Twenty-five years ago, a Rough Riders win marked the start of the CFL’s American experiment

Offensive lineman Chris Dyko of the Sacramento Gold Miners throws a block during the first ever game between an American CFL franchise and a Canadian one on July 7, 1993.

Given how the league’s American expansion ultimately turned out, perhaps it’s no surprise the 25th anniversary of the first-ever regular season game between a Canadian CFL franchise and an American one went largely unrecognized.

But just over 25 years ago –  July 7th, 1993 – the Ottawa Rough Riders’ season opener against the Sacramento Gold Miners marked the first game between CFL clubs on either side of the border. Though teams had previously gone up against NFL franchises in exhibition matches, the game marked the start of a new era in the CFL.

That the team in Canada’s capital hosted the game was fitting, but as noted by Brent Dowdall in his book “Turnover: The Fumbling of the Ottawa Rough Riders”, only came about due to some hard lobbying on the part of then team president Lonie Glieberman to league executives. To this day the Glieberman name is reviled in Ottawa, but ensuring the participation of the Rough Riders in the historic game may be the only thing he ever did right.

The media build-up to the game was tremendous, heavy on nationalistic tones. On one side, there was the Ottawa Rough Riders, a Canadian team bound by the CFL’s ratio rule, with 20 of the 37 players with Canadian citizenship. On the other, the Sacramento Gold Miners, a team exempt from the ratio rule and fielding a squad entirely of Americans. Given the exemption and the fact that many players on the Gold Miners’ roster had NFL experience, Sacramento was viewed as a heavy favourite.

The hype surrounding the Gold Miners did not go unnoticed by Rough Rider players. Still, as Ottawa defensive lineman Glenn Kulka noted in an interview with Canadian Press reporter Bruce Cheadle before the game, “Nobody wants to be the first CFL team to lose to an All-American team.”

On the line was nothing less than bragging rights about the quality of each country’s football players. The Rough Riders and Gold Miners game would be the first volley in a debate that would rage until the last American expansion team folded.

When game day finally arrived, 23,916 members of R-Nation packed into Frank Clair Stadium to witness the contest. Pre-game ceremonies included skydivers parachuting to mid-field with American and Canadian flags, U.S. Marines, Governor General foot guards and each country’s national anthem.

With the kickoff, the first international clash of CFL franchises got underway. The Sacramento Gold Miners became the first American team to play a down in the CFL and the Rough Riders the first Canadians to oppose them.

The Gold Miners’ roster featured just three players with previous CFL experience and the team only had a month of practice under its belt. As they took penalty after penalty (procedure flags, offside, no yards, time clock violations), it became apparent that Sacramento was overwhelmed.

Even when they managed to avoid being flagged, the Rough Riders gave them a harsh welcome to the Canadian game, quickly pulling out to a 14-0 lead.

On offence, quarterback Tom Burgess completed 21 of 41 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Stephen Jones caught an 11 yard touchdown pass and threw for one of his own; a 46 yard strike coming off a trick play reverse.

On defence, the Rough Riders were relentless, sacking Sacramento pivot David Archer seven times, picking him off twice and generally making life difficult every time he dropped back to pass.

The Gold Miners couldn’t even catch a break on special teams, allowing the Rough Riders to move the sticks on a fake punt and missing all three field goals they attempted.

Given that Ron Smeltzer (Ottawa’s coach) had nearly a decade’s worth of experience coaching in the CFL, including stints as an offensive line coach and offensive coordinator with B.C., Calgary and Edmonton, it was no surprise to see him thoroughly out-coach Kay Stephenson, his rookie Sacramento counterpart completely new to the nuances of the Canadian game.

Despite the Gold Miners putting together a slight rally in the third quarter, they still wound up on the losing side, with the Rough Riders earning a 32-23 victory.

Asked recently about his performance in the game and what sticks with him most vividly after all these years, Jones said, “Nobody gave us a chance but we proved that the CFL was no joke. Winning that game was a great victory, not only for us players, but Canada as a whole. Fans went home proud that night.”

*Special thanks to CFL statistician Steve Daniel for providing the resources that made this piece possible*

Santino Filoso

Santino Filoso

Born and raised in the 613, Santino has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know.)
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Santino Filoso
About Santino Filoso (219 Articles)
Born and raised in the 613, Santino has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know.)

33 Comments on Twenty-five years ago, a Rough Riders win marked the start of the CFL’s American experiment

  1. RicoBeBlue&Gold // July 17, 2018 at 1:03 pm //

    Those were lean years for the CFL, before expansion and after. Larry Smith almost killed the CFL by himself. Larry Julia was a beast of a player.

  2. RicoBeBlue&Gold // July 17, 2018 at 1:05 pm //

    Larry Julia?? Spell check sucks. I was saying Kulka was a beast.

  3. Glen Kulka, not Larry.

  4. Garcia98 // July 17, 2018 at 1:21 pm //

    You’re both wrong. It was Kulkamania.

    • Pretty sure I am right on this one. He coached my son this past year. Still lives in Ottawa. Still a beast of a man. Great guy.

