In Muddy York and Steeltown, the thermometer and the sport-ticket buyers both attest to the end of the hockey season and start of football season.
Football – even if it’s the exhibition kind – starts Wednesday, with the Toronto Argonauts renewing grudges with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, kicking off the final CFL season at Ivor Wynne Stadium. (Later the same night, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are in Vancouver to face the B.C. Lions.)
The 2012 campaign will also mark the 100th edition of the Grey Cup, to be played Nov. 25 in Toronto.
For both Southern Ontario teams, Wednesday’s exhibition match is both a learning experience and a wished-for chance to break out of practice, for players to show new coaches they’ve learned a new game.
“It’s an opportunity for myself and a lot of guys on this team,” said Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray, who was acquired from the Edmonton Eskimos in an off-season transaction many CFL watchers thought suspect. (They believed the league’s Toronto-based head office was trying to make the Grey Cup an extravaganza in the media centre of Toronto, to say nothing of propping up Canadian football in the country’s largest market.)
“We are all trying to be part of what they’re building here in Toronto. We have a lot of experience … the coaching staff and some of the players have Grey Cup experience,” Ray said.
In Hamilton, new Ticats quarterback Henry Burris (acquired in the off-season from the Calgary Stampeders) says he’s ready for live action.
“You play against your team enough, and you’re ready to go out and play and make sure that there are live bullets flying around you,” he said. “We’re itching to get out there and play against somebody else and see where we’re at.”
For the men on the sidelines, it’s a dry run.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s been months and months, it’s gone fast. … We’ve been itching to play for real, but there’s a lot of work left to be done … it’s a creative evaluation for us,” Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said after practice and meetings with players.
“I’m looking for the guys to play disciplined. … We just spent our team meeting talking about [several no-nos]: You get into your first preseason game and you want to impress and do more than your job; that’s what we’re cautioning our players against. … Play with discipline, don’t grab, stay onside … we really want to see a cut-down in those kinds of penalties.”
Everyone will be looking for something different.
Ray, playing behind a new offensive line, will be looking for them to play as a unit.
“They’re all about communication, being on the same page. … The QB and the running backs just have to trust what they’re doing up there,” said Ray, who is entering his 10th CFL season.
“We don’t have a lot of time to look at the rush and block with them, we just have to trust them that they’re getting to the right guy and working their tails off for you.”
Milanovich will be watching for production from former NFL/UFL/AFL receiver Samie Parker.
“I’m looking for a burst from Samie; looking to see if he can line up in the right spots, know what his assignments is; if he is going to be where the quarterback expects him to be. It’s the same thing for all the receivers,” the coach said.
“Samie’s shown some flashes but he’s also shown some inconsistencies. He certainly has talent and he has some opportunities.”
Milanovich likened the first exhibition match of 2012 to a walk though, “a glorified practice for me … learning the ebb and flow of the game; the communication with [special teams coach] Mike O’Shea and [defensive co-ordinator] Chris Jones; situational football, how we’re going to manage the clock.
“We’re not putting too much stock in this game. It’s evaluated, just as the practices are.”
Ticats head coach George Cortez and Burris spoke glowingly of the talent of non-import receiver Sam Giguère, and will watch him carefully.
Cortez likes his quickness and explosiveness; Burris says he needed to adjust his own game to Giguère’s speed from scrimmage
“The guy is a specimen. It just shows you how hard he trains to prepare himself both physically and mentally,” Burris told reporters. “When he’s ready to turn it on, that kid gets moving pretty fast.”
Cortez said the game would help separate those players capable of performing under pressure from the rest.
“I want to see who’s learned what we’ve been teaching them,” he said.