose citizens were trying to make sense of complicated times.
If that sounds dry as a political science textbook, be assured that through the insightful gaze of Greenwald’s lens, insights emerge about how a talented group becomes a team, how that team becomes great.
Fennell recounts how those Eskimos regularly convened at the Grand Hotel, then as now an establishment charitably referred to as a “tavern.”
Camaraderie, not mere drinking, was the goal of the meetings, and there was no question attendance was compulsory.
“It was like family dinner on Sunday — you were supposed to be there,” Kepley said. “And if you weren’t there, I’d find you.”
These team-building exercises are set against the backdrop of Lougheed, himself a former Eskimo player, battling Ottawa to protect Alberta’s interests, particularly when it came to control over natural resources.
“The Ottawa government has, without negotiation, without agreement, simply walked into our home and occupied the living room,” the famous clip of Lougheed’s line-in-the-sand statement recalls.
In retrospect, you’re tempted to think the whole NEP unpleasantness would have been avoided had the federal government stumbled not into the metaphorical living room, but into the very raw and real Grand Hotel during one of the Eskimo family get-togethers and had to deal with Kepley and Dr. Death.
Certainly, Cutler and Fennell eloquently evoke the sense of grievance many Albertans felt about the Trudeau government decreeing Alberta had to sell its oil to Canadians at 70 per cent of the world price.
“If you’re a rig worker in Drayton Valley, you’re not as important as someone on the assembly line in Oshawa,” Fennell said, noting that manufacturers in central Canada certainly weren’t selling their goods to Canadians at a 30-per-cent discount.
Only passing reference is made in the film to the 1980s oil glut and the world-wide collapse of the price of oil, mind you. The film also notes that in ’80, one million Quebecers voted to leave Canada, which is a slight stretch.
The 40 per cent of eligible Quebecers who voted “yes” in the ’80 referendum were approving a mandate for the Levesque government to negotiate sovereignty-association, a concept as vague and fluid today as it was then. The “yes” supporters were defeated by a margin of 60-to-40 per cent. But that referendum did lend urgency to the constitutional talks of that era.
Through all this, the Eskimos were a rallying point in Edmonton. The film notes that one in 10 Edmontonians was a season-ticket holder, more than 40,000 strong in the years that Commonwealth Stadium was filled to near capacity game after game.
For Kepley, Campbell and other Eskimos, the unifying force that season was the off-season loss of Don Warrington, a blood-and-guts Eskimo fullback for 10 years, who died in a car accident in December 1980.
They referred to Warrington’s spirit as their 13th man, a powerful inspiration on a team that was as close-knit as it was talented.
One wants to hear what stars like quarterbacks Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson have to say about that ’81 championship season, but their voices are not heard in the film.
Cutler refers to the rumpled, do-anything-to-win Wilkinson as “The guy that knit it all together.”
Cutler also is insightful on the concept of “pressure,” which he rejects as a selfish emotion, an individual’s fear of his own failure.
The team that enforced regular team-building sessions at the Grand Hotel played not for individual glory, but for one another. You performed poorly, you let your teammates down, plain and simple.
It was that spirit the 14-1-1 Eskimos tapped into to overcome a 20-1 halftime deficit to J.C. Watts and the underdog, 5-11 Ottawa Rough Riders and win that Grey Cup game.
Curiously, in a film whose central concern has to do with grievance and injustice, the most controversial play in the game is not discussed. In the game’s final four minutes, a hotly disputed pass interference call nullified a 20-yard gain on a Watts to Tony Gabriel pass.
The Rough Riders’ drive stalled and the Eskimos regained possession, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
It was Cutler who drilled the “no-doubt-about-it” game-winning 27-yard field goal in the 26-23 Eskimo victory in front of a crowd that included Trudeau, Lougheed and Levesque.
For a reporter whose first assignment for the Montreal bureau of The Canadian Press was the ’81 Grey Cup, Western Swagger evokes a flood of rich memories and smartly connects dots with social themes he had not considered at the time.
Greenwald’s documentary, produced by Don Metz and his Aquila Productions Inc., is a strong addition to the fine TSN series.
Check out my blog, Sweatsox, at edmontonjournal.com/blogs
TV viewing times for Western Swagger:
TSN — Thursday, 5:30 p.m. MST
TSN2 — Friday, 8 p.m. MST
CTV Two — Saturday, 7 p.m. MST
CTV — Sunday, 9:00 a.m. MST
TSN2 — Wednesday, Nov. 21, 9 p.m. MST