BC Lions | The Canadian Encyclopedia


BC Lions

The BC Lions are a professional football franchise that plays in the West Division of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Since 1954, the team has won six Grey Cup championships.
BC Place
BC Place, the first completely covered stadium in Canada, opened in June 1983 (photo by J.A. Kraulis).

Quick Facts about the BC Lions
Date Founded: 1953
Venue: BC Place Stadium
Team Colours: Orange, black and white
Grey Cup Victories: 6

Early History of Football in Vancouver

Football and its predecessor, rugby, had a long history in Vancouver well before the Canadian Football League was officially launched in 1958. In the late 19th century, rugby was popular in British Columbia, owing in part to the mild climate and large British immigrant population in the province.

By the early 20th century, rugby football in Canada had deviated from the British version and looked more like the Canadian football we know today (British rugby continued to be played as well). In the 1920s and 1930s, Vancouver had a number of rugby football clubs, including the Meralomas (1923–38) and the Vancouver Athletic Club (1929–35; known as the Vancouver Athletic Club Wolves in 1936).

In 1940, the Vancouver Grizzlies joined the Western Inter-provincial Football Union (WIFU) for the 1941 season, replacing the Calgary Bronks. The Vancouver Grizzlies struggled on the football field and won only one of eight games that season. Their lone victory was by a score of 7–6 over the Regina Roughriders on 15 September. From 1942 to 1944, the WIFU suspended operations because of the Second World War. When the union resumed play in 1945, the Grizzlies decided not to return.

Evolution of the BC Lions

In 1951 and 1952, a Vancouver group applied to the WIFU for a new franchise, but the application was rejected. However, the following year, led by Arthur E. Mercer, the group received a conditional franchise. They were required to sell 6,500 season tickets and provide travel expenses to the four existing teams in the WIFU: the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders. Another condition was a 15,000-seat stadium. Luckily, a new stadium was being built for the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. Empire Stadium was completed in time for both the Games and the 1954 WIFU season.

The team would officially be known as the BC Lions, named after two mountain peaks overlooking Vancouver. On 25 November 1953, the Lions named Annis Stukus as the first head coach and general manager in franchise history. Stukus had coached the Edmonton Eskimos from 1949 to 1951.

First WIFU season: 1954

The BC Lions played their first pre-season game at Empire Stadium against the Montreal Alouettes on 11 August 1954, only four days after the conclusion of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. Although they were defeated by the Alouettes 22–0, the game attracted a healthy crowd of 19,371 spectators. On 28 August 1954, the Lions played their first regular-season game, losing 8–6 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Empire Stadium in front of 20,606 fans.

The 1954 football season was a struggle on the field. The Lions won only one of 16 regular-season games and finished last in the WIFU standings. Their first-ever franchise win came on 18 September when they upset the Calgary Stampeders 9–4. Only one Lions player — Bob Levenhagen — was named to the 1954 WIFU All-Star Team. A defensive guard, Levenhagen was also the only Lions player to make the 1955 WIFU All-Star Team.

Despite their dismal record, interest in the Lions was high. On 20 September 1954, the Lions had the highest attendance for a single game during the 1954 WIFU regular season, as 21,186 watched the Eskimos beat the Lions 23–13 at Empire Stadium.

BC Lions: 1955–61

On 26 November 1955, Vancouver hosted its first Grey Cup. By that time, the Grey Cup was the de facto professional football championship, played between the champion of the Inter-provincial Rugby Football Union (what would eventually become the East Division) and the champion of the WIFU (which would become the West Division). At the 1955 Grey Cup match, the Edmonton Eskimos beat the Montreal Alouettes 34–19 at Empire Stadium in front of a record crowd of 39,417 (the biggest Canadian crowd at a football game at the time). Vancouver also hosted the 1958 Grey Cup, where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 35–28.

The Lions struggled on the field between 1955 and 1958, winning only 18 games to 45 losses and one tie, and missing the playoffs each year. Although Clem Crowe replaced Annis Stukus as head coach on 7 December 1955, the losses continued until the 1959 season. Under new head coach Wayne Robinson, the Lions finished above .500 for the first time (9–7) and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but they lost 20–8 and 41–7 to the Eskimos in the WIFU semifinals. The team’s success was due, in large part, to the talents of new quarterback Randy Duncan and new running back Willie Fleming, both from the University of Iowa. While Duncan played two seasons with the Lions, Fleming stayed over eight seasons and was a Western Conference All-Star from 1961 to 1963.

