Just a few months before the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won a second Grey Cup in 1939 – on September 10, to be exact – Canada entered World War II.
What happened over the next six years before the conflict ended on September 2, 1945 dramatically impacted the planet and trickled all the way down to the local Winnipeg sporting scene and the Blue Bombers.
The Bombers would win a third Grey Cup in 1941 after victories in 1935 and 1939, knocking off the Ottawa Rough Riders 18-16. But in 1942, the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Football Union suspended operations because of the war.
During that time the Winnipeg Football Club established a three-team city league comprised of the Bombers – a civilian team – the RCAF Flyers featuring military personnel and players from the University of Manitoba. At the end of the season an all-star team was comprised and played as the Winnipeg RCAF Bombers, falling to the Toronto RCAF Hurricanes 8-6 in the 1942 Grey Cup.
Several Bombers players were part of the armed services during World War II. One of the best players during that era was Jeff Nicklin, a halfback, flying wing and end who had been on the Grey Cup teams that won in 1935 and 1939. Nicklin joined the service in 1940 as a paratrooper, was one of the first Canadians to jump on D-Dy in 1944 and led his division in the Battle of the Bulge. Tragically, he was killed in Germany during Operation Varsity in March of 1945.
After the war the Blue Bombes reorganized and was comprised mostly of local Canadians. That cobbled together crew played a regular season against North Dakota State, Minto State Teachers College, the University of North Dakota, Bemidji State Teachers College, Concordia College and Regina before knocking off Calgary in the Western Final. The Bombers were no match against the Toronto Argonauts in the 1945 Grey Cup, falling 35-0.
That theme would repeat with a 28-6 loss to Toronto in the 1946 Grey Cup and then a 10-9 defeat – again to Toronto – in the 1947 championship game.
The decade ended with some struggles, as the Bombers went 3-9 in 1948 and 2-12 in 1949.
The times were changing, however, and the 1950s would mark a turnaround for the franchise and the start of the Glory Years.
- The Bombers’ 1941 Grey Cup win can be attributed as much to the talent on the roster as in the coaching staff. Head coach Reg Threlfall had made diagrams of all of Ottawa’s plays when the two sides faced each other in the 1939 championship. And a week before the ’41 Grey Cup, assistant coach Bert Warwick scouted Ottawa’s playoff victory over the Hamilton Tigers.
- As a tribute to Jeff Nicklin, mentioned above, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion donated the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy to the Western Interprovincial Football Union in 1946 and it is awarded annually to the top player in the CFL’s West Division.
- Winnipeg’s Grey Cup win in 1941 ended a spectacular run for the club, for it wasn’t until 1958 that the franchise would win another championship. That 17-year drought was, at the time, the longest in club history
- Bob Sandberg was one of the Blue Bombers stars late in the 1940s. A star at the University of Minnesota, Sandberg came to Winnipeg in 1947 and had a sensational rookie season – he not only led the league in scoring, but was the West Divisions’ Most Outstanding Player. He was limited to three seasons as a Bomber due to injuries, returning to the Saskatchewan Roughriders for a brief stint in 1951.
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