Gridiron 'Grizzlies' came way before NBA variety

70 years ago, Blue Bombers played against Vancouver Grizzlies

Mention the name "Grizzlies" in Vancouver and images of Bryant Reeves clumsily bouncing a basketball off his shoe during another blowout loss might spring to mind.

But if you want to win a bet, you'll find takers for this wager: The first Vancouver Grizzlies were a pro football team that played one lone season in 1941, 54 years before the dismal NBA team lost its first game and 13 years before the CFL's B.C. Lions.

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Seventy years ago in the fall of 1941, war raged in Europe and the Vancouver Grizzlies lost 4-1 to the Regina Roughriders before 2,200 rain-soaked spectators at Vancouver's Athletic Park in the first professional football game ever played in B.C. Some heralded the Grizzlies arrival as the biggest sports story to hit Vancouver since the departure of pro hockey in the mid-1920s. Wearing gold jerseys with red numbers, crimson satin pants with gold knee pads, and red helmets with gold trim, the Grizzlies were the pinnacle of 1941 gridiron fashion.

Sort of. When handed his uniform, one Grizzly player derided the outfit, saying the last time he saw an outfit like this was at a gypsy dance.

Their on-field play failed to match their flashy duds. Coach Greg "Hardrock" Kabat of Winnipeg coaxed several professional players from Calgary and Winnipeg to come west and join a hodge-podge of junior football and rugby players from the coast. Players were hard to come by with so many men serving at home and overseas during the war.

One of the more interesting recruits was Chuck Millman, a hulking allround athlete from Calgary. Millman remained in Vancouver and four years later made the inaugural Canucks team in 1945, making him the only athlete in Vancouver history to play for two different pro teams in different sports during their debut seasons.

The Grizzlies compiled a 1-7 record playing in the three-team Western Interprovincial Rugby Football Union that also featured Regina and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. To save on travel costs, Regina stayed in town for a rematch two nights after the Grizzlies first-ever game. Once again in the driving rain, the Grizzlies mucked out a 7-6 victory before 1,500 chilled fans for their first and only victory.

North Vancouver's Jack Horn scored the Grizzlies first-ever touchdown on a three-yard plunge into the end zone. A touchdown counted five points.

Two days later, the Grizzlies embarked by train on their one and only road trip of the season. Over 13 days from Sept. 17 to 29, the Grizzlies played

from Sept. 17 to 29, the Grizzlies played four football games against Regina and Winnipeg to save on travel costs, but paid the price in fatigue and injuries. The team limped home to Vancouver after four straight losses. Because of the Second World War, the league was suspended in 1942 and the Grizzlies were no more. Pro football wouldn't return to Vancouver until 1954 when the B.C. Lions joined the Western Interprovincial Football Union, a forerunner to the CFL's West Division.

Not a single Grizzlies jersey has survived until today. After the team folded, their jerseys and equipment were handed down to local junior teams. Vancouver's Jon Mikl (also known as bodybuilder and heavy metal glam rocker Thor), owner and operator of Vancouver vintage jersey manufacturer Vintage Leagues, recalled the Grizzlies jersey from his childhood. "Growing up in Vancouver in the 1950s, my brother had a gold jersey with red numbers he used as a practice jersey for the junior Vancouver Blue Bombers," Mikl recalls. "It was hanging in the basement of our family home and I would put it on and throw the football around with friends in the backyard."

Lost during many moves over the years, Mikl, who has a passion for recreating forgotten sports uniforms, decided to piece together the Grizzlies jersey after researching the team's history. Matching the gold and cerise colours by memory and relying on archival newspaper accounts proved challenging, but the end product is a magnificent tribute to a team not many remember today. "So many sports teams' jerseys or wool sweaters don't hold up well over the years," he says. "They just disintegrate or get thrown away. Yet there are so many fans that want to see and wear vintage uniforms."

Vancouver Grizzlies artifacts will be on display in the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame when it reopens in January.

Mikl hopes to convince the Lions to don vintage Grizzlies uniforms for a game, just as the Vancouver Giants wore Vancouver Millionaires jerseys for a 2008 heritage game. They were recreated by Mikl's Vintage Leagues.

"The Vancouver Millionaires paved the way for the Vancouver Canucks," he argues. "If not for the Vancouver Grizzlies, I doubt that the B.C. Lions would be here today."

Jason Beck is the curator of the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Visit bcsportshalloffame.com for more Vancouver sports legends.

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