Although the Canadian Football League as we know it today was only formed in 1958, the history of competing for Canadian Football’s biggest prize stretches as far back as 1909. For well over a hundred years, Canada’s biggest teams have competed for the sport’s biggest prize, but that doesn’t mean that the underdogs haven’t had their moments. This is the story of the Sarnia Imperials, the last ever fully amateur team (in peacetime) to be crowned Grey Cup champions, and the last team out with the CFL’s nine major cities to lift the trophy!
The Canadian Football landscape was much different in 1928. Football was divided into self-contained conferences which included the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) – a precursor to the CFL East Division, and the Western Inter-Collegiate Rugby Football Union, (WICRFU) – an umbrella union for the provincial divisions out west that would eventually be a precursor to the CFL West Division. But alongside these two Unions, there was a third entity in football, the Ontario Rugby Football Union. The Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) was established in 1883 and operated as an amateur football league. Despite its amateur status, the ORFU played a very influential part in Canadian football’s early years.
In 1903, the ORFU became the first football union in Canada to incorporate the Burnside rules, which would be the foundation of the rules that the CFL to this day still uses. The Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tigers (the eventual Hamilton Tiger-Cats) both initially competed in the ORFU, and other notable members included the two-time Grey Cup-winning Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers, and the 1912 champion Hamilton Alerts.
The Sarnia Imperials would become the latest member of the ORFU in 1928. The Imperials got off to a great start in their debut season, finishing first in their division ahead of the Toronto Varsity Orfuns and Kitchener Panthers, however, they would come up just short in the ORFU Final against the Orfuns in a 6-0 defeat. They would rebound though to win the ORFU Final against the Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers the following season, and it would mark the beginning of one of the most dominant runs in the sport’s history.
The Imperials, or Imps as they were commonly called, played in red, blue, gold, and white, and their jersey was very distinct. It was all blue and featured three red stars, giving them an iconic look. The team name came from the Sarnia-based petrochemical company, Imperial Oil. In a time of amateur sports and economic depression, the Imps held a competitive advantage over their opponents because of this connection.
Imperial Oil sponsored the team and was able to offer Imps players well-paying and secure employment in a time when football players couldn’t rely solely on the sport for a living. This meant that despite having a population of just 18,000, small-town Ontario-based Sarnia was able to attract star talent like University of Kansas linebacker Ormond Beach and St. Thomas Ontario native Bummer Stirling. Stirling had even reportedly been offered a spot with the NFL’s New York Giants, but turned them down to play in Sarnia.
There was local talent too, with quarterback Arnie McWatters and running back Norm Perry both being from Sarnia. The two local boys would go on to be awarded ORFU player of the year during their careers. Led by head coaches Pat Ouellette and then Art Massucci, the Imps would go on to utterly dominate their league during the 1930s, being crowned as the ORFU champions in all but one year from 1929 to 1939, losing just an astonishingly low eight regular-season games in that time. In 1933 they faced the Toronto Varsity Blues in the Grey Cup semi-finals, but after the Varsity Blues dropped out, the Imps had a Grey Cup spot wrapped up, the first final appearance for the team and the city as a whole, which would be played at Sarnia’s very own Athletic Park.
Sarnia had a population of 18,000 in 1934, and an ecstatic crowd of 2,751 was in attendance for the Grey Cup game. The Imps opposition that day was the Toronto Argonauts. According to the 1931 census, Toronto had a population of over 856,955, and the Argos were already two-time Grey Cup champions and would go on to be the most decorated team in Grey Cup history, setting up what might have been the most surprising Grey Cup matchup of all time. On a cold, snowy December day in SouthWestern Ontario, the home team held the smallest possible lead at halftime, 1-0.
A field goal from Toronto’s Tommy Burns gave the Argos a slim 3-2 lead going into the fourth quarter. The two teams exchanged rouges to give Toronto a 4-3 lead with the time winding down, but the Imps had the ball. The Imperials got the ball into the hands of star local running back Norman Perry. Perry charged down the sideline, looked to have broken a tackle at Toronto’s forty-fice and made it all the way down to the five-yard line to set up a game-winning field goal. However, the referee ruled that Perry was out of bounds at Toronto’s forty-five and Toronto held on to win the Grey Cup. To this day, Perry’s run has gone down in Sarnia folklore as a botched call from the referee.
Despite the setback in the 1933 Grey Cup, the Imps were ready to go again in 1934. Led by ORFU Player of the Year winner Norm Perry, Sarnia went 6-0 in the regular season, conceding just twenty-eight points the whole year. While they effectively had a bye in 1933, this time around, they would have to face the five-time Grey Cup champion Hamilton Tigers of the IRFU for a place in the Grey Cup.
