December 5th, The CFL West Final. Sunday’s game at IG Field will see the two best teams in Western Canada, The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders battle it for a place at the 108th Grey Cup. On the surface, this is a match-up between the two teams vying for supremacy in the West. But games between these two sides always mean more to the people of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Contested on Labour Day, the Banjo Bowl, the playoffs and even a Grey Cup, Riders Vs. Bombers is one of the CFL’s most iconic fixtures that deserves its place amongst Canada’s greatest rivalries.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders of today were founded as the Regina Rugby Club in 1910 and are the oldest professional sports team in Western Canada. The team would later don the Roughriders nickname in 1924 becoming the Regina Roughriders. In a precursor to the CFL, the Western Canadian Rugby Union (WCRU), the Regina Rugby Club was an early powerhouse in Canadian football.
From 1912 – 1934 the Roughriders won 15 championships by far the most of any side and won seven in a row from 1926 -1932, it was a run of supremacy unmatched by anyone else at the time. Regina however couldn’t break through the glass ceiling of Eastern Canada’s dominance in the Grey Cup in those early years.
In the 1920s and ’30s, The Riders made seven Grey Cup finals and lost all of them, at the time football was dominated by the East and Grey Cups were always played East, leaving the Riders at a massive disadvantage at a time when travel was much strenuous. While Western dominance wasn’t quite the same, the 1940s had many key milestones in the franchise’s history.
Firstly, in 1948 the Roughrider colours were changed from red and black to the iconic green and white that they still wear today. Later that year with the popularity of the team stretching far out from Regina itself, the decision was made to rename the team the Saskatchewan Roughriders, a team for the province. On Labour Day 1949, while not known at the time, Saskatchewan was about host a very important game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers were founded 20 years after the Riders but wasted no time making their mark in Canadian Football. In 1935, the at the time named Winnipeg ‘Pegs had a strong contingent of Canadian and American players on their roster and won the WCRU before advancing to the 23rd Grey Cup final against the East champions Hamilton Tigers. The game was played in Hamilton and when Winnipeg went on to win the game 18-12, it marked the first time a team west of Ontario were Grey Cup champions, something the Riders had failed to accomplish during the same era.
Winnipeg’s Grey Cup-winning team included seven American players which was somewhat controversial. In 1936, The Regina Roughriders once again made the Grey Cup with what was considered the best Riders team of the decade and included five American players, the controlling body of Canadian football at the time, The Canadian Rugby Union refused to allow the Riders to play their imported players in the Grey Cup Final.
The Riders refused to play in the game and the cup was awarded to the Sarnia Imperials. Meanwhile, in that same season, Winnipeg was renamed as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before going on their own run of West Canadian football supremacy. From 1937 to 1947, in the new Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) the Bombers would be West champions seven times, and without the Second World War stopping competitive play in the mid-’40s perhaps it could’ve been more.
Winnipeg even won two more Grey Cups in 1939 and 1941, the Blue Bombers were the pioneers of their time, paving the way for the Grey Cup to be a more balanced affair between East and West Canada. Whilst the Roughriders were the team of the ’10s and ’20s, Winnipeg established themselves arguably as Western Canada’s team of the ’30s and for sure the team of the ’40s. Just before Canadian football would enter the 1950s, the Blue Bombers would go to Taylor Field in Regina on September 5th, 1949 to play the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and on that day, a tradition was born.
The first Labour Day classic was played in front of a capacity crowd of a then-record high 7,500 fans in Regina. The Riders went into the game looking to avenge a 13-8 loss in Winnipeg the week before and thanks to stars such as Ken Charlton and Del Wardlien, the Riders would win the game 20-9. The 1950s would see increased competition for The Bombers and Riders with the Edmonton Elks and Calgary Stampeders establishing themselves as forces in the West.
Winnipeg would still enjoy success in the ’50s despite the rise of Alberta football, they reached the Grey Cup final five times and brought the cup back home to Manitoba in 1958 and 1959. The late ’50s and early ’60s were something of a golden age in Winnipeg. Under hall of fame coach Bud Grant, The Bombers would win four Grey Cups in 1958, 1959, 1961 and then 1962. The most successful period in Winnipegs history since the Canada Football League (CFL) was established in 1958.