In 1960, defensive back Neal Beaumont of Vancouver made franchise history, becoming the first Lions player to win an individual award when he received the Dr. Beattie Martin Trophy for WIFU Rookie of the Year. The team missed the playoffs in 1960 and 1961 and had the worst record in the CFL at 1–13–2. However, they made two major moves that season, acquiring quarterback Joe Kapp from the Stampeders and replacing Robinson with Dave Skrien as their head coach. With Kapp and Skrien, the Lions improved dramatically over the next three years.

First Grey Cup Appearance and Victory: 1963 and 1964

In 1962, the Lions missed the playoffs but finished the season with a more respectable 7–9 record. In 1963, the Lions won their first division title in franchise history, with an impressive record of 12 wins and four losses. They also defeated the Saskatchewan Roughriders two games to one in a best-of-three Western Conference Final, advancing to the Grey Cup for the first time. Although the Lions lost 21–10 to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup game at Empire Stadium in Vancouver, it was an important moment in franchise history. At the end of the season, Joe Kapp was recognized for his outstanding play as quarterback and was a finalist for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award.

The Lions finished the 1964 regular season at the top of their division, with an 11–2–3 record. Six players were named CFL All-Stars: quarterback Kapp, tackle Lonnie Dennis, defensive tackle Mike Cacic, defensive end Dick Fouts, middle guard Tom Brown and defensive halfback Bill Munsey. Brown also won his second consecutive Most Outstanding Lineman award and became the first Lions player to win a Schenley award.

The Lions beat the Calgary Stampeders two games to one in a best-of-three Western Conference Final in 1964, advancing to the Grey Cup for the second consecutive year. On 28 November, they won their first Grey Cup in franchise history, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 34–24 in front of a crowd of 32,655 in Toronto.

Struggles: 1965–79

Following their Grey Cup victory in 1964, the team’s fortunes declined. Between 1965 and 1969, the Lions finished at or near the bottom of the Western Conference and failed to make the playoffs. The Lions continued to struggle during the 1970s, finishing above .500 only twice and winning only one playoff game — the 1977 Western Conference Semi-Final — where they beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 33–32.

Several individual players deserve mention, including wide receiver/running back Jim Young, who was acquired from the Minnesota Vikings in the mid-1960s and named Most Outstanding Canadian in 1970 and 1972. Bill “The Undertaker” Baker, a defensive lineman who came to the Lions from the Roughriders in 1974, was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 1976, and Al Wilson was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in 1977.

In 1976, the team drafted Lui Passaglia, who spent the next quarter of a century as the Lions’ kicker. A native of Vancouver, Passaglia holds the CFL records for seasons (25), games played (408), field goals (875), converts (1,104), punts (3,142) and points (3,991).

The Lions also boasted two future Hall of Famers as general managers during the 1970s. Jackie Parker, who played quarterback for the Lions from 1966 to 1968 and coached the team from 1969 to 1971, became general manager in 1971. In 1975, he was replaced by Bob Ackles, who started with the Lions as water boy and remained general manager for 11 seasons (1975–86). Ackles returned to the Lions as president and chief executive officer in 2002 and remained in that position until his death in 2008.

Renewal: The 1980s

In 1981, the Lions made the playoffs, defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 15–11 in the Western Conference Semi-Final but falling to the Edmonton Eskimos 22–16 in the Western Conference Final.

In January 1983, the Lions announced their new head coach, Don Matthews, who had been assistant coach for the Edmonton Eskimos when they won five consecutive Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982. With Matthews at the helm from 1983 to 1987, the Lions had a record of 56 wins, 23 losses and one tie.

The team had a new home as well. On 24 July 1983, the Lions played their first game at BC Place Stadium, defeating the Saskatchewan Roughriders 44–28 in front of 41,801 fans. The stadium — which cost $126 million to build — was the first covered stadium in Canada and had the largest air-supported plastic roof in the world.

The team ended the 1983 regular season with 11 wins and five losses, winning their first West Division Final since 1964 and defeating Winnipeg in the West Division Final. The Lions played the Toronto Argonauts for the championship on 27 November but lost 18–17 at the first Grey Cup held at BC Place Stadium. The following year, the Lions finished first in the West Division yet again, but this time they lost to Winnipeg in the West Division Final. On-field success was matched by support from the fans. On 27 October 1984, a BC Place regular-season attendance record was set, as 59,421 fans watched the Lions beat the Blue Bombers 20–3.

In 1985, the Lions won 13 games for the best regular-season record in the CFL. After defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 42–22 in the West Division Final, they went on to win the 1985 Grey Cup championship in Montréal, beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 37–24.

The Lions were again strong in 1986 and 1987 but fell to Edmonton in the Western playoffs in both years. In 1988, the Lions advanced to the Grey Cup but lost 22–21 to the Blue Bombers in Ottawa. The following year, the Vancouver team finished at the bottom of the West Division, with only seven wins.