Sarnia won the Eastern Final by a score of 11-4 to reach their second Grey Cup, this time at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium against the Regina Roughriders. An estimated 1,000 Sarnia fans made the trip to Toronto for the big game, with the majority of the 8,900 crowd made up of Torontonian neutrals. The Regina Roughriders would later be better known as the Saskatchewan Roughriders we know today and were a powerhouse in Western Canada.
Although Regina was yet to win a Grey Cup, they had been crowned as Western champions in eight of the past nine seasons and had appeared in six Grey Cups. While the 1933 Grey Cup is the lowest scoring in the history of the competition, the 1934 final was much more open, with the Imps taking a 10-6 lead into halftime. Sarnia extended their lead further with a third-quarter touchdown, and Sarnia went into the fourth quarter leading 17-6, only fifteen minutes from history. Regina responded with a touchdown of their own in the fourth quarter to set up a nervy finish, but Sarnia’s defence held firm like they had done all year to see out the game to secure a 20-12 win. For the first time, the Sarnia Imperials were Grey Cup champions. To this day, Sarnia is the smallest city to have a Grey Cup-winning team.
The Imps lost the 1935 Eastern Final to the Hamilton Tigers, but were still determined to show that 1934 wasn’t a one-off. They again won the ORFU in 1936 with a 3-1 record, and after the Regina Roughriders withdrew from the Grey Cup, their Eastern Final matchup against the Ottawa Rough Riders was now the 1936 Grey Cup final. Held at Varisty Stadium again, Sarnia’s opponents, the Ottawa Rough Riders, were also a force to be reckoned with. They were two-time Grey Cup champions themselves and had easily dispatched the 1933 Champion Toronto Argonauts en route to the big game.
Sarnia came out flying in the first two quarters, racing ahead into a 24-12 lead against Ottawa with Sarnia star Ormond Beach scoring two touchdowns. After a further two points from the Imperials, Ottawa went into the fourth quarter needing to rally a big comeback, and they were gonna give it a go.
Having scored a touchdown to make it 26-20, Ottawa then found themselves with a third-down just seven yards from the Imperials endzone with time winding down. On a last-ditch pass attempt into the endzone, Sarnia’s Mike Hedgewick was able to break up the potential game-tying touchdown and force a turnover on downs. Sarnia held on and for the second time in three years, the Sarnia Imperials were crowned the best football team in Canada.
Sarnia continued to dominate the ORFU in the thirties, but after the high of 1936, the Eastern Final was quickly becoming a glass ceiling. From 1937 to 1939, the Imps lost three consecutive Eastern Finals. The 1937 Eastern Final against the Argonauts was a close run 10-6 loss, but following that, they were outmatched 25-8 against the Argos in 1938 and followed it up with an even more resounding 23-1 defeat to Ottawa in 1939.
After the 1939 season, amid the outbreak of the Second World War, the Sarnia Imperials suspended operations for the duration of the war period. The Imps returned in 1946, but the Canadian Football landscape had changed. They were still able to compete for Grey Cups, but the ever-growing professionalism in the IRFU and Western Interprovincial Football Union (WRFU) was resulting in the ORFU being left behind.
Sarnia’s 1936 triumph was the last time the ORFU produced a Grey Cup champion save for the war period, and after the Second World War, no ORFU even made it back to the Grey Cup. Sarnia wouldn’t be able to dominate the ORFU as they did beforehand either, finishing first in the league just twice in ten seasons and even missing the playoffs twice in that time.
Their best period of success in the post-war period came in 1951 and 1952, where both times they were one game away from the Grey Cup. But they weren’t a match for the IRFU teams. Ottawa defeated them 43-17 in 1951 before the Argos proved to be too much a year later with a 34-15 win over the Imps. The ORFU was quickly becoming a less and less relevant conference in Canadian football, and by 1955 the ORFU was officially no longer competing for the Grey Cup, and as a result, 1955 would be the last year of existence for the Sarnia Imperials, who after a 6-5-1 record in 1955, folded and ceased operations as a football team, three years before the creation of the modern Canadian Football League we know today.
The two-time Grey Cup-winning Sarnia Imperials haven’t played a down in nearly seventy years, but they are still a fabled story in Canadian football. In their heyday, they could go toe to toe with any team in Canada and thoroughly earned their place in Grey Cup history. Team stars Ormond Beach, Norm Perry and Bummer Stirling have all made it into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame based on their playing careers in Sarnia.
Today, Sarnia has a population of 71,594, by far the smallest city to have ever won the Grey Cup and the locals are proud of their history and are keeping the memory alive. In 2006, a new Sarnia Imperials team was founded, and they play in the Northern Football Conference, an amateur league. Their home field? Norm Perry Park, named after Sarnia’s local boy and star of the thirties Imperials glory days. The locals haven’t forgotten about those glory days from the thirties, and the imps legacy in Sarnia today is well and truly alive!
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