By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Ice hockey may be Canada's national obsession but for 100 years the Grey Cup has thrown a massive party, a gridiron celebration that unites a country often divided by language and cultural sensibilities.
The Grey Cup, the name of the Canadian Football League's (CFL) championship game and the trophy awarded to the winner, will be carried onto the Rogers Centre turf by Royal Canadian Mounted Police on Sunday and hoisted high by either the host Toronto Argonauts or the Calgary Stampeders.
The game will be broadcast in 187 countries but with just eight CFL teams spread across the country, the league maintains a folksy, small-town charm.
Unlike the Super Bowl's media day where National Football League (NFL) players are instantly recognizable to the throngs of reporters, the CFL's lower-key version requires members from the competing teams to wear name tags.
Still, millions of Canadians gather around televisions each year in late November to watch and cheer a game where many could not even name a single player.
Even Queen Elizabeth took a moment to observe this year's game, which marks the 100th Grey Cup.
"It is with great pleasure that I extend my sincere best wishes to all Canadians as they prepare to mark the 100th Grey Cup - a trophy first donated by The Earl of Grey," she said in a statement.
"In this way, the link between the Canadian Crown and Canadian football is particularly meaningful - especially in this year when the 100th Grey Cup coincides with my Diamond Jubilee as Queen of Canada."
Sometimes referred to as the Grand National Drunk, most fans are guaranteed a fun weekend but the Grey Cup has also evolved into something much more than massive fraternity party.
The East-West rivalry that provided the original foundation for the championship game has faded, the great divide grayed by a doomed expansion to the United States and a forced realignment of the league by failed franchises.
Geography may point to Winnipeg as the gateway to the West but on the CFL map the Canadian Prairie city is part of the East Division, the Blue Bombers filling the hole left by collapse of the Ottawa Rough Riders.
While the CFL has spent much of its existence lurching from crisis to crisis, the Grey Cup has remained a treasured sporting institution, important enough to Canada's national identity that in 1974 Parliament introduced the Canadian Football Act to keep the World Football League from setting up shop in Toronto.
Decades later there is a new threat appearing with Toronto eyeing an NFL franchise.
"Our game is in good shape, and so is our business," CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon said on Friday. "In this year of the 100th Grey Cup, we have strived to not only honor our history, but also build our future.
"I can say with confidence: the state of the CFL is strong, and our future is bright, indeed."
While the CFL has struggled to be relevant, particularly in Toronto where the Argos are an afterthought behind the National Hockey League's Maple Leafs, Major League Baseball's Blue Jays and the National Basketball Association's Raptors, the Grey Cup remains a quintessential bit of Canadiana.
"The Grey Cup has become a cultural sign post," Stephen Brunt, author of 100 Grey Cups: This is Our Game, told Reuters. "In a lot of ways it is even more powerful than the (NHL's) Stanley Cup final because it's 100 percent Canadian content.
"There is continuity, there is history, it's a uniquely Canadian game, in a uniquely Canadian culture. If you start to add up how many things there are like that - there aren't many."
The CFL is a resilient and quirky league where one man (David Braley) can own two teams (the B.C. Lions and Argos) and two teams (Ottawa Rough Riders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders) can have one name.
Forged from a combination of rugby and American gridiron, the CFL is a uniquely Canadian blend played with 12 men on each side instead of 11 and three downs instead of four.
The field is wider and longer and rosters must meet a Canadian player quota while teams are forced to work under a modest $4.3 million salary cap compared to the $120 million NFL teams have to spend each season.
Still, a long list of NFL players, including quarterbacks Doug Flutie, Joe Theismann and Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Moon have played in the CFL.
While the Super Bowl has grown into a giant corporate schmooze pushing the average NFL fan to the sidelines, the Grey Cup has managed to remain quaint holding firm to its every man, blue collar roots.
"The core of the Grey Cup is a bunch of people with their faces painted in the ballroom of a hotel drinking beer," said Brunt. "At the Super Bowl if you want to go to the good stuff you have to know somebody or have a lot of money.
"At the Grey Cup there is no velvet rope.
"Even in Toronto and Vancouver where there are a million cool places to go, people will lineup in the cold for hours to drink beer in a ballroom listening to a bad rock band."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)