Year of the Rocket: Toronto Argonaut History From 1991

It was 1991, and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was about to be the #1 overall draft pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. But then, a new ownership group (John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, and Bruce McNall) of the Toronto Argonauts shocked the sporting world and lured “The Rocket” to the Canadian Football League. This is the story.

Paul Woods, author of Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, a Crooked Tycoon and the Craziest Season in Football History, joins me in this episode to share a story from one of the most memorable seasons in the very long history of the Toronto Argonauts.

Year of the Rocket (Synopsis)

Note – this excerpt was provided by Paul Woods as an overview of the book.

An ownership group comprising two of Canada’s most beloved citizens and a Hollywood coin collector/sports mogul who seemed to have the Midas touch.

 A college football superstar who lived up to his absurdly huge paycheque on the field, yet shunned the spotlight that came as part of the deal.

 A charismatic, courageous quarterback who exorcised the demons of past big-game failures by leading his team to victory despite a debilitating injury.  

A dramatic late-game touchdown, scored by the outlandishly overpaid rookie, to clinch the title.

 A frozen can of beer, hurled from the stands, that almost scuppered that touchdown – and ended up becoming a part of Canadian folklore.

The 1991 Toronto Argonauts represent one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of Canadian sports. The full story has never been told – until now.

The purchase of the Argonauts by hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky, comic acting legend John Candy and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall was huge news in early 1991.

Their signing of college sensation Raghib “Rocket” Ismail to the biggest contract ever given to a football player drew massive international attention a few weeks later.

And just like that, Hollywood had come to the increasingly tenuous proposition that was Canadian professional football. Fans flocked to games not only to see the Argonauts and their Rocket but to catch a glimpse of “Uncle Buck” or the “Great One,” or any of the other celebrities who came along for the ride that year.

Full of character, characters and camaraderie, the Argos played with swagger, flair and passion before huge crowds across the Canadian Football League. They capped off the season by winning the Grey Cup in a bone-chilling Winnipeg stadium packed with fans who yearned for them to lose.

 None of the Argonauts’ nearly 150 years of operation was as magical and electrifying as 1991. That season had enough compelling storylines to satisfy the most demanding Hollywood producer:

Gretzky, Candy and McNall: two of Canada’s greatest treasures and the Fred Flintstone-lookalike sports magnate who had made hockey cool in southern California by luring Gretzky away from Canada. Could they possibly get a return on their investment in a league that seemed to be dying?

The Rocket: the highest-paid player in football history, making more money than all of his teammates combined, and four times as much as Super Bowl hero Joe Montana. Could the shy kid from Pennsylvania develop into the role his contract demanded, as the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian football?

The Argonauts’ travelling circus. It wasn’t just the vocal Boatmen and their high-powered Rocket coming to town. Candy, who as a kid dreamt of playing for the Argos someday, attended every game while also working feverishly behind the scenes to resolve some of the CFL’s perpetual financial crises. Fans across the country could not get enough of “Johnny Toronto” – the only Argo owner, ever, who genuinely loved the team.

One of the most memorable nights Toronto has ever seen, when the Rocket made his electrifying debut and the reunited Blues Brothers band was flown in from Europe to deliver a performance fronted by Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and Mariel Hemingway.

The spontaneous and inspirational pre-game rapping by defensive leader Chris “Jethro” Gaines, triggering teammates to break-dance and whoop it up like sugar-overdosed teenagers.

The emergence of an unexpectedly low-rent side of fan-friendly superstar Mike “Pinball” Clemons as jive-talkin’ Jerome Love on the Home Boys Report, a weekly TV feature that seemed to have been produced on a budget of about two dollars.

The big grin on Rickey Foggie’s face every time he got clobbered by a tackler, and the even bigger grin when he raced past tacklers, his skinny legs pumping like pistons.

Matt Dunigan’s stunning emergence as starting quarterback in the Grey Cup, just a week after he had suffered a broken clavicle, and a day after a secret test in the ballroom of his team’s hotel to determine if he could throw the ball at all. After being jabbed by huge needles full of pain-killing medication, “Sgt. Rock” managed not only to get through the game but to toss two long touchdown passes that cemented his legendary status as one of the toughest SOBs to ever take snaps at quarterback.

The Rocket showing the same flair for the dramatic that had made him a Heisman Trophy finalist at Notre Dame University: First exacting a measure of long-awaited revenge on an opponent who had given him a concussion a year earlier – by tossing the ball at the player’s head (and drawing a penalty for objectionable conduct). Then uncorking a record-breaking 87-yard kickoff-return touchdown late in the Grey Cup game when everything – the Argos’ fate in the big game, and ownership’s (arguably insane) decision to pay him so much money – was on the line.

The Throw: a frozen can of Old Vienna flung from the stands by a disgruntled fan, almost bouncing off the Rocket just before he crossed the goal-line. An image destined to live forever in “crazy sports moments” highlights packages. Thirty years later, the anonymous can-tosser finally tells his story.

 Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nothing like it will ever happen again.

 One-Ring Circus documents a fascinating period in which sports, entertainment, popular culture and money came together as never before in Canada. The springboard is the most memorable year in a century and a half of Canada’s oldest football club, but the book transcends sports.

Are you an Argos fan?  Check out the forum – to jump into the conversation.

Paul Woods Bio

PAUL WOODS is an author, journalist, news executive, and historian of the Toronto Argonauts. He held a variety of senior roles with the Canadian Press news agency, served as Executive Editor of the Toronto Star, and is currently Executive Director of Canada’s National Newspaper Awards. In 2012-13, he was Rogers Distinguished Visiting Professor in the journalism faculty at Ryerson University.

 Woods is the author of two previous non-fiction books: Bouncing Back: From National Joke to Grey Cup Champsand Beads and Sequins: The Lewiscraft Story

Paul Woods headshot (author of Year of the Rocket: John Candy, Wayne Gretzky, a Crooked Tycoon and the Craziest Season in Football History)


Twitter: @pxw13

Year of the Rocket publisher’s page: Year of the Rocket | Sutherland House Inc. (

Year of the Ricket media links: Year of the Rocket Media | Linktree

YouTube channels: (Year of the Rocket channel) (Bouncing Back channel) (personal channel, with some cool CFL/Argo stuff)

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