      • Garcia98 // July 17, 2018 at 1:31 pm //

        He added some great character to that franchise way back in a time where wins were few and far between. Yet another reason why I love the CFL.

    • Walked by Kulka during a pre-game warm up. His arms were bigger than my legs.

  5. Blue rules // July 17, 2018 at 1:32 pm //

    The biggest mistake the CFL EVER made!!!!

    • I know it didn’t work but I really enjoyed these days. It was nice seeing new teams and having more competition. I am not suggesting they go back but I still think, if done correctly, it could work.

  6. And I was at that game with my dad and uncle whom have both passed away….as I promised my dad I would be an Ottawa sports fan forever

  7. True Blue // July 17, 2018 at 1:51 pm //

    They should have started expansion with a border city and done it a ream at a time to see how it worked instead of all our right out of the gates. Arguably one or two American teams might work over the long term. Doubtful it will ever happen though. The CFL needs to find a way to bring attendance up first.

  8. Just saying // July 17, 2018 at 2:07 pm //

    The CFL went hard fast because they needed the money I believe?

    • Garcia98 // July 17, 2018 at 2:16 pm //

      Bruce McNall (LA Kings & Argonaut owner) heavily influenced the CFL at that time. The CFL badly needed an infusion of funds plus his charisma mistakenly convinced everyone that expansion would lead to huge growth. He bankrupted the LA Kings and the CFL nearly collapsed as well (as we all now know).

  9. David Tress // July 17, 2018 at 2:29 pm //

    The reason American expansion failed is because they try’d to make it a Canada vs. U.S. thing with an all-American division. They should have mixed the teams up like the NHL and keep the teams that are still in the green, like Baltimore.

  10. RicoBeBlue&Gold // July 17, 2018 at 2:48 pm //

    Well in a way they did. Baltimore became the Als. But I get your point, keep them in the south.

  11. Stampeder Summer // July 17, 2018 at 2:55 pm //

    Wow.. The season didn’t start until July 7th!- Before the invention of the bye week.
    The US expansion was a money grab plain and simple. Poorly thought-out, but still intriguing.
    I think the Canada VS. US angle played well north of the border, but unbalanced rules meant the US teams would have come to dominate.

    Talk about unfair- in 1993 Winnipeg finished first in east and received a bye in eastern final (just like today). However Calgary finished first in west but were forced to play a semifinal game.
    The league has never apologized to Calgary for that.

    • Stampvestite // July 17, 2018 at 6:20 pm //

      Apologize? Why the heck for? The format was established and agreed on by all teams prior to the start of the season.

  12. At the time, the expansion move was made to save the league. There was a season ticket drive to save the cats.
    The league was a mess. I believe BC beat the first US team to win the cup and Baltimore won the next cup

  13. great article!
    three days after this game, the gold miners played the tiger-cats at ivor wynne and lost 30-14. after the game i bumped into ticat offensive lineman dale sanderson — we were gassing up our motorcycles, and he had a football helmet ticat decal on his bike helmet — and i asked him how tough the all-american gold miners were. he laughed and laughed, and said, ‘not very.’
    of course, it was two games in three days for the gold miners, but still … it was good to hear.

  14. Evil Empire // July 17, 2018 at 3:16 pm //

    I remember it like it was just yesterday. I still have an amazing amount of memorabilia from all of the USCFL teams. Really rare stuff. It still bugs me a bit that they could use 100% Import rosters. But, it’s nothing I’ve lost any sleep over.

    If any of you have been to alot of different Grey Cup Weeks. I’m sure you’ve seen those 3 guys from Baltimore. I haven’t been to the last cpl GCs. I’ll be returning home to Edm this year though. I’d be surprised if those guys weren’t there. Funny, that they are only an hour away from where I live now. Ten years ago, I never would have predicted I’d be living an hour from Baltimore, just outside of DC.

  15. Ironically, David Archer later played QB for Ottawa as I recall. Great arm but never had much success.

  16. RicoBeBlue&Gold // July 17, 2018 at 3:54 pm //

    If I remember right he played in Ottawa for a season or two and then went to Edmonton.

  17. Enrico Della Penta // July 17, 2018 at 3:59 pm //

    Great article.

  18. I was in Ottawa at the time and remember seeing David Archer and his teammates at The Barefax the day before the game.

  19. Barndog // July 17, 2018 at 4:58 pm //

    I still have a Las Vegas Posse t-shirt in my closet. I don’t wear it so I can keep it forever. Anthony Calvillo’s original team. I loved the US jerseys.

  20. Duane's Ford // July 17, 2018 at 5:06 pm //

    I remember a post-game interview with Chris Walby after the Bombers had played Las Vegas down in Nevada. He was saying that him and Miles Gorrell actually counted the number of people in the stands to get their own attendance figure. Total was 832. I may be wrong but I think Vegas’ next home game was actually played in Edmonton…

  21. Jacob Wang // July 17, 2018 at 11:05 pm //

    Correction: “on either side of the border”: Instead of “either”, consider using “opposite”, maybe “different”

  22. Willowens // July 18, 2018 at 8:24 am //

    Five million dollar expansion fee at the time I believe. Much needed cash that saved the league.

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