HAMILTON — For one day, CFL fans can forget about the trouble in Toronto, the lack of sizzle on offence and the wobbly direction of their beloved league.
The power of Grey Cup Sunday can make one put aside the harsh realities for three hours – especially when the home team is on the field in a proud football city such as Hamilton, forever linked to its Tiger-Cats in good times and bad.
“Sixty minutes of tough football played in a great environment – Hamilton-style football,” Winnipeg coach Mike O’Shea, who knows a thing or two about Steeltown, said when asked what he expects in the 108th Grey Cup – featuring his Blue Bombers and the Tiger-Cats. “We probably play the same brand. Good defences, offences that can get after it, big plays.
“It’s going to be a great setting. To me, it’s the biggest single-day sporting event in Canada every single year. It’s celebrated across the country. It’s important to people from one coast to another. I love that part. It’s awesome.”
After a one-year absence because of COVID-19, the Grey Cup is back in Hamilton for the first time since 1996 – and once again, much of the pre-game talk has been about the league’s issues.
O’Shea, a fan favourite in Hamilton before becoming a public enemy when he signed down the QEW with the hated Argonauts not once but twice, was here in 1996 as a linebacker for the Doug Flutie-led powerhouse Toronto team. The Argos’ appearance in a nearby title tilt did next to nothing to help ticket sales for a league experiencing plenty of turmoil – albeit not with the on-field product like this year.
The league sold heavily discounted tickets in the week leading up to the game to avoid the embarrassment of empty seats. Toronto Mayor John Tory, then the volunteer CFL commissioner, has told of how Tim Hortons provided the league with extra funds to ensure players’ game cheques would clear.
But despite all that, it was a magical night. In a heavy snowstorm at the old Ivor Wynne Stadium, the Argos beat Edmonton 43-37 – a game considered one of the best Grey Cups ever.
Now, we finally have another Showdown in Steeltown – at the seven-year-old Tim Hortons Field, on the same grounds as Ivor Wynne – and the Black and Gold have a chance to break the longest current Grey Cup drought in the CFL, dating back to 1999.
“I think it’s going to be a great game. Two great organizations going at it,” said Bombers quarterback and CFL most outstanding player Zach Collaros, also a former Ticat. “Really happy for the league, really happy for the country. Having the year off and being able to pull this off this year, it’s been an amazing season. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Collaros has experienced highs and lows in the Hammer. He made his mark as a CFL quarterback here with three strong seasons from 2014-16, and started the first game at the new stadium in ’14.
But Collaros lost his job after an 0-8 start in 2017 and was traded to Saskatchewan the following year.
Then, in the 2019 season opener in Hamilton – a game heavily overshadowed by the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA title that same night – Collaros suffered a concussion on a controversial head hit by current Ticats linebacker Simoni Lawrence.
Cody Fajardo took over for an injured Collaros before a fairy-tale story emerged – a trade to Toronto and then another deal to Winnipeg before the playoffs, where the Blue Bombers went on the road for two wins before upsetting the Ticats 33-12 in the Grey Cup.
“I try not to be too dramatic and sentimental, especially before a game,” Collaros said. “(On Saturday), I just felt like I was walking out to practice three or four years ago or whenever that was and it was windy (like it often is at Tim Hortons Field). It’s like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to throw in that wind today.’ I guess it’s good for me that I’ve played in something like that if that’s what it’s going to be (Sunday). But I’m really trying to stay focused on the task at hand. All those things about our careers, we can reflect on down the road.”
It’s a reverse scenario of 2019, when coach Orlondo Steinauer’s Ticats came in as favourites after finishing the season 15-3 and had the league’s MOP in receiver Brandon Banks.
But while Winnipeg had this year’s MOP and was the dominant team all season, it must deal with a hostile, sellout crowd urged to all wear black.
“It’s going to be us against the East Coast here a little bit, but we’re ready for it,” Winnipeg star running back Andrew Harris said.
Dane Evans, the Ticats’ starting quarterback after a 16-for-16 performance in relief of Jeremiah Masoli last week in the East final in Toronto, is 7-1 as a starter at home – with the lone loss in his first try.
“We’re comfortable here. We love this stadium,” Evans said. “We got lucky the Grey Cup was here this year and we found a way into it. It certainly wasn’t handed to us, by any means. That’s part of what we talked about in the meeting – there is going to be some advantage there.”
Added defensive back Tunde Akelede, who will be playing in his fourth straight Grey Cup: “We get a lot of energy off them and they really support us. It’s nice to have this game here and to be able to win in front of our fans would be huge.”
To do that, they’ll have to find a way to hand O’Shea his first loss in a Grey Cup. The North Bay, Ont., native is 5-0 in the big game (three as a player, one as an assistant coach, one as a head coach).
The Ticats also won’t have run-stuffer Ted Laurent, who underwent a procedure for appendicitis on Friday – though he was at the stadium Saturday for meetings, providing an emotional lift for his team.
Come Sunday, they’ll get another boost from 24,000 or so in Tiger Town.
The scene should be sensational – and loyal CFL fans, in the midst of a challenging stretch, sure deserve something to savour.
“With it being a home game for Hamilton, it will certainly be loud,” Collaros said. “We’ve been practising different snap counts. We’ll be ready for anything. I think it’s an amazing week for the CFL and I’m just really happy for the fans they get to celebrate the season.”
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