Edmonton Eskimos

The Edmonton Eskimos are a community-owned football team that plays in the West Division of the Canadian Football League (CFL). In the CFL’s modern era (post-Second World War), the Eskimos have won the Grey Cup championship 14 times, second only to the 16 championships held by the Toronto Argonauts. This included three victories in a row from 1954 to 1956 and an unprecedented five straight championships from 1978 to 1982. The club also holds a North American professional sports record for reaching the playoffs in 34 consecutive seasons between 1972 and 2005. Notable Eskimos alumni include former Alberta premiers Peter Lougheed and Don Getty, former lieutenant-governor of Alberta Norman Kwong and former Edmonton mayor Bill Smith.

Commonwealth Stadium
Home of the Edmonton Eskimos (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission).

Quick Facts about the Edmonton Eskimos
Date Founded: 1949
Venue: The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium
Team Colours: Green, gold and white
Grey Cup Victories: 14

The Edmonton Eskimos Name

Although the current Edmonton Eskimos franchise was founded in 1949, various Edmonton sports teams have used versions of the Eskimos moniker (including Esquimaux) since the late 19th century. However, by the 21st century, the name had become controversial, particularly in the Inuit community. Critics argue that, similar to controversies over the Washington Redskins of the National Football League and the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball, the Eskimos team name is disrespectful and an appropriation of Indigenous identity and culture. The term “Eskimo” — which, for many years, was understood to mean “eaters of raw meat” — was used historically to denote Inuit but has been considered offensive by many Indigenous people since the 1970s. In November 2015, Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, wrote an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail requesting that the franchise stop using the Eskimos name, stating that the term was derogatory and a “relic of colonial power.” The franchise invited Obed to meet in January 2016. Although the meeting was described as cordial by both parties, the team continues to be known as the Edmonton Eskimos.

Early History of Football in Edmonton

Various sports organizations in Edmonton (including baseball and hockey teams as well as football teams) have used versions of the Eskimos moniker (including Esquimaux) since the 1890s. The first western Canadian team to play in the Grey Cup was the 1921 Edmonton Eskimos, coached by William Freeman “Deacon” White, a native of Sheridan, Illinois. They returned to the Grey Cup game the next year after changing their name to the Edmonton Elks, following a sizable donation from the Elks service club. This time, the team got on the scoreboard with a rouge — a single point awarded to the kicking team in certain situations — in a 13–1 loss to the Queen’s University Rugby Club in the only Grey Cup ever played in Kingston, Ontario. They resumed the Eskimos name the following year but folded after the 1924 season due to financial problems. It would be 30 years before Edmonton reached another championship final.

The Eskimos were revived in 1928. They made Canadian football history in 1929 by scoring the first touchdown pass in the country, in which Pal Power caught a ball thrown by Joe Cook on a play that covered 65 yards into the end zone. However, the team folded again after the 1932 season.

It wasn't until the building of Clarke Stadium in 1938 — named after former Edmonton mayor Joe Clarke — that the Eskimos football club resumed play. The team ended up 0–8 that season under head coach Bob Fritz, who, three years earlier, led the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to become the first western Canadian team to win a Grey Cup. But Fritz couldn’t recreate the magic in Edmonton, following his winless first season as coach with a 3–8 record in 1939. Any momentum for the club was lost by the advent of the Second World War, and another decade would pass before the cornerstone of the current franchise was laid.

Edmonton Eskimos (1949)

The current Edmonton Eskimos franchise was founded as a community-owned, not-for-profit endeavour in 1949, in what is now known as the modern era of Canadian football. Supported by a cast of future Hall of Famers in director Eric Duggan and head coach Annis Stukus, along with builders Kenneth Montgomery and Moses “Moe” Lieberman, the Eskimos were fuelled by just having watched their rivals from Calgary win the Grey Cup in 1948. The new Edmonton Eskimos, wearing green and gold University of Alberta uniforms offloaded by dean of physical education Maury Van Vliet, were decidedly unsuccessful on the gridiron during their inaugural season. However, the roster included players who went on to find fame in other capacities, with Peter Lougheed being elected as Alberta’s premier, Steve Paproski becoming a Member of Parliament and Gene Kiniski finding fame as a professional wrestler.

Edmonton Eskimos: The 1950s

It took the Edmonton team five years to rise to championship status in the CFL. Improving from a 4–10 record in 1949 to an even 7–7 the next season, the team earned a winning record of 8–6 in 1951, thanks in part to acquiring Norman Kwong from the Calgary Stampeders that year. The running back was part of Calgary’s 1948 Grey Cup championship as a rookie, but he would go on to become the “China Clipper” and self-proclaimed “Living Legend” while wearing green and gold. Fellow future Hall of Famer Roland “Rollie” Miles was also brought on board that season. Edmonton reached its first Grey Cup final the following season, with a 21–11 loss to the Toronto Argonauts.

