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The game

Candy never stopped caring

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

John Candy would have been in his glory this week.

After 15 years, the game he so loved is back in his hometown to decide its championship, and soon enough the party will be in high gear. Only the absence of his Argonauts would have dampened his spirits a bit, though as anyone who was lucky enough to encounter him during his too-short life could tell you, not for long.

Tonight, the Canadian Football League will hand out its player awards, and the theme of the evening, appropriately, is a tribute to the actor/comedian/bon vivant, with Dan Aykroyd as host. During the evening, a small oversight will be corrected when Candy's name (along with that of Wayne Gretzky) will be added to the Grey Cup with the 1991 champion Argonauts, of which he was part owner.

Naturally, this week has stirred a lot of memories of those wild times. That was the year of Rocket Ismail, of the Blues Brothers and movie stars at the SkyDome, of what seemed like a whole new way of doing business, thanks to the magic touch of Bruce McNall.

Sixteen years ago this month, at the first Grey Cup game ever played in Winnipeg, the Argos beat the Calgary Stampeders, with Ismail memorably dodging a flung beer can en route to a kick-return touchdown.

It was a fairy tale, it was a miracle, and it was a house of cards. By the time the 1992 Grey Cup was played in Toronto — the last until now — cash was actually being drained out of the Argos' coffers to prop up McNall's floundering, fraudulent empire in Los Angeles.

What had been so sweet soured so fast.

Candy, though, never stopped caring. "With John, it was about love," says Brian Cooper, who was the Argos president then. "He was a Scarborough kid who knew everything you could know about the Argos."

You didn't have to be in a boardroom or a corporate suite to run into him. Candy was most comfortable with the players and with the fans. He visited every CFL city, worked tirelessly to promote the league, and when the Argos were playing, was like part of the team, delivering pep talks, leading cheers, in the thick of it.

"Controlling him on the sidelines was probably the biggest problem we had," says Mike McCarthy, who was then the Argos' general manager and vice-president of football operations. He remembers the time an Argo player went down with an injury, and looking up to see Candy, on the field, helping him off. "The referee gave me a dirty look," McCarthy says. "I hollered at him, 'What do you want me to do about it? It's John Candy.' "

After the witching hour, CFL fans who happened to be in the right place at the right time got to see another side of Candy, the one that tilted toward excess, though to be in his company, if not running at his pace, was always fun.

"At night, he turned into this other being," Cooper says. During that Grey Cup week in Winnipeg, he held court all week at the Palomino Club, a country and western bar, pouring drinks, signing autographs, leaving close to dawn, and in other cities at other times you could find him at one watering hole or another, out with his people.

When things turned for the worse with the Argonauts, when the money dried up, when McNall was running from his creditors and Gretzky was ready to bail, Candy never lost faith. He had dreamed of building an Edmonton-style dynasty. Instead, the Argos were forced to trade away players to save money, even to sell the rights to the 1993 Grey Cup to Calgary in return for desperately needed cash.

After the 1993 season, the team was finally sold to Labatt's/TSN, and Candy was furious. He didn't want to let go, and until the last minute had hoped to put together his own group so he could stay involved.

Less than a year later, he was dead at 43, a victim in large part of his own bad habits.

Tonight he receives a belated tip of the hat from the league and the team he so loved.

There were rough times in the interim, moments when it looked as if the Argos, and the CFL, were at death's door. But this week, entrusted to owners who love them the way Candy did, the double blue are back playing proud hosts to the country. He would have liked that, and he would have undoubtedly been the life of the party.

True believers in the Canadian game might want to tip a glass in his direction. No better way to acknowledge one of their own.

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