A bevy of parties and festivals precede the 104th Grey Cup in Toronto on Sunday, but one of the largest is thrown by fans of a team that does not exist.
The Schooners Down East Kitchen Party takes place this weekend in Toronto. Grey Cup fans over the age of 19 are invited to party “East Coast style” while enjoying Atlantic Canadian traditions such as lobster rolls, Screech rum, cold Alexander Keith beer and live Celtic music.
The event is hosted by the Atlantic Schooners, a small Wedgeport-based group of volunteers dedicated to keeping the dream of an Atlantic Canadian CFL franchise alive. The group is led by Nova Scotia native John Ryerson, a semi-retired businessman and sole bankroller of the Atlantic Schooners.
Ryerson says the event, which started as a small party in 2004, has blossomed into a Grey Cup tradition. Ryerson and his fellow Schooners are preparing to host over 2,500 people a day at this year’s event, which lasts three days.
“We have outgrown the room every year,” Ryerson says. “This year we have one of the biggest rooms of the Grey Cup parties.”
Every team in the CFL hosts a party during the Grey Cup festival. Ryerson says what makes the Schooners’ party unique, other than not having an official team, is the Maritime kitchen party concept.
“Not only do we have round table – family style – seating for 1,000 people,” says Ryerson, noting that they also have standing room for another 1,500 people. “We provide non-stop entertainment.”
The entertainment includes live performances by Celtic bands Eclectic Revival and the Mudmen, interactive games, prizes and the awarding of the Schooner Cup to the CFL team’s fans that correctly answer the most trivia questions.
Fans are also encouraged to be “screeched in” or to “kiss the cod,” an adapted Newfoundland tradition that involves kissing a cod fish, taking a shot of Screech rum and being named an honorary Newfoundlander.
Long-time Winnipeg Blue Bomber fan Mark Dodd has attended 11 straight Grey Cups. He recommends the Atlantic Schooners party as the place to be on Saturday night because of the variety of fans it attracts.
“The Schooners have a great reputation at the Grey Cup,” he says. “They have good entertainment, pretty good bands, lobster rolls and it’s really fun watching people get screeched in.”
Ryerson says they’ve flown in 850 lbs of lobster for this year’s event.
“We don’t just buy it,” he says. “We went down to the wharf, picked it up, cooked it, husked it and flash-froze it.”
A team effort
Putting together an event of this size takes significant help. Ryerson says 26 Schooner volunteers have flown to Toronto to work 14-hour days.
“They have taken vacation time, or booked time off work, just to come here this week and make this possible,” Ryerson says. “Your people are always your best marketing asset.”
The group is helped by one of the league’s sponsors, who ships the lobster to Toronto for free.
Tickets for each night of the party cost $20 and proceeds are donated to local food banks. One particularly successful event, in 2013, saw the Schooners attempt to build a 70-foot lobster roll at the Grey Cup in Saskatchewan. Ryerson says the effort raised $28,000 for the food bank in Regina.
This year’s proceeds will go to the Yarmouth Food Bank.
The team that does not exist
The Atlantic Schooners group is named after a conditional CFL franchise that was awarded to Dartmouth in 1982. The team’s debut was contingent on a 30,000-person stadium being built in time for the 1984 season. The team’s owners were unable to secure the necessary funding, so the franchise application had to be withdrawn.
Ryerson’s group began hoisting the Schooner flag in 1996 and hosting events at the Grey Cup in an effort to reawaken the CFL’s interest in Atlantic Canada. By 2004, Ryerson had decided that the Atlantic Schooners needed a larger presence at the Grey Cup to ensure the idea of Atlantic CFL expansion was kept front and centre. Thus, the Down East Kitchen Party at the Grey Cup was born in Ottawa that year.
The Schooners’ party has since dropped anchor in Winnipeg (2006 and 2015), Toronto (2007, 2012 and 2016), Calgary (2009), Regina (2013) and Vancouver (2014).
Each year it grows in size and popularity says Ryerson. But as the party has grown in size, so too has the purpose of the Atlantic Schooners. From a regional dream has sprung an indelible display of Atlantic pride.
“It’s about more than getting a CFL team,” he says. “It’s about representing Atlantic Canada at an event that celebrates Canada.”
The 104th Grey Cup kicks off Sunday at 7 p.m. AST from BMO Field in Toronto. The Ottawa Redblacks square off against the Calgary Stampeders.