Johnny Bright joined the backfield in 1954, alongside “Old Spaghetti Legs” quarterback Jackie Parker, adding to a cast of characters that would become known as the “Glory Gang.” The same season also ushered in Frank “Pop” Ivy, who earned an impressive 61–18 record as head coach. After posting 11–5 in the regular season, Edmonton made it to that year’s Grey Cup. The tide of the game turned for the underdog Eskimos when Parker returned a fumble 90 yards for a touchdown — worth five points back then — to tie the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes 25–25. Bob Dean kicked the winning convert to capture Edmonton’s first Grey Cup championship.

In 1955, Edmonton won its second championship in a row while playing in the first Grey Cup held west of Ontario, holding the Alouettes scoreless in the first half on the way to a 34–19 victory in Vancouver's Empire Stadium. They made it three in a row the following year, finishing 11–5 to edge out the Saskatchewan Roughriders for first place in the division. In the team’s last two playoff games that year, including the Grey Cup final, Ivy made the controversial decision to move Parker to running back and play Canadian Don Getty as quarterback. It paid off, though, leading to a 50–27 victory over the Alouettes. The 1957 season marked the end of an era when, despite earning a 14–2 record, the Eskimos failed to score a touchdown in the playoffs during a best-of-three series loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The departure of coach Ivy after that season marked the beginning of the unravelling of the Glory Gang, even though Edmonton reached the West final in each of the next three years.

Edmonton Eskimos: The 1960s

The 1960s was the least memorable decade for the Eskimos and their fans. In 1960, the second year under head coach Eagle Keys, the old Glory Gang returned to the Grey Cup. They lost 16–6 to Russ Jackson’s Ottawa Rough Riders, prompting Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd to sign off on Edmonton's initial championship era with the phrase “The Eskimos are too old to cry and too proud to alibi. There were no tears and no lies in the dressing room when it was over.” Another 13 seasons would pass before the Eskimos played in another Grey Cup.

Throughout the 1960s, there was no guarantee they would even last that long. In danger of disbanding like previous iterations of Eskimos football organizations, the 28-member board of directors was replaced by a nine-person board in 1964 in efforts to streamline decision-making at the executive level. Responsible for the entire payroll, they became known as the “Nervous Nine.” But thanks to various loans and fundraising initiatives like the Eskimo Annual Dinner, the club stayed afloat.

Coach Keys was fired in early 1964 after the team finished in last place in 1962 and 1963. Under his leadership (1959–63), the Eskimos went 37–40–2. He went on to coach Saskatchewan to their first Grey Cup championship three years later and finished his CFL coaching career with a 146–115–8 record on his way to the Hall of Fame. Norm Kimball came in as the Eskimos general manager in 1965 to guide the rebuilding process and, together with Ray Newman, led the way in recruiting players from north and south of the border.

Edmonton Eskimos: The 1970s

After spending four seasons as Edmonton’s running back coach, Ray Jauch replaced head coach Neill Armstrong, who went on to join the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. In 1970, Jauch was named CFL Coach of the Year in his rookie campaign, which saw the Eskimos finish in second place with a 9–7 record. Two years later, thanks to the addition of quarterbacks Bruce Lemmerman and Tom Wilkinson, Jauch led the club back to the Grey Cup final for the first time since 1960. While they lost the 1973 Grey Cup to Ottawa by a score of 22–18, the Eskimos became a staple in the final. Appearing in nine of 10 consecutive Grey Cup games, Edmonton won six championships over the span of a decade.

After losing the 1974 Grey Cup by a score of 20–7 to the Montreal Alouettes, the Eskimos rebounded in 1975 to earn the club’s first championship in 19 years. On the strength of a 12–4 regular season, Edmonton once again faced the Alouettes. Montreal bobbled the snap on what would have been the game-winning field goal, and Edmonton held on to win 9–8 to end one of the longest droughts between championships in franchise history.

Edmonton Wins Five in a Row (1978–82)

Edmonton lost the 1977 Grey Cup to the Montreal Alouettes by a score of 41–6, but the arrival of head coach Hugh Campbell that season set the Eskimos on a historic course. A year later, the 1978 Commonwealth Games saw the opening of the club’s new home at Commonwealth Stadium, which coincided with the arrival of quarterback Warren Moon, who was fresh off a Rose Bowl MVP with the University of Washington Huskies. The squad went 10–4–2 that season before earning a measure of revenge for the previous year’s lopsided Grey Cup embarrassment by defeating the Alouettes 20–13 in a championship rematch. It was the first of five consecutive titles under coach Campbell, as Edmonton defeated the Montreal Alouettes in 1979 (17–9), the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1980 (48–10), the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1981 (26–23) and the Toronto Argonauts in 1982 (32–16). This string of victories, together with the Edmonton Oilers’ championship run in the 1980s, contributed to the city’s moniker as “Canada’s City of Champions.”

