An Era Lives On: A Tribute to the 1990s CFL American Expansion

Guest Blogger | Updated Aug 04, 2011

Written by Guest Blogger: Jordan Toppings

Few true CFL fans can forget about the failed experiment of the expansion of the Canadian Football League into the United States in the 90s. (Yeah, that’s right I said AMERICAN expansion into the CANADIAN Football League). But in the recent few weeks with the Montreal Alouettes adding another victory to their record over the helpless Saskatchewan Roughriders at Mosaic Stadium, and forecasting what could be another run at their 9th Grey Cup appearance in the last 12 years and possible 3-peat Grey Cup Championship, it’s important that we take a look at the roots of the Montreal Alouettes franchise, which actually originated from the CFL American Expansion.

Given the events leading up to these past 2 weeks that could have seen the National Football League locked out for the 2011-2012 season, as well as the recent surge of the UFL in the United States, have we entered a new era where expansion could work for the CFL? Most of the talk right now is centered around adding a franchise in the East Coast, as evident in the annual favorite “Touchdown Atlantic” game, as well as resurrecting a team in Ottawa for the 3rd time, but might we see a further expansion to the CFL sometime soon? After all, select games throughout the CFL season for the past 2 years have been broadcast on the NFL Network, not to mention that the first game broadcast as a part of this NFL network series happened to be the Riders/Alouettes season opener at Mosaic stadium on Canada Day, an instant classic. For those of you who forget, this game had everything…a huge comeback, crazy catches, and a scare that almost sent fans into shock after committing a “too many men on the field” penalty that could have cost them the game, reminiscent of the 2009 Grey Cup “tragedy”. In the end, the Riders triumphed 54-51 in double OT, creating an instant classic, the 3rd highest scoring game in CFL history, and not too bad of a showcase for the Americans to see during the off season when they’re deprived of football, eh? But that’s beside the point…back to the US Expansion….

The Sacarmento Gold Miners made history by being the first American team of the Canadian league in the 1993 season, followed by 3 additional American-based franchises in the following season, known as the Shreveport Pirates, Baltimore Colts, and Las Vegas Posse. On a side note, the resurrection of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts after their team left overnight in buses (literally) was eventually changed to the Baltimore Stallions in the CFL. There’s a particular significance the Las Vegas Posse franchise, centered around the quarterback, none other than a young, 22 year old Anthony Calvillo….ever heard of him?

The list of American franchises was completed the following season, as the Sacramento Gold Miners relocated to San Antonio, becoming the San Antonio Texans, as well as the addition of the Birmingham Barracudas, and the Memphis Mad Dogs. By the start of the 1996 CFL season, everything was restored back to “normal” and the 3 odd seasons that saw American franchises join the Canadian Football League became a footnote on the CFL’s rich history. Did the Expansion fail?…yes, but it’s an important piece of the CFL’s history regardless.

Getting back to Calvillo, it wasn’t, however, until 4 years later that Calvillo would cross paths with his future club and would help establish a dynasty in Montreal and his legacy as the greatest CFL Quarterback of all time. The Baltimore Stallions were led by former CFL great QB Tracy Ham, and have the distinction of being the only American franchise to ever hoist the Grey Cup, in their 1995 victory. Following the NFL return to the city of Baltimore, the Stallions were relocated to Montreal, becoming the current Alouettes franchise. Led by Ham for 2 years, the Alouettes signed Calvillo as a free agent in 1998, sharing the duties with Ham, and the rest folks as they say, is history.

Calvillo would go on to play the remainder of his career in La Belle Province, establishing himself as the best QB to ever play in the CFL, and this will clearly be evident in the record books later on this season. Calvillo currently holds the honor of being the only remaining active player from the American Expansion era, outlasting recently retired Saskatchewan Defensive Back, Eddie Davis.

Clearly when we speak of the CFL American Expansion of the mid 1990s, we shouldn’t be so quick so dub it as a failure. After all, 4 of the CFL’s greatest Quarterbacks in CFL history have spent time on some of these American clubs. Along with Calvillo in Las Vegas, the list includes Tracy Ham in Baltimore, Matt Dunigan in Birmingham, and current Pro-Football passing yards leader Damon Allen in Memphis.