Tradition and an intense rivalry have elevated a home-and-home series in the middle of the CFL season into something much greater than just two regular-season games.
Both the Labour Day Classic in Calgary and the rematch between the Stampeders and Eskimos five days later in Edmonton are usually a dog fight, regardless of the teams’ records.
Over the years, there have been wild high-scoring games, last-second comebacks, missed field goals as time expired, pre-game fights, a helmet-swinging brawl and blowouts.
“Great fans, great atmosphere always for both games,” said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. “A great rivalry and a lot of hard-fought battles.
“It’s a physical and mental grind the whole week, but the fans make it extraordinary,” Maas continued. “I think it’s a great thing for the league. I just love the Labour Day (series) the way it is. It’s like a playoff atmosphere and playoff style for those two games. It’s a really cool experience.”
Maas admitted that every game is supposed to be played with that type of intensity, but knows it doesn’t usually happen.
“It’s just something about the Labour Day game and then the rematch a few days later that sets it apart from all of the other regular-season games you play in a year,” he said.
Maas recalled the wildest extreme of emotions – from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows – only a few moments apart 16 years ago in the Labour Day rematch game at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.
The former quarterback had already helped the Esks squeak out a 33-32 victory by making a 23-yard run to set up Sean Fleming’s game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock five days earlier in the Labour Day Classic at Calgary.
“I won my first game as a starter on Labour Day Monday on a game-winning kick,” he said. “Memories like that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
But the excitement of winning his first game as a starting QB in the CFL faded quickly the next game.
“I’ve never been so high and so low in one week or one game as that,” Maas said. “To think you’ve thrown a game-winner for back-to-back wins to shock your provincial rival and then throw a pick-six two-point convert and have it go for a one-point victory the other way, that was horrible. That was one of the lowest lows I had playing.”
Maas had passed to Quincy Jackson for a dramatic 65-yard pass-and-run touchdown to give the Eskimos a 33-32 lead with 45 seconds left in the game. Edmonton, which rallied from a 13-point deficit by outscoring Calgary 15-1 in the final quarter to that point, opted for a two-point convert to secure a three-point lead, but Calgary’s William Fields picked off the pass and returned the interception 110 yards from one end zone to the other.
“I don’t know if there’s probably going ever to be a game like those games,” Maas said. “You don’t see too many games get decided on a two-point convert the other way. That may never happen again.
“I had never experienced anything quite like that before that and never experienced in the rest of my career something like that. It was just an incredible high to a low and I was an emotional player anyway, so you can imagine thinking you had just scored a game-winner and go out ….
“I still remember the play, I still remember throwing it, I can visually see it and all those things. Just a critical mistake on the throw and it cost you a ball game. That sucked.”
Maas had thrown a 50-yard Hail Mary pass to Terry Vaughn to score a touchdown right before the half “so there were a lot of cool parts to that game, too, but that definitely was the lowest of the low.”
Here are some other interesting contests Maas witnessed during the midseason series over the years:
- A then-record 62,444 spectators showed up in Edmonton five days after a melee broke out during the 2003 Labour Day Classic when Esks QB Ricky Ray was driven out of bounds and into the Gatorade jug on the Eskimos’ sideline. “One of my best memories as an Eskimo is us filling the stadium on the Friday game after what transpired on Monday,” Maas said. “I’ve been in how many Grey Cups and that was electrifying that night. That was a completely different ball game. There was a lot of intensity in that game. I didn’t play; I just held for Sean’s kicks. And then we blanked them (38-0) anyway so that even led to more of it. But there was a lot of emotion in our locker room that night. It was a pretty awesome game.”
- In 2005, the Eskimos led the Labour Day game 20-1 at halftime, but Calgary was threatening when quarterback Henry Burris scored a late touchdown. Needing a two-point convert to tie the game, Burris was charged with a time-count violation and then got sacked, allowing the Esks to escape with a narrow 25-23 victory. Five days later, Edmonton lost 16-11.
- In 2009, the Eskimos scored 20 points in the third quarter to take a 34-20 lead, but Burris threw a game-winning TD pass to Jermaine Copeland with 22 seconds remaining for a 35-34 victory.
“I always say about the Labour Day Classics or the games themselves Monday and it used to be Friday, was that they’re as close to college football as you could get atmosphere-wise for an American coming up to Canada and playing,” Maas said. “It just felt like our rivalries down in the States that we were so used to as American players coming up here. That’s what the Calgary-Edmonton rivalry feels like on Labour Day.
“You go to the stadium on Monday, you see the fans tail-gating around their stadium. It’s an afternoon game, which most college games are. That was my first real experience with that.
“And then playing four days later is a complete shock the first time you do that.”
Playing two games within five or six days was rare at one time; it was pretty much exclusive to the Labour Day series when Maas first came to the CFL in 2000. Now, it’s not unusual for a team to play three games within 11 days at some point in the season.
“That Labour Day Monday-Friday (games) was an unbelievable physical grind,” said Maas. “And then you come home in front of your fans on Friday night and play a big game against the same rival. It’s like an extended 60 minutes with all the emotions that went into that previous game and not much of a practice. There was so much to not think about; just go out there and react in the second game. It was kind of a war of attrition.”
The biggest rivalries Maas experienced at the University of Oregon were games against Oregon State University – “The Civil War” is one of the oldest NCAA rivalries – and the U of Washington. Prior to Maas’s arrival, the Ducks hadn’t defeated Washington in a long time, according to Maas, but he never lost to the Huskies during his five years at Oregon.
Maas said the rivalry between Oregon and Oregon State, which are located only a 45-minute drive apart, is “as close as the Calgary-Edmonton series as you can get in my mind.”
He has also experienced the East Division’s version of the two-game Labour Day series both as a player with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and as a coach with the Toronto Argonauts.
“They’re intense, no question,” he said. “There’s just something about being in Alberta. When it’s your first experience ever with it, there’s nothing quite like the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry. Hamilton-Toronto is very close, but for me sentimentally, just knowing that (Esks-Stamps) was my first go-around and I also did way more of those.”
Maas had a 9-3 record during the two-game Labour Day series in his first go-round in Edmonton from 2000-2005, but was only 2-6 from 2008-11 after rejoining the Esks. Add in his 0-2 record as a coach last year, and Maas’s lifetime record in the Labour Day week series was 11-11 as of 2016, including 4-7 in the rematch game in Edmonton.