Campbell left immediately after the 1982 season with a coaching record of 81–22–5, taking the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Express (United States Football League) for a year before joining the NFL’s Houston Oilers in 1984. Under Campbell, the Oilers won a bidding war for Warren Moon, paying the then-staggering price of $6 million over five years for the Edmonton quarterback. Moon remains the only player to be enshrined in both the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Edmonton Eskimos: 1983–2000

In 1983, former Edmonton quarterback Jackie Parker returned to the team as head coach, serving in that capacity until health issues forced him to step down early in the 1987 season. Parker guided the team through a period of rebuilding, including a difficult roster transition after a host of retirements. Future Hall of Famers Damon Allen, Matt Dunigan and Tracy Ham filled the quarterback void left by Warren Moon. The new roster included a fan favourite in dynamic return man Henry “Gizmo” Williams, with his signature front-flip touchdown celebration. Aside from one season with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1989, “The Giz” remained with the Eskimos until 2000 in a Hall of Fame career that saw him leave the CFL as the top kick returner of all time.

In 1986, Hugh Campbell returned to Canada from the NFL, becoming Edmonton’s general manager and eventually becoming president and CEO of the club. Under Campbell and head coaches Parker, Joe Faragalli, Ron Lancaster, Kay Stephenson and Don Matthews, the Eskimos played in five Grey Cup finals during this period, winning two (1987 and 1993). In 1986, Parker led Edmonton to its 17th Grey Cup appearance since 1949, resulting in a 39–15 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The following year, the team won the 1987 Grey Cup with a 38–36 win over the Toronto Argonauts. In 1989, the Eskimos established the high watermark with a CFL-best 16–2 regular-season record, only to fall 32–21 to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West Division final. The Eskimos went on to play in three more Grey Cup finals in the 1990s, defeating the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 33–23 under Hall of Fame head coach Ron Lancaster in 1993 to capture the club’s 11th championship. Quarterback Damon Allen was named MVP of the game.

Edmonton Eskimos: 2000–Present

Following the 2000 season, Henry “Gizmo” Williams retired after setting more than 20 CFL records. The new millennium saw the Eskimos searching for a new face for the franchise, which arrived in 2002 from an unlikely source. Before joining the Eskimos, quarterback Ricky Ray was driving a truck for the Frito-Lay potato chip company, which led to the nickname “Frito Ray.” In his first season, he started 11 games after taking over for the injured Jason Maas. Despite his inexperience, the rookie quarterback helped an otherwise-veteran Edmonton squad reach the Grey Cup that year, only to fall 25–16 to the Montreal Alouettes in a sold-out Commonwealth Stadium.

The two teams met again for the 2003 final, with the Eskimos winning 34–22 to capture their first Grey Cup in a decade. Tom Higgins was named CFL Coach of the Year. The following season, Ray moved to the NFL and spent the 2004 season on the New York Jets practice roster. He returned to Edmonton in 2005 and once again took over for Maas, who led the way to a 9–9 record in 2004 to make the playoffs. With Ray back on centre and Danny Maciocia taking over as head coach from Higgins, the Eskimos made an improbable run through the 2005 playoffs that saw Maas come off the bench to relieve Ray in the Western semifinal and final. For the third time in four years, Edmonton faced Montreal in the Grey Cup and won 38–35 in the second CFL championship game to go into overtime.

In 2006, following mass retirements across the offensive line, the Eskimos finished 7–11 to end up last in the West Division, missing the post-season for the first time since 1972. For the past 34 years, the Eskimos had been a perennial playoff team, establishing a record among professional sports organizations across the continent.

In December 2011, Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman traded his face-of-the-franchise quarterback, Ray, to the Toronto Argonauts for quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round draft pick in a move that what was both highly publicized and criticized. Edmonton went on to make the playoffs that year by crossing over to the East Division with a 7–11 record, which set them up against Ray’s Argos in the East Division semifinal. Eight days before the game, Tillman was fired and Edmonton ended up losing 42–26, while the Argos went on to win the Grey Cup.

Tillman was replaced as general manager by former Eskimos all-star receiver Ed Hervey, who became the club’s head scout after retiring from the field following the 2006 season. Hervey’s top priority was finding a starting quarterback, which he did when he acquired Mike Reilly from the BC Lions. The 2013 season saw the Eskimos finish 4–14, their worst record since the 1960s. In 2014, Chris Jones was hired as head coach, which led to a dramatic turnaround that saw the Eskimos finish 12–6 and host their second home playoff game in 10 years. They returned to the Grey Cup in 2015 to defeat the Ottawa Redblacks by a score of 26–20, with Mike Reilly named the game’s MVP. Eight days later, Chris Jones became general manager and head coach in Saskatchewan. Former Edmonton quarterback Jason Maas was named head coach in December 2015 and led the Eskimos to a 10–8 record and an appearance in the 2016 East Division final.

