Review of Year of the Rocket

Woods, Paul. Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, a Crooked Tycoon, and the Craziest Season in Football History. Toronto: Sutherland House, 2021. Pp. 325. $19.95.

Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski

Judging by the number of championships, the Toronto Argonauts are, arguably, the best team in the history of the Canadian Football League (CFL), with a league-leading 17 championships. Five of these titles came after the events described in Paul Woods’ book, but one might make the argument that these five championships do not occur without the 1991 title. It also is possible that the league does not survive that long, as small fan interest and financial issues were threatening the struggling CFL. As proven by Woods, that 1991 title was one to remember for Torontonians, which he chronicles in Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, a Crooked Tycoon, and the Craziest Season in Football History

Sutherland House, 2021.

Before the 1991 season, Bruce McNall, the owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, Wayne Gretzky, and John Candy joined forces to take over the struggling Toronto football franchise. McNall orchestrated the trade that brought Gretzky to Los Angeles –– not exactly a hockey city –– and the two quickly became friends, as well as business partners. Candy also was close with McNall. However, the individual motivations of the three were very different, as would become evident the season after the one described in the book, which ended with total collapse of the championship-winning roster. 

Established in 1873, the Argonauts are one of the oldest sports franchises in all of North America. Before the 1991 season, the team only had had five owners in its history. Now, here were three new ones about to take over. McNall did not know anything about the Argos, but Candy and Gretzky knew plenty. Both grew up fans and, with news that the whole CFL was in trouble, decided to convince McNall to invest in their beloved team. 

McNall previously had hoped to bring the NFL to Toronto, even holding talks with Art Modell that would have landed the Browns in Canada, instead of Baltimore. Once that plan failed, McNall decided to put the Argos on the map, hoping to replicate the success that he had in Los Angeles with the Kings. He believed that if he could make Californians fall in love with hockey, he could encourage Canadians to embrace football to the point that they would fill the 54,000-seat SkyDome during every home game. In order to do so, he lured the projected number one pick in the NFL Draft –– Notre Dame wide receiver Raghib Ismail –– to the Argos. Nicknamed “the Rocket,” the 21-year old was paid $4.55 million per season, while the rest of his teammates earned $3 million combined. Furthermore, Ismail’s salary was in US dollars, while the the rest of the team’s was in Canadian dollars, thus resulting in Toronto overtly exceeding the league’s salary cap, which also was set at $3 million.

McNall envisioned Ismail as the player that could transcend his sport and, apart from on-field performances, go out of his way to promote the team. In a sense, he was supposed to serve the same role that Gretzky did for the Kings in LA. Additionally, the organization hoped that “stealing” a promising prospect from the NFL would cause such a commotion that even ESPN would have to acknowledge the CFL and give it some coverage. The problem was that the Rocket was never one for the limelight. He hated the attention and was not interested in promotional work. As Woods points out, not many players on the team, despite the two seasons Ismail spent there, actually got to know him. 

Apart from Ismail himself, there are a plethora of interesting characters that stand out in Woods’ retelling of the Argos’ 1991 championship season. While there is the veteran, oft-injured quarterback and the hard-nosed coach, none is more captivating than John Candy, the beloved Hollywood funnyman who took actual pride in his short ownership of the team. Candy invited his star friends to stir up interest in the team, managed to secure the rights to a song by ex-Beatle George Harrison for the team, and did his best to make everybody on the team feel good by inviting them to dinners and sharing his time with them. In a sense, Candy’s experience mirrors that of any fan who had been given part ownership of the team they loved. 

What happened after that championship run makes evident why that season was so magical. Despite the success, the team kept losing money. With the increase in ticket prices, attendance dropped by about 20 percent. Ismail also made it clear he no longer wanted to stay in Toronto, spending his second season on the Argos basically phoning it in. The gap between him and his teammates –– all of whom made substantially less and did not have the same privileges –– grew much bigger. To make things worse, McNall was exposed to be a con man, while Gretzky lost interest in the team as soon as he became the second person ever to win the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup. 

The standard narrative in professional sports is that, if the team wins the championship, then the conflicts, tensions, and troubles were worth it. This book proves that this is exactly the case, as the fallout following that magical season was ugly. Yet, what occurred in 1991 –– the excitement, the joy, the positive emotions —— live on. And for fans such as Woods, that’s all that matters. 

Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021)

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