When the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats last met in the CFL’s East Division final 27 years ago, long-time Argos fan Finn Gross recalls an atmosphere in the stands so nasty, he had to fight his way out of Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium.
The Toronto-Hamilton rivalry has spanned more than 100 years, 300 games and countless trips along the Queen Elizabeth Way, but they haven’t met with a trip to the Grey Cup on the line since 1986 – when it was a two-game total-points series. (The Argos won the first game on the road, but the Ticats overcame a 25-point deficit in Toronto to win the second game and the series, before going on to win the Grey Cup.)
While the level of animosity between the teams’ fans is more civil these days, Sunday’s game is highly anticipated. Hamilton’s dramatic overtime win over the Montreal Alouettes in last week’s East Division semi-final gave ticket sales got a jolt, prompting the Argos to open seats in the rarely-needed 500 level of Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
“The first East final in 27 years is exciting because both teams are good, unlike in ’86, when the East was not great and both teams were average,” said Gross, a member of the Argonauts fan group, the Argoholics. “It’s the Argos as defending Grey Cup champs versus a Ticats team built to make the Grey Cup. Is it as exciting as back then.”
As of last Thursday, the Argos estimated they had sold some 30,000 tickets for the game, on a day when the city will also be abuzz for the annual Santa Claus Parade and a Toronto Raptors NBA home game.
In an attempt to neutralize the hometown advantage, the Ticats have organized three parties at bars along John Street near Rogers Centre, and encouraged fans to spill out at 12:30 p.m. wearing black and gold to march toward the stadium together. (The game starts at 1 p.m. EST.)
“This is the equivalent of the Habs-Leafs [NHL] rivalry for Canadian football fans, and this rivalry is older than all of them,” said Jarrett Harris, one of the Ticats fans in hard hats and black-and-gold kilts who call themselves the Box J Boys. “A rivalry this old should always sell out. For many of us who can’t make it out to Regina, this is our Grey Cup game.”
The East final has a convergence of intriguing storylines. The defending champs must manage without injured star running back Chad Kackert; Hamilton has a defensive co-ordinator and several defensive backs who earned Grey Cup rings with the Argos last year; the Tabbies missed the playoffs a season ago, stumbled earlier this year, but have won four of their final five games.
Plus, the addition of bona fide star quarterbacks has injected new life into the rivalry. Ricky Ray and Henry Burris battled for years in Alberta with the Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary Stampeders, respectively, and now, for the first time since they were traded to Ontario, their teams meet in the playoffs.
“Any time you’re playing a team with Henry Burris, offensively, you go into the game knowing for sure you’re going to have to score a lot points,” said Ray, who won the Grey Cup in his first season with the Argos in 2012. “He’s one of the most talented guys ever to play in the CFL.”
The two teams met twice in the regular season, with Toronto winning the first, a thriller in which both quarterbacks tossed for more than 360 yards and multiple touchdowns. The Ticats won the last two meetings, slowing Toronto’s lethal offence.
“The past few games, we’ve had their number as far as our defence versus their offence,” Ticats defensive lineman Brandon Boudreaux said. “They haven’t been able to stop our pressures and us up front. This game is no different, there’s just a lot more on the line this week.”
Still, the game forecast calls for fireworks, with two stables of now-healthy receivers and two long-bombing quarterbacks. Ray is a nominee for the CFL most outstanding player award, while Burris was the league’s leading passer.
A new chapter of this rivalry is set to unfold.
“The teams haven’t played in the East final since 1986, and that’s monumental for both of us to be part of,” Burris said. “For me to be part of Hamilton making it this year, on this occasion against the Argos, it’s a game we will never forget.”