Edmonton Eskimos in the Grey Cup

Won Lost Host City
1921 Toronto Argonauts 23 Edmonton Eskimos 0 Toronto
1922 Queen's University 13 Edmonton Elks 1 Kingston
1952 Toronto Argonauts 21 Edmonton Eskimos 11 Toronto
1954 Edmonton Eskimos 26 Montreal Alouettes 25 Toronto
1955 Edmonton Eskimos 34 Montreal Alouettes 19 Vancouver
1956 Edmonton Eskimos 50 Montreal Alouettes 27 Toronto
1960 Ottawa Rough Riders 16 Edmonton Eskimos 6 Vancouver
1973 Ottawa Rough Riders 22 Edmonton Eskimos 18 Toronto
1974 Montreal Alouettes 20 Edmonton Eskimos 7 Vancouver
1975 Edmonton Eskimos 9 Montreal Alouettes 8 Calgary
1977 Montreal Alouettes 41 Edmonton Eskimos 6 Montréal
1978 Edmonton Eskimos 20 Montreal Alouettes 13 Toronto
1979 Edmonton Eskimos 17 Montreal Alouettes 9 Montréal
1980 Edmonton Eskimos 48 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 10 Toronto
1981 Edmonton Eskimos 26 Ottawa Rough Riders 23 Montréal
1982 Edmonton Eskimos 32 Toronto Argonauts 16 Toronto
1986 Hamilton Tiger-Cats 39 Edmonton Eskimos 15 Vancouver
1987 Edmonton Eskimos 38 Toronto Argonauts 36 Vancouver
1990 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 50 Edmonton Eskimos 11 Vancouver
1993 Edmonton Eskimos 33 Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23 Calgary
1996 Toronto Argonauts 43 Edmonton Eskimos 37 Hamilton
2002 Montreal Alouettes 25 Edmonton Eskimos 16 Edmonton
2003 Edmonton Eskimos 34 Montreal Alouettes 22 Regina
2005 Edmonton Eskimos 38 Montreal Alouettes 35 Vancouver
2015 Edmonton Eskimos 26 Ottawa Redblacks 20 Winnipeg

Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Position Year Inducted
Damon Allen quarterback 2012
Danny Bass linebacker 2000
Al Benecick offensive lineman 1996
Johnny Bright running back 1970
Hugh Campbell builder 2000
Tommy Joe Coffey wide receiver/place kicker 1977
Rod Connop offensive lineman 2005
Dave Cutler kicker 1998
Eric Duggan builder 1981
Matt Dunigan quarterback 2006
Ron Estay defensive end 2003
Bernie Faloney quarterback 1974
Dave Fennell defensive tackle 1990
Darren Flutie wide receiver 2007
Brian Fryer wide receiver 2013
Tracy Ham quarterback 2010
Larry Highbaugh defensive back 2004
Brian Kelly wide receiver 1991
Dan Kepley linebacker 1996
Eagle Keys builder 1990
Norm Kimball builder 1991
Norman Kwong running back 1969
Moses “Moe” Lieberman builder 1973
Neil Lumsden running back 2014
Don Matthews builder 2011
George McGowan wide receiver 2003
Danny McManus quarterback 2011
Roland “Rollie” Miles running back/defensive back/linebacker 1980
Derrell “Mookie” Mitchell wide receiver 2016
Joe Montford defensive end 2011
Kenneth Montgomery builder 1970
Warren Moon quarterback 2001
Frank Morris offensive lineman/defensive lineman 1983
Cal Murphy builder 2004
Roger Nelson offensive lineman/defensive lineman 1986
Jackie Parker quarterback/running back/wide receiver/kicker/punter 1971
James “Quick” Parker linebacker/defensive end 2001
Elfrid Payton defensive end 2010
Rudolph “Rudy” Phillips offensive lineman 2009
Willie Pless linebacker 2005
Mike Pringle running back 2008
Tom Scott wide receiver 1998
Annis Stukus builder 1974
Terry Vaughn wide receiver 2011
Tom Wilkinson quarterback 1987
Henry “Gizmo” Williams punt returner/wide receiver 2006
Dan Yochum offensive lineman 2004
William “Bill” Zock offensive lineman 1984

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Further Reading

  • Terry Jones, Epic Legacy of the Edmonton Eskimos (2016)

  • Stephen Brunt, 100 Grey Cups: This Is Our Game (2012)

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