No stadium better matches its town, its teams and fans than the gritty pile of concrete blocks and steel girders that makes up Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Club seats and luxury boxes had not been heard of when it was built, opening as Civic Stadium in 1928, and renamed in 1970 to honour a local football broadcaster and university administrator. The bulk of the fans who came to football games at the corner of Beechwood Avenue and Balsam Avenue North in this blue-collar neighbourhood worked in the steel mills that overlook Ivor Wynne from the northeast.
They worked hard and demanded the same from their Hamilton Tiger-Cats (who made the stadium their home in 1950, and won eight Grep Cups in the decades since) and turned all of their frustrations on whomever the beloved home team happened to be playing that week. Best of all, the seats that came right up to about three metres from the sideline gave those fans the best opportunity in the CFL to share that love and hate with the players.
Three Tiger-Cats players from three eras – each a member of the Cadadian Football Hall of Fame – were in town Friday for Ivor Wynne’s final days. Even though there were many memorable games played there – including the 1972 Grey Cup, when the Ticats won at home, and the 1996 Grey Cup, when Doug Flutie led the Toronto Argonauts to a win in a snowstorm – what the three remember most were the fans.
“The energy; you could always feel the energy,” said Grover Covington, a defensive end who frightened quarterbacks in the 1980s. “If you got a sack or made a big play, the place would go crazy.”
Opposing players, of course, remember the place a little differently.
“Keep your helmet on,” was the most common advice veterans would give rookies about to leave the dressing room under the stands. Anything from beer showers to full bottles were liable to rain down from the seats – which made the constant verbal abuse a mere distraction.
And there was always the chance of being run into the concrete walls a few steps from the sidelines.
“I had good friends on other teams and they hated coming here, especially the receivers,” said Joe Montford, who starred for Hamilton at defensive end in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. “Milt Stegall [of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers] hated going over there and hitting those pads on the wall. There was always that image of the concrete sitting behind it and the fans reaching over.
“Fans had toilet seats up there, they had everything. But you know what? They also had love for their team that was greater than anything else and they had passion for their team. But, sometimes, that passion spilled over on the field.”
Passion is expected to on display Saturday afternoon, when the Tiger-Cats (5-11) will play their last CFL regular-season game at Ivor Wynne against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (5-11) in front of an expected capacity crowd of 29,600.
Come Dec. 1, the old stadium will fall to the wrecking ball to make way for the new 2015 Pan American Games stadium that is scheduled to be open for the 2014 CFL season.
The team has not announced where it will play in 2013.
The only thing missing Saturday will be the hated Argonauts, whose fans called the place “Never Wynne Stadium.” Many, many gallons of beer and stronger drinks were spilled on the seats over the years, not to mention a few other substances, including blood, as the notoriously passionate Tiger-Cats fans clashed with what they viewed as effete snobs from Toronto.
Those games followed the same pattern: The attention of the crowd would alternate between the action on the field, the Oskee Wee Wee! cheer led by mascot Pigskin Pete, and the latest brawl between drunken Ticats and Argos fans. Even the players were distracted at times.
“If you’d see some commotion in the stands and half a dozen people pounding on each other, you’d notice,” said Garney Henley, 76, who made the Hall of Fame by playing both ways and winning four Grey Cups from 1960 to 1975. “The Toronto rivalry we had was a lot of fun, really.
“It was always exciting to go over there and it was even more exciting for them to come here, because you knew what would happen.”
Covington, 56, now lives in Vancouver, where he sells protein and vitamin supplements and minds some investments. He says players had to watch out for more than the fans: If the walls didn’t get you, the old painted tiger at midfield just might.
“If you’re near the wall on the sideline, nobody’s going to catch you if you’re an opponent,” he said. “In the old days, they had that tiger in the middle, the paint was about that thick, and it would take your skin off.
“It was not for the weak of heart.”
In the glory years of Ivor Wynne, the 1960s and ’70s, the stadium, the team and the fans were a perfect match.
Long-time general manager, head coach and president Ralph Sazio made sure to field bruising defensive teams. The players’ facilities were a match as well, with the Tiger-Cats quarters spartan (at best) and the visitors forced to dress in squalor that persists to this day.
Henley, who arrived in 1960, after a short stint with the Green Bay Packers of the NFL, and now lives in his hometown of Huron, S.D., says the players saw their plain quarters as an extension of the team’s image.
“It’s a lunch-bucket town,” he said. “You go to the north here, you see the steel plants. You kind of create that feeling – we don’t have what the other guys do but we’re proud of that. We thought we’re the poor guys of the league, but we’re going to take it out on you.”
Montford, 42, is now a landscaper in Atlanta and says a lot of the players adapted easily to the grit of Ivor Wynne because they did not come from wealthy backgrounds themselves.
And even though the fans could be demanding, they quickly made men from across the U.S. feel at home.
“When we came to Hamilton, we took on the community,” he said. “We took on everything rough and tough about this city and made it part of us.”