Saskatchewan at this time did however have the better of Winnipeg in the Labour Day Classic. From 1949-1963, The Riders won five of nine matchups despite not being as competitive for Grey Cups as Winnipeg was, making the Grey Cup just once in 1951. The Roughriders at this time were a team that had to deal with tragedy. In 1956, four Riders players who took part in the All-Star game in Vancouver were tragically killed when their plane crashed into a mountain in the Rockies. This devastated Saskatchewan who took years on the field to recover, culminating in a franchise low of a 1-15 record in 1959, and a 2-14 record in 1960.
The two teams’ fortunes would enter a more even path by the mid-’60s. In 1965, the two prairie rivals locked horns in the West semi-final, at Winnipeg Stadium, the Bombers won a close game 15-9 but would ultimately go on to lose the Grey Cup to Hamilton that year. The year after in 1966 brought about a rematch with more at stake as the two met in the 1966 West Final, at a time when the West Final was a best of three series, the Riders would sweep the series 2-0 against their rivals, setting up a first Grey Cup appearance since 1951. In the final against Ottawa, the game was tied 14 all going into the fourth quarter, it was in the fourth quarterback that Riders legends George Reed and Ron Lancaster help Saskatchewan to 15 unanswered points to win 29-14. After eight attempts, Saskatchewan were finally kings of Canadian football. As the ’60s came to a close, the 1950s and 60’s seen the two combine for 12 West championships and five Grey cups.
The 1970’s got off to a strong start for both teams. In 1972, Winnipeg was the best side in the West Division regular season and hosted the West Final against the Riders. In the game’s final seconds, the score was tied at 24 and Saskatchewan had a field goal chance to win the game, but could also win on a single-point rouge. Riders kicker Jack Abendschan opted to kick the ball straight into the endzone to get the single point needed, the ball however is caught by Winnipeg’s Mike Law who then punts the ball out of his endzone. Abendschan catches the punt and like deja vu, he then punts the ball back into the endzone where Winnipeg’s Paul Williams punts it out again before the play is blown dead for a flag. It’s a flag on Winnipeg for a no yards penalty. Giving Saskatchewan a closer field goal attempt which Abendschan dispatches for a famous 27-24 win, Saskatchewan would lose the Grey Cup that year, but the 1972 West final was an unforgettable game that lived long in the memory.
For Winnipeg, this would be the closest they would get to a Grey Cup in the ’70s. They would meet Saskatchewan again in the 1975 playoffs but would be dispatched by the Riders 42-24 in the West Semi-Final. The Riders made their second Grey Cup appearance of the ’70s in 1976 in what was a rematch of the 1966 Grey Cup against Ottawa. This time around would end in heartbreak however as Saskatchewan surrendered a last-minute touchdown to lose the game in dramatic fashion 23-20.
The ’70s would be the only decade since the 1920’s that neither franchise would win a Grey Cup, but the decade did bring back regular Labour Day matchups for the first time since 1963. Saskatchewan dominated the decade early on with four wins out of 5, but going into the late ’70s and ’80s, Saskatchewan would be entering into an unprecedented era, and thanks to factors outwitted their control, life for Winnipeg would also dramatically change.
In 1978, Winnipeg won the Labour Day classic and it would be the first of four consecutive wins for Winnipeg at Taylor field, their best run of success in the fixture to date. After a frustrating decade in the ’70s, Winnipeg would enjoy a renaissance in the 1980s. The decade began well in 1980 with Winnipeg winning their first playoff game since 1966 which set the tone for success to come. This culminated with a first Grey Cup appearance in 19 years where they faced off against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1984.
They dispatch Hamilton in dominant fashion 47-17, their first Grey Cup win since 1962. Winnipeg was once again back on top, they would again win the Grey up again in 1988 but this time in a new division. In 1987, the Montreal Alouettes folded creating the need for divisional realignment. As the most eastern team in the West, Winnipeg was moved to the East Division, upsetting many of their fans and suspending the divisional rivalry between Saskatchewan and Winnipeg.
