By Nolan Kowal, Sport Performance Specialist
Have you heard about our exciting new project? We have teamed up with local author Sean Grassie to publish a book celebrating iconic stories from 150 years of sport in Manitoba.
All proceeds from the book will go to KidSport Manitoba, an organization that provides support to children in order to remove financial barriers that prevent them from participating in organized sport. Once a month, we will be releasing a sneak peak of the stories from our book!
In this month’s feature story, we are looking back on how the Winnipeg Blue Bombers got their name.
Read the full story below. (The French version is available here)
Birth of the Bombers
TEAM GOT AN UNPLANNED NAME CHANGE
As an era of dominance in the West began in the mid-1930s for the Winnipeg Football Club, a new team name came along with it.
In 1935, Winnipeg Tribune sportswriter Vince Leah labelled the team in a story by borrowing from the “Brown Bomber” nickname given to American boxer Joe Louis, world heavyweight champion from 1937-49.
“I called the team the ‘Blue Bombers of Western football’ and I guess it rang a bell,” Leah wrote in his book, A History of the Blue Bombers.
The name soon stuck. Articles in the Tribune and Winnipeg Free Press in 1936 refer to the team as the Blue Bombers. The 1937 western champions that lost 4-3 to the Toronto Argonauts are recognized in CFL history books as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The team was founded on June 10, 1930 as the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club and called the Winnipeg Winnipegs, replacing the Tammany Tigers in the Manitoba Rugby Football Union (MRFU). The Winnipegs, in green-and-white uniforms, played their inaugural game on September 13 of that year, losing 7-3 to the St. John’s Saints.
St. John’s was part of the MRFU when the Western Canada Rugby Football Union (WCRFU) was formed in 1911. The Calgary Tigers beat the Winnipeg Rowing Club 13-6 that year to claim the Hugo Ross Trophy as WCRFU champions (Hugo Ross was a Winnipeg realtor). The Rowing Club lost the western final in each of the next three years to Regina.
A Manitoba team won the WCRFU title for the first time in 1924, but its appearance in the Grey Cup was called off.
The Winnipeg Victorias were set to travel to Toronto for the 1924 Grey Cup to take on Queen’s University, the eastern champions. However, a dispute arose between players and executives of the Victorias over which railway to use. The Canadian Rugby Football Union informed Queen’s University the Victorias wouldn’t make the trip because of the disagreement and that Queen’s would be awarded the Grey Cup. The Victorias made a last-minute appeal to Queen’s University to play the game as their travel arrangements had been settled, but it was too late. Varsity Stadium in Toronto had already been rented for the national junior championship, tickets to the Queen’s-Victorias game had been destroyed and Queen’s University players had put away their equipment for the season.
In 1925, the Tammany Tigers from Winnipeg lost 24-1 to the Ottawa Senators in the Grey Cup in Ottawa. The game marked the first Grey Cup appearance for a Winnipeg team, and it would be another 10 years before a team from the city made it back to the national final.
St. John’s won five straight Manitoba titles from 1928-32, but lost in the West semifinals each year to the Regina Roughriders. St. John’s suspended operations prior to the 1933 season, which proved to be a turning point for the Winnipeg Winnipegs.
The absence of St. John’s left only two teams in the Winnipeg Senior Rugby Football League for the 1933 season: the Winnipegs and Garrison, an armed forces team. A third team, the Shamrocks, was comprised of players who didn’t make the Winnipegs squad. The Shamrocks weren’t officially part of the league, but played exhibition games against the Winnipegs and Garrison. Former St. John’s Saints players went to the Winnipegs.
“The wholesale transfer of former Saints to the ‘Pegs is due to that club being the only civilian member of this year’s senior league,” the Tribune reported.
One former St. John’s player joining the Winnipegs was Brandon native Andrew Currie. He was 17 when he played for the Regina Roughriders in the 1928 Grey Cup, and a week later Currie helped the Regina Pats win the national junior title.
Also moving over to the Winnipegs was Russ Rebholz, a playing coach with St. John’s in 1932. The University of Wisconsin product scored three touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass in a 39-0 win over Garrison that clinched the 1933 Manitoba title for the Winnipegs.
