At the moment, the Roughriders are the CFL's most popular franchise and the one that really sums up this league. Their cross-country fandom has played key roles in the television ratings, which have been very strong when the Riders do well, and less so when their team's struggling. The Riders are far from the only part of the CFL, but they reflect what this league's all about: they play in Regina (with a population of just over 193,000), a city most professional sports would laugh at as too small, but constantly have incredible attendance and have a whole province and more that follows their every move. Similarly, Stompin' Tom did a lot of things that many would consider foolhardy from a business standpoint, specifically foreswearing trying to appeal to the U.S. market in favour of writing songs about Canada—and often small-town Canada at that. Like the Riders, it worked out for him, and he became a national legend.
The Riders' diehard fans and Stompin' Tom's music may both seem quirky to some of those on the outside, but in their own way, both are essential parts of Canada, and worthy of celebration. When Tom passed away this year, he was mourned nationally and many attempted to summarize what he meant to Canada. The Riders are still alive and kicking, obviously, but there have been no shortage of pieces breaking down what they and their fans mean to this league and this country either—and there will likely be many more of those as Saskatchewan hosts the 101st Grey Cup this November in Regina.
Stompin' Tom came from humble beginnings, as he grew up in the poorest part of Saint John, New Brunswick, was later seized by Children's Aid, left his adoptive family at 15 and hitchhiked across Canada for 13 years before landing a regular singing gig at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario. The Riders also didn't get off to an auspicious start. They began life as the Regina Rugby Club in 1910, but although they quickly rose to prominence and won seven straight Western Canada Rugby Football Union titles from 1912-1920 (no WCRFU title was awarded in 1917 or 1918 thanks to World War I), they lost the WCRFU title to Edmonton in the first two years the Western champion was allowed to compete for the Grey Cup. When the team finally did make it to the Grey Cup in 1923, they suffered what's still the most lopsided defeat in the trophy's history, a 54-0 loss to the Queen's University Golden Gaels.
Triumph would eventually come for both Stompin' Tom and the Roughriders, but there would be further ups and downs along the way. The team switched its name to the Regina Roughriders in 1924, got back to dominating the West and made it to six further Grey Cups by 1934. They didn't win the top prize until 1966, 20 years after changing their name to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and then went through another dry spell until 1989, but managed to win the hearts and minds of much of the province along the way. Similarly, it wasn't an instantaneous rise to success for Stompin' Tom even once he got his gig at the Maple Leaf (a story long remembered in the Canadian music landscape) in 1964. He landed a local radio gig in Timmins as well, but played at the hotel for 14 months, and his first album wasn't released until 1967. 1969's "Bud The Spud And Other Favourites" was the only one of his albums to reach gold certification. Still, as the Roughriders' impact goes well beyond the three Grey Cups they've won, Connors' impact far transcends his album sales.
It's also apropros that Canadian content played such a significant role in the success of both. For Stompin' Tom, it was songs like "Bud the Spud," "Sudbury Saturday Night," "Margo's Cargo" and, of course, "The Hockey Song," that really took off, music celebrating Canada, its people and their eccentricities. Similarly, when Saskatchewan won the Grey Cup in 2007 (under quarterback-turned-coach-turned-local-hero Kent Austin, who then abandoned them for an OC gig at Ole Miss before returning to the CFL with Hamilton this year) and then made back-to-back appearances in 2009 and 2010, a lot of their success was thanks to their "Canadian Air Force" of receivers: Andy Fantuz, Rob Bagg, Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont and others all played essential roles for a team that often elected to start more than the minimum number of non-imports. That was an unusual decision at the time, akin to Stompin' Tom's decision to avoid songs that might sell better south of the border or his move to return his Junos to protest the Canadian music industry's trend of Americanization, but it proved tremendously important to the team's on-field triumphs.
However, while Stompin' Tom became a massive figure across Canada, he wasn't all that well-known globally. That was by choice, as he elected to focus on the Canadian market, but it's not all that far removed from the current Roughriders. Unlike Stompin' Tom, they're shooting for the largest possible prize, the Grey Cup, but they may not be able to quite get there this year. General manager Brendan Taman has made some impressive additions in Riderville, of course, most notably star slotback Geroy Simon (acquired from B.C. for minimal pieces) and defensive end Ricky Foley (signed as a free agent out of Toronto). The team's more veteran-heavy than the young group that went 8-10 last year, and Corey Chamblin has more head coaching experience, so they should be slightly better. You still have to wonder if they're quite ready to make the leap to full success, though. There are plenty of questions around this team, specifically how good the offensive line will be, if quarterback Darian Durant can recapture the form he showed in 2009 and 2010 and if the defence will be able to generate a consistent pass rush, and it seems implausible that all of those will be answered in a way that's favourable to Saskatchewan.
From here, the most likely outcome for the 2013 Roughriders is something akin to what Stompin' Tom found. That would be reasonable and memorable success, but not the highest-possible amount of recognition. While a Grey Cup to match the one they won with hero-turned-rival Austin would be nice, it's not going to be easy to achieve that goal this year. In the end, Saskatchewan may not be the Grey Cup team that gets woken up.
Prediction: 9-9, third in the West, loss in Western semi-final