While Winnipeg was succeeding in multiple divisions and winning championships, the situation for the Riders couldn’t be much bleaker. From 1977-1988, Saskatchewan went on an unprecedented run of futility, failing to make the playoffs and managing only one winning record in that time. This was the least of their problems as the Riders were in financial peril.
It was only through the generosity of their loyal fanbase that they were able to stay barely afloat. The Riders’ fortunes turned dramatically though in 1989. They lost the Labour Day Classic that season but rallied to make their first Grey Cup appearance in 13 years. In an all-time classic Grey Cup, they defeated Hamilton 43-40 thanks to a last-minute field goal, sparking jubilant celebrations in Saskatchewan. Winnipeg would win their third Grey Cup in seven seasons in 1990. After a disappointing 1970s, the late 1980s and early ’90s was a marquee time for the prairie rivals.
The ’90s would bring new milestones to the prairies. In 1991 Winnipeg hosted its first-ever Grey Cup final, followed shortly by Regina in 1995. While neither team made those Grey Cup finals, they combined for three more appearances in the ’90s. The Bombers in 1992 and 93, and the Riders in 1997.
They still enjoyed the Labour Day Classic between each other despite the division realignment, but while previous decades had been close in the head to head matchups, Saskatchewan completely dominated the ’90s losing just twice to Winnipeg and blowing them out 55–11 in 1990, and even more convincingly in 1995 when they won 56–4, the largest margin of victory in a Labour Day classic at the time. The two would be united in the same division in 1995 and 1996, but thanks to yet another East team folding, this time the Ottawa Rough Riders, Winnipeg were once again moved East to even the divisions.
Without the allure of playoff games and a lack of Grey Cup success from 1990 onwards, the rivalry was in need of an extra edge and thanks to a Winnipeg kicker, a new tradition was born that transformed the rivalry.
In 2002, Winnipeg was once again moved West and the following season would bring excitement to the prairies not seen since 1975. Both Winnipeg and Saskatchewan finished with 11-7 records, setting up a West Semi-Final match-up between the two at Winnipeg Stadium (now named Canad Inns Stadium). Leading up the game, Winnipeg kicker Troy Westwood insulted the Riders fans by calling them “a bunch of banjo-pickin’ inbreds”. Saskatchewan won the playoff game 37-21 and when later asked about his comments Troy jokingly apologized saying “the vast majority of the people in Saskatchewan have no idea how to play the banjo”. It was those two quotes that set the stage for what would be the first annual Banjo Bowl in 2004.
The Banjo Bowl is always played a week after the Labour Day Classic in Winnipeg, creating a two game series between the two rivals in the middle of the season. Winnipeg faired well in the first Banjo Bowl, winning 24-27, resulting in the first-ever Labour Day and Banjo Bowl sweep. Even with the two teams again being separated into different divisions again, every September would ensure the rivalry would always be strong.
With Saskatchewan in the West and Winnipeg in the East, there was always the hope the two may meet on the biggest stage in Canadian football, the Grey Cup. In 2007, it finally happened. By 2007, it has been 17 years since The Bombers had won a championship, and 18 for The Riders, while supremacy on Labour Day and the Banjo Bowl is always special, nothing comes close to a Grey Cup championship.
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At Toronto’s Roger’s centre, 52,000 fans packed out the stadium for what was a close run Grey Cup. Going into halftime Saskatchewan held a slim 10-7 lead in a first-half defensive battle. Winnipeg would take a slim one point lead mid-way through the third quarter before another field goal gave Saskatchewan the lead going into the final quarter. The championship would come down to a final drive from Winnipeg, down 23-19, Bombers quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie had a throw intercepted by cornerback James Johnson icing the game, which mean the trophy was going back to Saskatchewan. It was the biggest game in the history of the rivalry, one that will always be cherished in Saskatchewan.
The late 2000s and early 2010s would see consistent success in Saskatchewan not seen in 40 years. After initially struggling in the fixture, the Riders won four of five Banjo Bowls between 2008 and 2012, simultaneously Saskatchewan made two more Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile, in the Labour Day Classic, Saskatchewan was running away with the fixture, from 2005 to 2016, the Riders won 11 consecutive Labour Day Classic including an utterly dominated 52-0 win in 2012.