In the 1933 western playoffs, the Winnipegs beat Regina 11-1 on a snow-covered field, and then defeated Calgary 15-1 on an icy field to win the Hugo Ross Trophy. Both games were played in front of about 3,000 fans at Carruthers Park in Winnipeg.
Playing coach Carl Cronin, a University of Notre Dame star who became the first American import to join the Winnipegs in 1932, led his team to Varsity Stadium in Toronto for a 1933 Grey Cup semifinal game against the Toronto Argonauts. The Winnipegs lost 13-0 and the Argonauts went on to beat the Sarnia Imperials 4-3 for the championship title.
The Winnipegs wore new blue and gold uniforms when they opened their 1934 season at Osborne Stadium with an exhibition game against the Minnesota All-Stars, a team of former college players. References to the Winnipegs as the “Blue and Gold” started being made by local newspaper writers. When the team returned home after winning the 1935 Grey Cup, Union Station was “festooned with blue and gold streamers” and fans packed the depot wearing blue and gold ribbons, the Free Press reported.
The Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU), which later became the Canadian Football League’s West Division, was founded in 1936. Winnipeg won every WIFU final played between 1937-47. The Blue Bombers, as they were now known, beat the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 1939 and 1941 Grey Cup games.
Following Winnipeg’s 1941 triumph, another team known as the RCAF Bombers represented the city in the next two Grey Cup championships and lost both.
Due to the Second World War, there was no WIFU play from 1942-44, and only WIFU playoffs were held in 1945. In 1942, the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club sponsored and supervised a three-team league that held all games at Osborne Stadium. The RCAF Bombers, RCAF Flyers and Varsity comprised the City Rugby Football League (CRFL). The Bombers team included members of the army and naval forces, as well as players not eligible for military service. The RCAF Flyers were made up of members from local stations of the Royal Canadian Air Force, while Varsity was a team of University of Manitoba students. All three squads carried players who previously played with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Bombers beat the Flyers 34-29 in the two-game, total-points league final, losing 18-14 before beating the Flyers 20-11. The three city teams formed an all-star team, called the RCAF Bombers, to take on Regina Navy for a spot in the Grey Cup. Coached by Reg Threlfall (1938-1941 Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach), the RCAF Bombers beat Regina Navy 13-6 and then lost 8-5 to the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes in the Grey Cup.
In 1943, RCAF Bombers and United Services were set to begin a two-team league in Winnipeg before the Regina All-Services Roughriders joined in to create the Western Services Football League, which operated with the support of the Winnipeg Rugby Football Club. The RCAF Bombers went undefeated through league play and beat Regina 1-0 and 11-0 to win the two-game championship series 12-0. In the Grey Cup, the RCAF Bombers lost 23-14 to the Hamilton Flying Wildcats. According to The Canadian Press, the Hamilton team was comprised of “eight members of the air force and two of the navy, the rest of the players being civilians, many of whom work in war plants.”
Ches McCance was one of the stars of the RCAF Bombers. The Winnipegger played in eight Grey Cup games, winning titles with Winnipeg in 1939 and 1941 and another with the Montreal Alouettes in 1949. He also curled in two straight Briers at third on Ken Weldon’s Quebec team, losing in a playoff the second year to Manitoba’s Ab Gowanlock for the 1953 Canadian title.
There was no East-West Grey Cup game in 1944, as two eastern teams met for the title. An Inter-Services Rugby Football League operated in Winnipeg that year.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers returned to the field after a three-year absence on September 28, 1945. After beating the Calgary Stampeders in the West final, the Blue Bombers lost 35-0 to the Toronto Argonauts in the Grey Cup.
The two Grey Cup losses for the RCAF Bombers, followed by six straight defeats in the championship game for the Blue Bombers, gave Winnipeg teams a 0-8 Grey Cup record from 1942-57. Each loss was at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. The Blue Bombers reversed the trend by winning the title in seven of their next eight Grey Cup appearances from 1958-1990.