Necks craned and chatter ceased as the clinking of wine glasses, a signal that someone wanted to offer a toast, was heard in the elegant lobby bar of the historic Fort Garry Hotel.
A man in a white cowboy hat and bolo tie stood and raised his glass. "Here's to Tom Wright, the best commissioner the CFL's ever had!" he shouted.
The packed bar burst into applause as Wright, turning red but with a big smile on his face, hurriedly made his exit.
It was a quintessential CFL moment in the best hotel of a quintessential CFL town and made a visitor wonder: What would have happened if the same scene was played out at the Royal York in downtown Toronto, or perhaps the Four Seasons in Yorkville? Perhaps the same response, but not likely.
The cowboy might have been asked to keep it down and not disturb other patrons. Some might have momentarily looked up from making NFL picks for their office pools, then returned to considering Dallas versus Indianapolis.
It will be precisely that kind of scenario that will be played out 12 months from now when the Grey Cup, still known to many as the Grand National Drunk, nervously returns to Toronto for the first time in 15 years.
In '92, the city did its best to ignore the event and those from other parts of the country shook their heads in disgust at how snooty Hogtown — a host to the game 45 times — was suddenly too chi-chi to cuddle up to this enduring slice of Canadiana.
This past week, Winnipeg has been expertly hosting the Grey Cup for the third time since 1991. By yesterday morning, the slippery remnants of a Thursday evening sleet storm had faded into an unseasonably warm and sunny Manitoba day, raising hopes that helpful weather might once again produce a sterling championship game on a dark prairie.
Next November, it will be Toronto's turn. The Argonauts believe they can sell 54,000 seats at the Rogers Centre, possibly by July. But can they sell Toronto more than just the tickets?
Fifteen years ago, with the Argos owned by Bruce McNall, John Candy and Wayne Gretzky and the Blue Jays the best team in baseball, the sporting mood was decidedly tilted toward Hollywood and America. Much has changed.
Pinball Clemons is a coach, not a player, with the Argos and proclaims himself to be "an American by birth and a Canadian by choice." The team is owned by locals Howard Sokolowski and David Cynamon. But as seen in the recent municipal elections, the Argos play in a city still torn by an ongoing debate over whether Toronto is too parochial and too inward looking and not nearly focused enough on finding a place on the world stage.
It's always the two extremes. Rarely, however, do you hear a call for the city to become more genuinely Canadian. Yet part of the reason the mayor has to bleat noisily for a greater share of tax dollars from Ottawa is because the city lacks friends across the country.
For so long, Toronto has been prepared to go it alone, its nose pointed up at cozy little national traditions like, well, the Grey Cup.
Elsewhere on the sporting front, Toronto was identified in the late 1990s as a smug hockey city unwilling to even consider the financial problems of NHL clubs in Ottawa, Edmonton or Calgary. Yet, as Toronto was passed over for the Olympics and even the 2009 world junior hockey championship, suddenly other Canadian towns could laugh in its face.
These days, debt-ridden Toronto could use a little love from the rest of the country and reaching out to embrace the Grey Cup could be a baby step toward gradually building new bridges with other Canadian cities and communities.
Here in Winnipeg, nobody has to tell Sandy (The Flame) Monteith — don't worry, you'll see him today if you tune in to the game — that he's welcome in friendly Manitoba. Ditto for the Atlantic Schooners Down East Kitchen Party, the Spirit of Edmonton bash, the Calgary pancake breakfast, the guy with the green plaid kilt and striped green-and-white stockings tromping through the hotel lobby or the tall drink of water from Kelowna, B.C., with his face painted in Lions' colours at 11 a.m. yesterday. "Having more fun all the time," he chirped.
An executive with the Saskatchewan Roughriders approached Argos president Keith Pelley on Friday night and told him he plans to bring his entire family of eight to next year's Grey Cup. But you can bet they won't want to be treated like rubes.
So it's up to the Argos to design a relaxed, open event that's a little Regina and a little Queen St. with a little taste of the 'Peg.
Doug Flutie, who couldn't sell tickets as an Argo but was proclaimed the No.1 CFL player ever by TSN, nicely encapsulated the true spirit of the Grey Cup after arriving in Winnipeg Thursday in a leather jacket and sneakers. "You walk in the door and there's 100 guys you know and people in the hotel and you're talking," Flutie told the Winnipeg Free Press. "It's just a wide-open, friendly atmosphere that sometimes is missing a little bit (in the NFL)."
Accordingly, if the Argos try to make Grey Cup '07 an event dominated by limos and cordoned-off VIP parties, it will crash. A terrific, warm Grey Cup festival next November, on the other hand, just might be seen as a gesture of friendship to the rest of the country at a time when Toronto is looking a lot like a wallflower at the high school dance.
The official theme for the '07 event is "Over the Top in Toronto." One wonders if "Grateful to be Canadian" would have been a better idea.
If the city, not just the Argos, doesn't get behind this, it will flounder, or at the very least severely tick off the rest of the country. One more time.