It’s been a yearly tradition in Canada since the turn of the century: The Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps gunning for the Voyageurs Cup.
When the clubs face off on Wednesday as the two-legged final of the Amway Canadian Championship kicks off (7:30 pm ET; Sportsnet World in Canada, MLS LIVE in the USA), they’ll be fighting not just for the right to hoist that trophy, but also for a berth in the 2016-17 CONCACAF Champions League.
That Champions League berth may dominate the headlines surrounding the games, but it is the Voyageurs Cup – which predates the Canadian Championship tournament and even MLS’s arrival in Canada – that carries with it the weight of years of shared history between the two clubs.
The cup also carries the name of the Canadian national team's supporters' group that created, paid for and still owns the trophy to this day.
After the collapse of the old Canadian Soccer League in the early 1990s, fans yearned for some sort of domestic cup competition to determine a champion among the few Canadian clubs remaining on the North American soccer pyramid.
“For years, the [Canadian Soccer Association] promised a domestic Canadian cup,” says Dwayne Cole, a long-time Voyageurs member. “We were promised and promised, and it never came to fruition.”
So the group – buoyed by a spike in interest after Canada’s surprise win at the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup – decided to do it themselves.
The idea was first pitched on the Voyageurs’ message board in March 2002, and interest quickly grew. After some discussion, it was decided the trophy would be awarded to whichever of the four Canadian clubs in the USL A-League – the Impact, Whitecaps, Toronto Lynx and Calgary Storm – collected the most points against each other during the season.
Then came the question of what the trophy would look like – and how it would be paid for.
“We had a vote on what kind of trophy we should have,” recalls Cole. “A number of things came up; it was actually my trophy idea that won.”
Cole, who had been responsible for much of the group’s fundraising since its inception in 1996, took on the task of collecting funds for the Voyageurs Cup. In all, approximately 45 members sent in donations ranging from a few bucks to several hundred dollars; Cole estimates the fundraising total at between $3,500 and $4,000.
That bought the cup — made at a shop in Cole’s hometown of Winnipeg — and a solid oak case, meant to protect the trophy over the years.
“Originally, the big thing was, ‘How is this thing going to survive going back and forth across the country?’, because that’s what we envisioned,” says Cole. “But that never came into play.”
Indeed, the trophy simply stayed in Montreal, as the Impact won the first edition of the Voyageurs Cup in 2002 and just kept on winning, year after year.
In 2007, Toronto FC entered MLS but were not eligible for the Cup, since only the Impact and Whitecaps played each other head-to-head in the USL First Division.
“When MLS came into play, that was the next chapter,” says Cole. “Then, suddenly, the CSA were going to do something.”
With the new-look CONCACAF Champions League starting up in August 2008, the CSA needed a competition to determine its entrant (the Canadian Championship), and a trophy to award to that tournament’s winner. Though the Voyageurs Cup would have seemed like a natural fit, Cole says CSA officials weren’t keen on using the fan-made trophy at first. So he got to work on changing their minds.
“The first thing I did is I got the different fan groups on board, then I got the clubs on board. And really at that point, the CSA was in a bit of a bind,” says Cole. “We made an agreement, and we went with it. I think it was a win-win. The CSA got to borrow the Voyageurs Cup, they got the history and the credibility.”
The deal stipulated that, starting in 2008, the CSA would manage the trophy and award it to the winner of the Canadian Championship. But the trophy itself remains the property of the Voyageurs and, continuing a tradition that began in 2002, one of its members is the one who actually presents the Cup to the winning team.
No one knew what to expect in terms of attendance or interest in that first year of the Canadian Championship. But games in all three cities were either sellouts or close to them. When all was said and done, the Impact claimed the Voyageurs Cup for the seventh consecutive year – and parlayed it into an exciting run to the quarterfinals of the 2008-09 CONCACAF Champions League.
“There is the pride and sense of accomplishment that [the Voyageurs Cup] has lasted, that there is a significance to it,” says Gordon Twigg, a Saskatoon-based health care manager who contributed $200 to the Cup’s formation. “My wife is getting bored of hearing the story of how I was involved in the creation of the cup every year!”
The cup continued to gain significance as the years went on, as a team other than the Impact finally claimed it (Toronto FC won four straight years, from 2009-12), and as the number of eligible teams eventually climbed to five (with FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury joining the NASL).
“Did anyone think this would become a nationally broadcast tournament? Not in a million years,” says Cole. “I can guarantee you, all of those original donors are very happy. Good God, all the games are on television. In many ways, it’s one of the few success stories of Canadian soccer.”
These days, Cole is largely silent on the Voyageurs’ message board, and he stepped back from his organizational involvement with the group several years ago. But another original donor, Jamie MacLeod, has stepped up to provide much of the organizational work that makes the ongoing presence of the Voyageurs possible.
To him, the cup is emblematic of what can be accomplished in the Canadian game.
“A lot of people probably don’t even know we have a national team, let alone a supporters' group, let alone a cup developed by the supporters,” he says. “The culture is there. It isn’t about creating it; it’s about growing it and getting people to be a part of it.”
MacLeod also took over Cole’s job of identifying, on a yearly basis, a Voyageurs member in the appropriate city and asking them to present the trophy. While handing out a national title in front of a big crowd would seem like a great experience for any fan, it doesn’t always turn out that way – as Whitecaps fan Ben Massey found out back in 2013.
The Whitecaps had come close to claiming the Voyageurs Cup before, most famously in 2009 when Toronto FC posted a 6-1 win over the Impact – the so-called “Miracle in Montreal” – to deny Vancouver the trophy on goal difference.
But things were looking good in the second leg of the 2013 Canadian Championship final. After a 0-0 draw against Montreal at Stade Saputo in the first leg, the ’Caps held a 2-1 lead at BC Place heading into the game’s final minutes.
“When Jamie asked me [to award the trophy], I thought, ‘Well, what if Montreal wins? It might suck,’” recalls Massey. “But if I say no, I’d regret not doing it forever. It’s just the way the game wound up going that was particularly grueling.”
With just six minutes left in regulation, the Impact leveled the score at 2-2, which was enough to give them the aggregate win on away goals. Massey, just minutes after believing his club was about to finally win their first Voyageurs Cup, had to instead walk out and present it to their long-time rivals.
His displeasure was crystal clear to anyone watching on television.
“With great effort and great concentration, it’s possible to be neutral in a situation when you’re emotionally invested,” he says. “But I don’t think it can be done mere minutes after being emotionally shattered by the one team in the world you’d least like to get shattered by.”
Even so, Massey says he’d do it all over again. To him, the Voyageurs Cup is a representation of all that’s good, and all that’s possible, in Canadian soccer.
“If 45 fans could get a few A-League teams together and turn that into a real, legit Canadian championship, what can’t we do?” he says. “That’s amazing.”
What’s next for the Voyageurs Cup? Starting this year, the finals of the Canadian Championship are being played in August, a format change that could theoretically open the door to a longer competition involving more teams. In fact, CSA president Victor Montagliani has said that an open Canadian Cup – the sort of competition that the Voyageurs Cup’s creators envisioned all those years ago – is “a must” over the long term.
MacLeod says the group is exploring the potential of a women’s Voyageurs Cup as well: “I really don’t know how to do it, but we want to do it.”
Whatever the long-term future holds for the Voyageurs Cup (or Cups), the next chapter in its ongoing history will be written this month. Can the Impact claim the trophy for the third straight time and 10th time overall? Or can the Whitecaps finally break the curse and lift the national cup?
Either way, the trophy presentation will be one more round of validation for a group of supporters who wanted to make change in the Canadian game — and put their money where their mouths were.