Editor's note: in honour of the first games of the 2011 Voyageurs Cup beginning tomorrow, as well as the fact that your humble author is going to spend most of the day flying to Edmonton, today is Voyageurs Cup day at Eighty Six Forever. Throughout the day I'll be posting on this esteemed tournament, why I think it matters, and my thoughts on it in general. This is merely the first article on its way up today.
Tomorrow, the Vancouver Whitecaps will take on archrivals the Montreal Impact for perhaps the biggest prize the Whitecaps will fight for all season. The Voyageurs Cup, our national championship, kicks off at last at 6 PM Pacific, with Toronto FC facing FC Edmonton in the other match of the day.
I've been outspoken on this matter in the past: I think the Voyageurs Cup is the biggest competition of the Vancouver Whitecaps' season. With the potential of a FIFA Club World Cup berth at the end of the line, it certainly has the highest stakes. Moreover, the Voyageurs Cup is a fan-created, fan-supported trophy, the very essence of soccer culture. It was paid for by supporters of the Canadian national team, flown around the country (well, to Montreal) by supporters of the Canadian national team, given its reputation and its stature by supporters of the Canadian national team, and when the Canadian Soccer Association came knocking for a trophy to crown the new, official national champions, it was supporters of the Canadian national team who stepped up once again.
Yet at least one of you, reading this, isn't quite sure what I mean by "Voyageurs Cup". You know that Vancouver is playing Montreal tomorrow, but you've checked the websites and your local listings and you know that we're playing for something called the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. You probably don't need me to tell you what the Voyageurs Cup is, since I explained it, but you may be wondering: why are you being such a stubborn little bastard? Officially, for sponsorship reasons, the competition is the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. The broadcaster calls it that, the Canadian Soccer Association calls it that, the teams usually call it that. Is this "Voyageurs Cup" nonsense simply the misplaced pride and nostalgia of a self-described Voyageur?
It's not. Why do I call it the Voyageurs Cup and not the Nutrilite whatever-it-is? Because the Voyageurs matter and Nutrilite doesn't.
First, to deflect the annual question (and to catch the inevitable Google searches of "what the hell is nutrilite anyway"), a look at the title sponsor of our national championship. Nutrilite, best known for running an advertisement of Ronaldinho juggling a soccer ball long after Ronaldinho had ceased to be relevant, is a company which produces nutritional and mineral supplements. Lest your "snake oil" detector be going off, let me set your mind at ease by explaining that Nutrilite is a fully owned subsidiary of Alticor, parent company of the... um, internationally known "direct sales" company Amway.
Let's be honest, that's not exactly a marquee sponsor for our national championship. Of course, the English Premier League is sponsored by a bailed-out bank. The reputation of Nutrilite isn't the reason I refuse to dignify our championship with their name.
I'm familiar with the argument that "if Canadian soccer is to grow, it needs sponsors." And I understand it. When I wear my Vancouver Whitecaps jersey I don't mind being a walking Bell billboard for exactly that reason. I'm all for sponsorship money (and I'm all for the sponsors getting their money's worth). So, by all means, name Toronto FC's stadium BMO Field and plaster enormous "Bell"s across our chests even though I, personally, am a Telus customer. I don't even mind car dealerships sponsoring corner kicks. Thank you for the money.
In fact, if I were to think of one thing that's more important in soccer than the corporate dollar, it would be the supporters. Supporters like the one who bought and created the Voyageurs Cup, supporters after whom that trophy is named.
This isn't because I'm a Voyageur or I have any personal pride in the trophy. The creation of the Voyageurs Cup far predates my interest in the Canadian national teams. Notwithstanding the fact that the Voyageurs were founded in Edmonton, where I grew up, I didn't so much as meet another V until 2007, by which time the Voyageurs Cup was already long-established and covered in grubby Montreal Impact fingerprints. I'd feel the same way if the trophy was called the U-Sector Cup or the North End Elite Cup or even (god forbid) the Montreal Ultras Cup. Whatever the name, it represents an investment, both in terms of money and time, of supporters in the Canadian game at a time when professional soccer in Canada might have been at its lowest ebb and sponsors like Nutrilite were nowhere to be found.
I honour the Voyageurs, not the Nutrilite, because even if Nutrilite will help us make the tournament bigger, the Voyageurs are who made the tournament possible.