Notable Lions from this decade include wide receivers Mervyn Fernandez (named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1985) and David Williams (named CFL’s Most Outstanding Player in 1988), as well as defensive end James Parker, who was the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 1984 and 1986. Parker’s 26.5 sacks in 1984 became a CFL single-season record.

BC Lions: The 1990s

The 1990s saw the Canadian debut of NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, who signed a two-year contract with the Lions. After taking a year to adjust to the CFL game, Flutie had an outstanding 1991 season with the team. The Lions struggled during the first year with Flutie as quarterback, winning only six games in 1990, but they improved the following year, winning 11 games in regular-season play before being defeated by the Calgary Stampeders in the playoffs. Flutie was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player for the 1991 season but joined the Stampeders in 1992.

The Lions struggled in the wake of Flutie’s departure, winning only three games in 1992, but they improved the following year, with a 10–8 record in the regular season. In 1994, they made it to the playoffs, where they won two closely fought games against Edmonton (24–23) and Calgary (37–36) to advance to the Grey Cup. Their opponent in the final was the Baltimore CFLers, one of the short-lived American expansion teams and the first American team to play for the Grey Cup. The game was played at BC Place Stadium in front of 55,097 fans. Passaglia kicked four field goals for the Lions, including the game-winning field goal in a 26–23 Lions win. (The following year, the Baltimore team — renamed the Stallions  won the Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders. In 1996, they moved to Montréal to become the renewed Alouettes.)

The Lions finished the 1995 season with 10 wins and eight losses, but they struggled to win games from 1996 to 1998. However, the team returned to the top of the West Division in 1999, as they finished the regular season with 13 wins and five losses.

The team went through four changes of ownership in the 1990s. In 1989, the team was bought by Murray Pezim, who remained the owner until 1992, when the team was purchased by Bill Comrie, founder of The Brick Warehouse. In 1996, Nelson Skalbania bought the team, but in 1997 it was sold to current owner David Braley, who brought financial stability to the Lions over time. (Braley was also the owner of the Argonauts from 2010 to 2015.)

BC Lions: The 2000s

On 26 November 2000, the Lions won their fourth Grey Cup in franchise history, defeating the Montreal Alouettes 28–26 in Calgary. They were the first CFL team to win the Grey Cup despite having a regular-season record below .500 (8–10). A major reason for the success of the Lions was the talent of quarterback Damon Allen. One of the most mobile quarterbacks in CFL history, Allen played for the Lions from 1996 to 2002. Other players who were instrumental in the 2000 Grey Cup victory were Passaglia (who kicked a key 29-yard game-winning field goal in his final CFL game), running back Robert Drummond (Grey Cup MVP) and running back Sean Millington (Most Valuable Canadian Player in the 2000 Grey Cup and 2000 CFL season).

In 2003, Wally Buono was lured away from the Calgary Stampeders and became head coach and general manager of the Lions. Buono has been general manager of the Lions since that time and coached the team from 2003 to 2011 and again since 2015. He is the Lions’ all-time leader in coaching wins (113) and the CFL leader in coaching wins (266).

One of Buono’s first decisions was to sign quarterback Dave Dickenson, who had been the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player with the Stampeders in 2000. After Dickenson was injured in 2004, he was replaced by rookie quarterback Casey Printers, who won the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player award that year. The Lions advanced to the 2004 Grey Cup game, with Dickenson back at the helm, and lost 27–19 to the Toronto Argonauts.

In 2005, the Lions won their first 11 games, but they stumbled down the home stretch, losing six of the final seven games of the regular season before losing 28–23 to the Edmonton Eskimos in the West Division Final.

Buono won his first Grey Cup with the team in 2006, as the BC Lions beat the Montreal Alouettes 25–14 on 19 November in Winnipeg. The Lions also dominated the CFL Awards: slotback Geroy Simon was named Most Outstanding Player, defensive end Brent Johnson was Most Outstanding Canadian Player and Defensive Player, Rob Murphy was Best Offensive Lineman, and defensive tackle Aaron Hunt was Most Outstanding Rookie.

The following year, the Lions won a franchise high of 14 games but lost the 2007 West Division Final to the Saskatchewan Roughriders by a score of 26–17. A club record, 15 players were named to the West Division All-Star team, including defensive end Cameron Wake, who was named Most Outstanding Rookie in 2007 and Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2007 and 2008. (Wake signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2009.)

In 2009, the Lions advanced to the playoffs, despite finishing last in the West Division. The team crossed over into the East Division playoffs and defeated the Tiger-Cats 34–27 in the semifinal but fell to the Alouettes in the final. Defensive end Ricky Foley was named Most Outstanding Canadian Player in the CFL, and running back Martell Mallett was Most Outstanding Rookie.

