The grand-prize for this dinner was a (presumably new) car and according to Melville's column all attendees went home with some sort of a prize. Whether any of those prizes were specifically made to commemorate the dinner is unknown for both 1953 and 1954, but in subsequent years the team started awarding items that were especially produced for the event.
Luckily Saskatchewan super-collector Barry Shefernack has spent considerable time and effort chronicling just what exactly those items were for each year, and he has graciously allowed me to illustrate a subset of these interesting artifacts in this blog post. Barry hopes to publish a comprehensive reference on this material at some point in the future.
|November 4th, 1953 Tom Melville column in the Regina Leader-Post reporting on the 1st Dinner|
For the 3rd annual dinner in 1955, besides the car and the other prizes distributed via draws the engraved lighter shown below is believed to be the first known dinner particular prize. Smoking accessories were a popular category for prizes and the 1957 ceramic ash-tray is the first known item that actually is labeled as being from the dinner.
|1955 Lighter & 1957 Ashtray|
The dinner continued to be a solid draw through the late fifties with a record 387 attendees in 1958.
Another popular category for dinner prizes was glassware, as the dated combination below shows. The undated glass was possibly marketed separately after the event using the same graphic design.
In 1960 three automobiles were featured as draw prizes.
|1959 Glasses and Ice Bucket & Undated Glass|
(pics taken on a brown couch)
Attendance at the dinner and subsequent profit for the team grew as the Riders slowly built a contender in the first half of the sixties. No doubt the extra funds helped greatly with signing players who would soon power the team through their most consistent period of success. By 1964 the record for sales was up to 709 tickets and the following year the team started bringing in big-name speakers like boxing legends Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. By mid-decade the lucky draw winners were going home with new Cadillacs!
|1962 Metal Tray with facsimile autographs|
In many years there was more than one themed item awarded and the list is not absolute as new items occasionally come to light. A number of attractive metal trays were made in different years that make for fine display pieces for today's collector.
In 1966 after 14 years of annual dinners, the team would finally advance to the Grey Cup for the first time since 1951. A points based system was in place to allocate Grey Cup tickets to the fan base, most points getting the first shot at seats. Points were earned for season ticket holders, program advertisers or patrons, active team memberships and a number of other things but a significant number of points (4) was for buying the annual dinner ticket.
The Riders captured their first championship in team history that year and promptly commemorated the event with the stein pictured below at the next season's dinner. There would be repeat trips to the big game four times over the next decade but no further opportunity to theme a dinner prize to a victory.
|1967 Grey Cup Champions (1966) Stein & 1971 Steak Board with Dinner Ticket|
Entering the digital age the 1969 organizing committee tried to replace the manual draw process in place since the dinner's inauguration with a new-fangled IBM computerized system. The system proved buggy and caused delays resulting in it being abandoned after two years. Prizes awarded to the dinner patrons had reached a pretty significant level, $25,000 worth in 1971 for example.
Somewhat mind-bogglingly from today's perspective, a female reporter attended the 1974 dinner and by doing so caused something of a stir. The event was traditionally (although not officially) male only. Apparently the last time a few women had attended as ticket buyers was in the fifties. By 1975 the dinner topped the 1000 attendee mark for the first time.
Despite the robust fan contributions the Rider's team finances were in big trouble. In 1974 the team lost over $100K on football operations but managed to break even with the dinner proceeds and other fundraising activities. In 1975 they lost $100K even with the fundraising income. 1976 was better because of the Grey Cup proceeds but by 1977 the annual dinner ticket cost was raised to $200 to help stem the tide. Glen Dobbs, the Riders' QB from their 1951 Grey Cup bid was the guest speaker for the 25th anniversary dinner.
|1977 Silver Anniversary Mug & 1980 Stadium Seat Cushion with Blanket inside|
Towards the end of the decade the team started hemorrhaging money. A stadium expansion was sought and delivered to allow for more revenue from ticket sales but it was hard to attract the needed additional fans with the team posting back to back 2-14 records in the 1979 and 1980 seasons. Things were bleak but for the final home game in 1979 the Rider Pride slogan was officially harnessed to convince fans to pack Taylor Field to capacity to help prevent the potential loss of the franchise.