They even managed to win another Grey Cup, in 2013 they played the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup which just so happened to take place in Regina. Cheered on by their home crowd, the Riders caped of a memorable period in their history with a 45-23 championship victory.
There were reasons to cheer in Winnipeg as well at this time, still in the East, they became Eastern champions for the seventh time in 2011 and their one Banjo Bowl win at this time was a 31-2 beat down in 2010. In 2013, The Bombers moved into a new stadium, IG field, a modern 33,000 stadium that can stand proudly as one of the best stadiums in Canada. In 2014, Winnipeg was once again able to move back West reuniting the two prairie rivals once again bringing more meaning to their matchups.
The 2016 Labour Day Classic won by Winnipeg would be the final in the history of the fixture to be at Taylor Field. In 2017, Saskatchewan moved into the brand new and modern Mosaic Stadium, which also had a 33,000 capacity, in the first competitive game at their new stadium, Winnipeg ruined the house warming by winning a classic game 43-40 in double overtime. Both teams were competitive in the West late into the decade, and in 2018 they would once again meet in the playoffs.
Winnipeg would head to Mosaic Stadium for the West Semi-Final. Saskatchewan had swept the Labour Day Classic and Banjo Bowl but a 31-0 blowout win in October for The Bombers proved that this game was for the taking. This time it was Saskatchewan who would falter on a final drive interception, cementing a 23-18 victory for Winnipeg. It was a milestone victory for the Bombers, it was their first playoff win since 2011, their first away playoff win since 2007, and their first playoff win against their prairie rivals since 1965, a run that featured six post-season ties between the two.
With those demons off their back, one demon still remained. Heading into 2019, Winnipeg held the misfortune of having the league’s longest championship drought going back to 1990. The teams both won their respective home matchups in the Labour Day and Banjo Bowl, but a Saskatchewan win late in the season at IG Field helped to give them home advantage again when the sides met in the 2019 West Final. Like 2018, it was another close match-up that would come down to a final Saskatchewan offensive drive.
Trailing 20-13, The Riders marched down the field to the Bombers eight yard line, the game came down to a third down from the eight-yard line where Riders quarterback Cody Fajardo infamously hit the crossbar with his pass, resulting in Winnipeg going to their first Grey Cup since 2011. Winnipeg faced an old familiar foe at the 2019 Grey Cup in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, despite being underdogs, Winnipeg cruised to a famous victory 33-12 victory, bringing the Grey Cup back to Manitoba for the first time since 1990, and securing their 11th overall championship.
After a pandemic forced season cancellation in 2020, both teams returned to the field in 2021 with hot starts leading into the 2021 Labour Day Classic, this game in particular for Winnipeg was a chance to show that they were no longer haunted by recent memory. Since 2000, Saskatchewan had won 15 of the last 19 Labour Day Classic, including 14 of the last 15 matchups. Winnipeg however shocked the Regina faithful, comfortably winning the game 23-8. The following week, Winnipeg again put Saskatchewan to the sword 33-9.
Now the two sides will face for a third time this season, with a place in the Grey Cup on the line. The prairie rivalry has always been an iconic part of Canadian football. Labour Day and Banjo Bowl matchups consistently sell out year after year even in seasons when Saskatchewan and Winnipeg aren’t competing for championships.
The two franchises are amongst the most prestigious in Canada, combining for 15 Grey Cups, 37 West championships, 23 West division titles and seven East championships and division titles thanks to Winnipegs time in the East Division. But gloating of past successes and success to hopefully come is on hold for the afternoon. All that matters today, at IG Field Winnipeg Manitoba, is who will win on the day? Who will be kings of the prairies and champions of the West? The Saskatchewan Roughriders, or the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
If you want to know more about that first-ever Labour Day Classic, please head over to the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame website. They have an online digitized colour collection of footage from that first-ever Labour Day fixture and information about the match and players involved to complement their footage. If you find yourself in Regina, make sure to check out the museum itself and immerse yourself in the wonderful history of Saskatchewan sports.