BC Lions: 2000–Present

After an uninspiring season in 2010, few would have predicted that the Lions would hoist the Grey Cup the following year. The team started the 2011 season on a worrying note, winning only one of their first seven regular-season games. However, they won 10 of the remaining 11 regular-season games before defeating Edmonton in the West Division Final. In the Grey Cup championship game, the Lions beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 34–23 in front of 54,313 fans in a newly renovated BC Place Stadium. The team was led by quarterback Travis Lulay, who was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player and Grey Cup MVP .

Following the 2011 season, Buono resigned as head coach (though he remained general manager) and was replaced by defensive assistant coach Mike Benevides. Under their new coach, the Lions finished first in the West Division in 2012, with Benevides tying the CFL record for most wins in a single season (13) by a rookie head coach. However, the team slid to third place in 2013 and fourth in 2014 and failed to advance beyond the semifinals. Benevides was replaced by Jeff Tedford for the 2015 season, but the Lions failed to improve. In December 2015, Buono resumed head coaching duties. The Lions improved in the 2016 season, finishing second in the West Division and advancing to the West Division Final, where they were defeated by the Calgary Stampeders.

Key players during this period included Geroy Simon, Solomon Elimimian and Adam Bighill. In 2012, Geroy Simon became the CFL’s All-Time Leading Receiver. He was traded the following year to the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he played his final CFL season and ended his career with a league all-time high in pass receptions (1,029) and receiving yards (16,352). After retiring from competition, Simon joined the BC Lions staff as director of Canadian Interuniversity Sport scouting. The most electrifying Lions player was linebacker Solomon Elimimian. A native of Nigeria, Elimimian is the only player in CFL history to have won three major awards in his career. In 2010, he was Rookie of the Year, and in 2014, he was named Most Outstanding Player, the first defensive player ever to receive the award, and Most Outstanding Defensive Player. His teammate, linebacker Adam Bighill, was the Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2015. In 2016, the Lions became the first team in CFL history with two players with 100-plus tackles in a single season (Elimimian with 129 and Bighill with 108).

BC Lions in the Grey Cup

Won Lost Host City
1963 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 21 BC Lions 10 Vancouver
1964 BC Lions 34 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24 Toronto
1983 Toronto Argonauts 18 BC Lions 17 Vancouver
1985 BC Lions 37 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 24 Montréal
1988 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 22 BC Lions 21 Ottawa
1994 BC Lions 26 Baltimore CFLers 23 Vancouver
2000 BC Lions 28 Montreal Alouettes 26 Calgary
2004 Toronto Argonauts 27 BC Lions 19 Ottawa
2006 BC Lions 25 Montreal Alouettes 14 Winnipeg
2011 BC Lions 34 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23 Vancouver

BC Lions in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Position Year Inducted
Bob Ackles general manager/president 2002
Damon Allen quarterback 2012
Byron Bailey fullback/defensive back 1975
Bill Baker defensive end 1994
David Braley owner 2012
Tom Brown linebacker 1984
Less Browne defensive back 2002
Wally Buono general manager/coach 2014
Dave Dickenson quarterback 2015
Matt Dunigan quarterback 2006
Ron Estay defensive end 2003
Bernie Faloney quarterback 1974
Norm Fieldgate linebacker 1979
Willie Fleming running back 1982
Bill Frank offensive/defensive tackle 2001
Darren Flutie wide receiver 2007
Doug Flutie quarterback 2008
Larry Highbaugh defensive back 2004
W.T. “Tom” Hinton offensive guard 1991
Condredge Holloway quarterback 1999
Alondra Johnson linebacker 2009
Harvey “Tyrone” Jones linebacker 2012
Joe Kapp quarterback 1984
Eagle Keys coach 1990
Ken Lehmann linebacker 2011
Don Matthews coach 2011
Danny McManus quarterback 2011
Jim Mills offensive lineman 2009
Cal Murphy coach 2004
Ray Nettles linebacker 2005
Bob O’Billovich coach/general manager 2015
Jackie Parker quarterback 1971
James Parker linebacker/defensive end 2001
Lui Passaglia kicker 2004
Willie Pless linebacker 2005
Charles Roberts running back 2014
Rocco Romano offensive lineman 2007
Geroy Simon wide receiver 2017
Victor Spencer executive 2006
Harry Spring executive 1976
Annis Stukus coach/general manager 1974
Bill Symons halfback 1997
James West linebacker 2016
Tom Wilkinson quarterback 1987
Al Wilson offensive lineman 1997
Jim Young running back/wide receiver 1991

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