For the most part the eighties were a brutal decade for the team with eight last or second last place finishes in ten years. During that time the high dinner attendance was maintained even with the doubling of the cost and subsequent profits helped keep the team in business. For the team's 75th Anniversary in 1985 the ticket cost was bumped to $250 and an All-Time Roughrider All-Star team was selected and living members attended the banquet.
The 1987 event was listed as the first annual team Hall of Fame dinner and a selection of nine initial players and administrators was made. The associated dinner prize (beer bottles) was one of the rare times that individuals were featured on the items and so these were catalogued in Collecting Canadian Football Volume 2, as was the very nice 1977 prize Mirror with Ron Lancaster and Glenn Dobbs. In 1988 the Hall of Fame was renamed the Plaza of Honor with nine more members selected and the actual Plaza was constructed outside of Taylor Field.
|1986 Set of Playing Cards & 1994 Document Bag|
Long suffering Rider supporters finally were rewarded in 1989 when an unexpected playoff run from 3rd place, knocking off one of the most powerful teams in CFL history (Eskimos 16-2) along the way, culminated in a dramatic last play Grey Cup victory.
The now renamed Plaza of Honor Annual Dinner had its first pin produced in 1990 and except for 2003 a pin has been produced every year since (with some limited edition variations as well). In 2017 the spelling was changed to the more Canadian Plaza of Honour and a selection of these pins are illustrated.
|Selection of Plaza of Honor Pins|
The nineties were another tough decade for the franchise, with the exception of another Cinderella run to a 1997 Grey Cup appearance, the Riders would not win another playoff game the whole decade. Budget issues were a constant strain (both for Regina and the league in general) and the team was millions in debt with survival sometimes dependent on emergency season ticket appeals to stave off collapse.
And yet despite the lack of on-field success, Rider fans kept pouring their support into the annual dinner (sponsored by Sasktel from 1991) and the Friends of the Riders Touchdown Lottery with both fundraisers generating millions in cumulative support over the years. Dinner attendance was solidly near the 1000 mark every year and at some point the plaza induction ceremonies began to be televised on local TV.
By the last dinner of the century 76 players/builders had been inducted into the Plaza of Honor and more importantly the team had started to finish in the black again and reduce their accumulated deficit, at least in some seasons. In 2000 a record 1271 fans bought dinner tickets, still at $250 a pop plus gst.
|2003 Clock & 2007 Folding Tray with facsimile inductee autographs|
The turn of the century saw the Roughriders franchise finally turning the corner on being habitually on the verge of financial collapse. Their well-oiled fundraising machine was one reason as the dinner alone was pumping close to a quarter of a million dollars into the team every year (the ticket fee was upped to $300 in 2002).
But other factors contributed as well, profits from hosting the Grey Cup in 2003, a general increase in television revenue for the leagues' teams and most importantly a better product on the field. The Riders became competitive again and in 2007 they posted their best record (12-6) for 37 years since the 1970 squad went 14-2! That same year saw a record 1412 attend the dinner and the team capped off their resurgence with a third Grey Cup.
A winning team and frequent Grey Cup trips meant consistent sellouts in Regina further enhancing the club's bottom line. Tom Shepherd, the mastermind behind their fundraising activities who had been helping in that capacity since 1966 was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame as a builder in 2008.
|2009 Grey Cup Champions (1989) Framed Collage|
In 2010 the Rider's three Grey Cup winning teams were inducted into the Plaza for the 100th Anniversary of the franchise. Attractive championship team framed collages were issued as dinner prizes for each team in the surrounding years.
The dinner continued to attract roughly the same amount of support as it always had through to 2016 which was the final year of the old format and the final year of dinner specific gifts. With the move to the new Stadium in 2017 the induction was modified to being more of a game day event with tiered pricing. Each year's Plaza inductees had been celebrated during the home game nearest to the dinner date for some time prior in any case.
As of 2019 131 players & builders and three teams have been elected to the Plaza of Honour. Over the span from 1953 - 2016 there at least 70 known Annual Dinner gift items and probably a dozen or so more yet to be discovered.
With a considerable financial surplus, a new state of the art stadium, a rabid fan base and salary cap rules to keep the league competitive, the days of Saskatchewan fans needing to wait decades between improbable Grey Cup underdog runs anymore appear to be over (as shown by their 2013 win). It is also fair to suppose that without the Annual Dinner the Roughriders would probably have been a one-time champion team that folded long ago as a footnote in CFL history.