It was one of those where-were-you-when CFL moments. The news felt like it registered on the Richter scale and was followed by a tsunami of emotion.
The Ricky Ray trade took place on Dec. 12, 2011, about three weeks after Edmonton’s season had ended. It marked the end of Ray’s nine-year stay in Green and Gold. It also brought an immediate end to any dissenting thoughts on Ray’s qualifications to be that No. 1 option in Edmonton.
Going on 11 years after the trade, it seems impossible now to think that Ray had critics in Edmonton, that there was a perhaps small minority of fans whose keyboards clicked loudly that questioned him. They questioned his age (he was 32 when he was dealt), his durability, his mobility, his style of leadership.
The reaction and emotion that followed Ray’s sudden departure from Edmonton swallowed that sentiment up almost immediately. It’s rare to see a portion of a team’s fan base go through an almost live action realization of not knowing what it had until it was gone. We witnessed that on Dec. 12, 2011.
Today, with two more Grey Cups on his resume from his seven-year stay in Toronto and now as the headliner of the 2022 class of Canadian Football Hall of Fame inductees, the trade feels like water under the High Level Bridge, at least for Ray.
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“My view is the same, it was probably a good thing for myself and for Edmonton,” Ray told reporters on a conference call this past week.
“I felt like it was a new start to my career, getting a chance to come into Toronto and be a part of that organization and play for the coaches I got to play for…is a big part of my football journey and some relationships I’ll never forget.
“I feel pretty lucky. You talk about the CFL and look at the history, and the championships, all of that, Edmonton and Toronto are the two teams at the top of that list. To be a part of those franchises and have a little impact on them is pretty special to me.”
Ray’s time in Edmonton was more highs than lows, but as he discussed on that call, the nine years he spent in the Alberta capital helped shape him and ready him for that second act in Toronto.
He went from driving a chip truck in 2001, in between his college career at Sacramento State finishing and exploring his pro options. He landed in Edmonton in 2002, came in as the fourth-string quarterback and thanks to an injury to then-starter Jason Maas, ended up leading the team all the way to the Grey Cup game. They came up short in 2002, but avenged their loss to Anthony Calvillo and the Montreal Alouettes a year later.
“All of a sudden I find myself in Edmonton, fourth on the depth chart in a new country and playing a new style of football,” Ray recalled.
“Really, I was just hoping I could grasp on and make the team and be somewhere for a full year, see how much I could learn and see if I could even play in the league.
“With my time in Edmonton there’s obviously the big things you remember: the Grey Cups, getting traded, being a part of the team that didn’t make the playoffs (for the first time) in 34 years,” Ray said with a slight laugh.
“There’s both good and bad through my time in Edmonton. But a lot of the time I’m thinking about the time I spent with the people I met there. Spending time with the players in the players’ lounge. We played racquetball sometimes before practices and meetings…the times we spent hanging out after games.
“I really enjoyed my time in Edmonton just because when I got there we had such a great group of veteran guys that really showed you the way of what it meant to be a part of Edmonton, what was expected of you, that brotherhood. Those are the moments I look back on and think about, other than the big ups and downs. It’s a whole bunch of things that I can reflect on and appreciate my time in Edmonton.”
Ray left Edmonton after those nine years already an all-time great in the CFL. He was ninth in league history with 40,529 passing yards at the time of the trade. His 96.1 passer efficiency rating was the highest among all-time QBs with at least 30,000 career passing yards. He’d been a two-time Grey Cup champion and was the 2005 Grey Cup MVP. He was Hall of Fame worthy when his feet first hit the ground in Toronto in 2012, before his resume would swell even further. Ray retired with the most Grey Cup wins (four) as a starting quarterback.
“I just feel so lucky. Why me? Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why me?’” Ray said. “Why was I so lucky to be a part of championship teams and now get the call to go to the hall of fame and have things go my way?”
Through the highs and lows of a career, from dealing with Grey Cup wins and non-playoff seasons, Ray seemed to take everything in the same stride. His steady demeanour is something that former teammates and coaches still mention as a standard in how to deal with the pressures of pro football.
Asked if what was happening internally always matched that unflinching exterior, Ray laughed.
“I still felt all those things inside. For me, it came easy to me. That was my natural personality. When I get nervous or I get focused, I get really quiet. I look really calm but even though underneath, things are going through my mind,” he said.
“You’re dealing with negative thoughts, a little bit of self doubt. Quite a bit through my career I may have looked like nothing affected me but that’s the way I projected it outwardly. For me, it worked that way with my personality.
“Other guys like Jason (Maas) were totally opposite. He handled things better by putting it out there. I felt like I played better when I kept it even keel and tried to be consistent and the same person every play and every day. Even though I was still dealing with, ‘Man can I still do this? Do I suck? Can I do this?’ Still trying to build that confidence and self belief that every athlete is trying to get, practising and putting yourself in situations where you have to try to prove that to yourself.”
Through nine years in Edmonton then seven more in Toronto, Ray proved it over and over again. He heads to the hall of fame with his greatness unquestioned.