By DUANE ROLLINS
When it comes to the Nutrilite Canadian Championships, you really have to live here to get it. Outsiders look at it and wonder why anyone would care about an event that only involves three teams.
Where it is true that the tournament (which will only be referred to as the Voyageurs’ Cup from here on out – more on that in a bit) is small, it is far from insignificant to Canadian soccer fans. Yes, it may be a piddly little tournament, but it’s ours. It took a long time for us to get it.
The 2009 tournament continues tonight when Montreal plays Vancouver in British Columbia. The Impact must win to have any hope of winning the cup for an eighth straight year. Toronto leads the home and home, round robin competition with a perfect six points in its two home games. Vancouver sits three points back, with Montreal having failed to find a result as of yet.
The winner advances to the qualifying round of CONCACAF Champions League.
As mentioned, amongst the hardcore of Canadian supporters the Voyageurs’ Cup is of vital importance. That’s partly because it’s theirs. You see in the darkest days of Canadian football – a time when the national team had once again bombed out of World Cup qualifying and immediately after the CSA had released a study that pretty much killed the dream of re-establishing a Canadian pro league – It was the Voyageurs (Canada’s answer to Sam’s Army) that stepped up.
If the CSA and corporate Canada wasn’t going to do something, the fans were. A grassroots fundraising effort was undertook, a trophy bought and a dream was hatched. The fans were going to declare a Canadian pro champion.
At first the tournament was limited to the three pro teams that were playing in the then A-League (now USL-1). With almost no budget and even less official support, the Voyageurs simply calculated results from the games those teams were already scheduled to play. Eventually, when Montreal had gained enough points to assure themselves of the first title, some phone calls were made and, to the surprise of some, the Impact agreed to accept the trophy.
Some Montreal area fans were invited to hold a ceremony before an Impact game and a tradition was born.
Jump ahead to 2008. Toronto FC has shocked the country by proving that pro soccer can work in Canada if provided with proper ownership and marketing. CONCACAF has agreed to let Canada into its new Champions League and the country’s three pro teams are organizing a tournament. TFC COO Paul Beirne learns of the history of the trophy, thinks it’s a great story, and decides that there is no need for this new event to waste its time with a new trophy when there is already one out there. Suddenly the little cup the fans bought was actually worth something tangible. The Voyageurs are understandably proud of that.
Protective too, which is why you rarely hear a long-time fan refer to the event by its title sponsorship. Perhaps that’s unfair – corporate money is hard to find, it’s appreciated – but the fans really feel connected to the cup. And in a sports world too often ruled by corporate interests it’s nice to see that the fan can still make a difference.
They can call it the Nutrilite Canadian Championships if they like, but it’s always going to be for the Voyageurs’ Cup. And it’s always going to matter to Canadian soccer fans, no matter how few teams are playing for it.
Duane Rollins is SBI's Canadian Soccer and Toronto FC correspondent and is creator of the Canadian soccer site The 24th Minute.