TORONTO — When Bruce McNall purchased the Toronto Argonauts with hockey star Wayne Gretzky and comedian John Candy in 1991, helping save the CFL wasn't his primary goal.
Bringing an NFL franchise into Rogers Centre — then known as SkyDome — was.
It's one of many interesting revelations outlined by author/CFL historian Paul Woods in his book "Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky a Crooked Tycoon and the Craziest Season in Football History." In it, McNall confirmed he'd spoken with Art Modell, the former owner of the Cleveland Browns, about possibly moving his club to Toronto.
The Browns eventually relocated to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. But McNall says in the book at one time he had Modell convinced to come to Toronto.
"Toronto being the largest metropolitan city in North America that didn't have an NFL franchise, I thought that would make a lot of sense," McNall said in the book.
But Woods, a longtime journalist with The Canadian Press, writes the plan fell through "because NFL owners thought it might damage the Buffalo Bills, located just a couple of hours from Toronto."
Added McNall: "Buffalo's a small little dirt town. Toronto's a major city, for God's sake. Modell and I really worked on it for along time (but) we could never get over the damn hump. I just couldn't overcome the Buffalo issue."
McNall also said he never divulged his NFL plans to either Gretzky or Candy.
McNall, Gretzky and Candy made headlines in 1991 with the purchase of the Argos. Months later, the CFL club sent shock waves through the football world by signing receiver Raghib (Rocket) Ismail — the former Notre Dame star projected to go first overall in the NFL draft _ to a four-year, US$26.2-million deal — $18.2 million guaranteed — that made him the game's highest-paid player.
Ismail helped Toronto post a CFL-best 13-5 record and his 87-yard kickoff return TD anchored the club's 36-21 Grey Cup win over Calgary. But after the franchise missed the playoffs in 1992, Ismail left for the NFL. The Argos were sold following the '93 campaign.
In December, 1993, McNall pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud and admitted to bilking six banks out of US$236 million. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison.
Other interesting revelations in the book include:
— When the McNall, Gretzky and Candy purchase offer went before the CFL's board of governors for consideration, Woods writes an unidentified governor suggested the league due its due diligence on McNall. But Phil Kershaw, the former Saskatchewan Roughriders president who was at the meeting, countered, 'We all said, 'Oh you can't do that.' The feeling in the room was, 'What if we insult this guy's intelligence and ego by making him prove his financial worth? He'll be very upset.' We saw Bruce McNall and all the glamour and glitz that he brought as a salvation during a time in the league."
— One standout moment of the '91 Grey Cup game was a beer can that was thrown from the stands landing precariously close to Ismail's feet during his kickoff return TD. Woods actually tracked down the spectator who threw the beer — the person spoke on the condition of anonymity and went by the name of Oswald. Woods wrote the fan grew up in Winnipeg but moved to Calgary and was cheering for Stampeders. He never planned to throw the can, adding it was a spur-of-the-moment decision 'based on a flood of thoughts and emotions." After the game, Ismail laughed the incident off, adding when he played for Notre Dame at Tennessee, fans there would "throw Jack Daniels bottles at us."
— Woods writes that when McNall was in jail, he negotiated special treatment in exchange for hockey memorabilia brought in by Gretzky and Luc Robitaille, both loyal friends. Woods also wrote that McNall even faked an alcohol addiction to get into a more comfortable prison.
— When McNall gave instructions to an Argos official to find a new buyer for the club, he also said not to tell Candy. When the comedian-actor finally learned the franchise was on the block, Woods writes, 'Candy briefly toyed with the idea of putting together an ownership group of his own.' But it appears Candy couldn't find a suitable partner and couldn't afford to take the lead himself. Shortly after learning the team was being sold, Candy died of an apparent heart attack in Mexico while filming "Wagons East," a Western/comedy. The Argos were sold two months later.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press