October 11, 2017

Hogan: The Western Mystique

Jimmy Ralph (88) of the Toronto Argonauts during the game against the Montreal Alouettes at BMO Field in Toronto, ON, Saturday, August 19, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

They don’t always win the Grey Cup, they don’t always have the best regular-season team, they don’t always have the M.O.P., but over the last couple of generations the CFL has, for the most part, been dominated by the West.

There’s no logical reason for the phenomenon, but in the two decades the CFL has employed the cross-over rule, nine Western teams have bumped an Eastern team from the playoffs, while an Eastern team has never done the same thing to a team from the West.

It will be the case again this year. The fourth-place team in the West will cross over and be the third seed in the East.

Many an Argonaut fan cringed when they first looked at the schedule and saw the final four games of the season were against Western opponents. Last week they dropped a 27-24 decision to Saskatchewan, while this Saturday they travel to Edmonton.

It’s a storyline that’s impossible to ignore. Many columnists and commentators have talked about scrapping the two-division system, going to a division-free league where the top six teams would make the playoffs.

Marc Trestman is entrusted to prepare his team from not only an Xs and Os perceptive, but to get them in the right state of mental preparedness. The head coach has said in the past he doesn’t think in terms of East and West, but simply prepares for whichever team is up next on the schedule.

This week the coach had some help in knocking down pieces of that ever-present Western aura.

“I think the thing that we did this week was just give them the present sense,” said Trestman, “Ottawa went into B.C. last week and was down 25-6 and found a way to win a game. Hamilton went into Winnipeg last week and found a way to win a game. We played the West a couple weeks ago and found a way to win a game, and that’s what we’re going to do…just keep going.”

Ricky Ray has been on both sides of the East/West battle. Now in his sixth season in Toronto, Ray spent his first nine CFL campaigns in green and gold and has no theories as to why the West has been the alpha division.

He does see one advantage though.

“The only difference we had when I was playing out west,” Ray told Argonauts.ca, “You had some teams coming from the east late in the season, you knew the weather was a little more on your side. Other than that, it was just another game.”

That cool climatic advantage certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of the schedule though.

First-year receiver Jimmy Ralph is a proud Albertan, but will head to his home province wearing Double Blue this week.

A native of Raymond, located south of Calgary and much closer to the Montana border than McMahon Stadium, it will none-the-less be a homecoming of sorts as he returns to Edmonton, where he played two seasons for the University of Alberta Golden Bears.

He’s a rookie on the field, but the East versus West CFL rivalry is nothing new to Ralph. His brother Brock won a couple of Grey Cup rings while catching passes for the Eskies, while Brett played five seasons with the Stampeders.

When his brothers were playing there was no doubt the West was the best.

“My brother Brock, when he played with Edmonton and Brett with Calgary,” began Ralph, “They were so successful at those times that maybe I saw it like that, but I was only seeing it from that angle.”

Now that he’s in the league, he doesn’t quite see it through the same wild-rose coloured glasses.

“I think in professional sports anybody can beat anybody,” Ralph told Argonauts.ca. “You look at how it’s going now, the East is starting to compete with the West and you’re seeing that separation diminish a little bit.”

Geographical theories aside, this will be a pretty special trip home for Ralph. He’ll be playing at Commonwealth Stadium, sharing the huddle with, and potentially catching a pass from Ray, the same quarterback who played with his brother for the first time 14 years ago.

“It’s pretty crazy. I remember in Grade Four my brother won a Grey Cup with him,” said a laughing, almost embarrassed receiver, though he admitted sharing that story with his QB the first time he had an opportunity. “It’s cool. Sometimes I still sit back and realize I’m catching balls from Ricky Ray and I can be able to tell my kids and everybody that I had that opportunity.”

He’ll have that chance Saturday night as the Argos try to continue the East’s recent success against Western opponents.