By Charlie Pinkerton
The grandest spectacle in Canadian university sport is back on Saturday at noon, but this year who leaves TD Place victorious may be a footnote.
As was the case with all official competition in U Sports last year, the Panda Game was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the first time without the Carleton Ravens’ and uOttawa Gee-Gees’ annual gridiron bout since 2012, the year before Carleton relaunched its football team.
The Gee-Gees will march into Lansdowne Park’s stadium with Pedro — the game’s keepsake who the crosstown rivals have fought over in all but 16 seasons since the mid-1950s — but who leaves this year’s game with the silver Panda trophy is taking a backseat this year.
There will be a duality of meanings to the 2021 showdown that will be in stark contrast to one another on Saturday.
Though perhaps unofficially, this year’s game will be playing in honour of the Gee-Gees’ Francis Perron, who died on Sept. 18 after the Gee-Gees’ first game of the season against the Toronto Varsity Blues. The cause of senior defensive lineman’s death has not been made public.
There will be a pre-Panda Game tribute held to commemorate Perron’s life. Members of his family and some of his friends will be coming to Ottawa from his hometown of Sherbrooke, Que. for the game. Perron’s Gee-Gee highlights will be played, and some of uOttawa’s team leaders, Perron’s closest friends and members of his family will take part in honouring him on the field before the game kicks off.
Being able to honour Perron means that Saturday’s game will have a positive outcome, Gee-Gees’ head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said in an interview on Friday afternoon.
“Everything we’ve done and will continue to do (since Perron’s death) will put the wellness of our student-athletes first and foremost,” Bellefeuille said. “That is our first priority and football is second at this point in time.”
What will be in contrast to the reality facing Gee-Gees (and undoubtably also Carleton) players will be the celebration that marks the return of the Panda Game. In the years since the Ravens football program’s return, attendance has grown to make the Panda Game the highest-attended annual event on the U Sports calendar. This year, the typical sellout crowd of 24,000 is shrunk to 15,000 in accordance with COVID restrictions.
To understand what makes the Panda Game unique, it’s best to turn to alumni of the event.
“There’s just an energy around it that’s indescribable,” said former Raven Nate Behar, who plays now for the Ottawa Redblacks. “It really just plays into everything.”
Behar is the closest thing the Panda Game’s got to an Official Statesman, thanks to his iconic Hail Mary catch on the final play that allowed the Ravens to bring home Pedro in 2014. He added that the atmosphere make Panda unlike any other.
“It’s just so clearly more,” Behar underlined.
“The people storming the field after the game, it being televised, everyone talking about it – really, it’s just the energy of it (and) the bragging rights,” echoed Mitch Baines, a former Gee-Gees receiver who later played in the CFL.
“There’s not really any other game in (Canadian) university football that compares to it. Even the Vanier Cup, you’re not going to get 25,000 fans out to the Vanier Cup. But you will get that many fans to the Panda Game. It’ll sell out.”
Squaring the game’s unavoidable and complex backdrops will be impossible, Bellefeuille said. And that’s not what he’s expecting his players to do.
“It’s really going to be tough to compartmentalize something like that,” Bellefeuille said.
“For these young men to play football. They’ve gone through a tragedy and it hasn’t even been two weeks yet, and everyone’s at different stages of grief. … The biggest thing I’ve told (the players) is that you’re going to have a lot of mixed emotions, and that’s okay.”
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