The 2012 season will be a nostalgic one for the CFL as it marks the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup.
But after a busy off-season, there will be plenty of drama for football fans long before the historic championship game is played in November.
The season opens with four new head coaches across the league, slotback Andy Fantuz playing closer to home and longtime West Division quarterbacks Ricky Ray and Henry Burris renewing their rivalry in southern Ontario.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, meanwhile, will bid farewell to their longtime stadiums at the end of the season while B.C. Lions veteran receiver Geroy Simon is on the verge of a major milestone.
“There were significant changes in the off-season,” commissioner Mark Cohon said in an interview. “I think all these stories build great momentum for us in 2012.”
Fantuz, Burris and Ray will all be prominent figures Friday when the regular season kicks off.
Burris and Fantuz will both make their Hamilton debut when the Tiger-Cats host Saskatchewan. The Ticats acquired Burris from Calgary but the game will be especially significant for Fantuz, a native of Chatham, Ont., who spent his first six CFL seasons in Regina before signing with Hamilton as a free agent this off-season.
The game will also mark the CFL head-coaching debuts of Hamilton’s George Cortez and Saskatchewan’s Corey Chamblin, who served as the Ticats’ defensive co-ordinator last season.
Later that night, the B.C. Lions host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a Grey Cup rematch. That game will mark the coaching debut of Mike Benevides. He faces the unenviable task of replacing the legendary Wally Buono, who stepped down as Lions head coach following the club’s Grey Cup win to concentrate on his duties as GM full-time.
Cohon will be in attendance, but not only to watch Benevides’ coaching debut. Simon needs just 67 yards to break former Blue Bomber slotback Milt Stegall’s all-time receiving yards record of 15,153.
If Simon, 36, breaks the mark Friday, play will stop and Cohon will honour Simon on the field.
“It’s important as a league we celebrate these amazing milestones,” Cohon said.
On Saturday night, Scott Milanovich will make his CFL head-coaching debut when Toronto visits Edmonton. But of more importance to Eskimos fans will be Ray’s return to Alberta.
Ray spent nine seasons in Edmonton and led the club to two Grey Cup titles before being dealt to Toronto for journeyman quarterback Steven Jyles, Canadian kicker Grant Shaw and the No. 2 pick in the 2012 CFL draft. Eskimos GM Eric Tillman was widely criticized, not only for dealing a two-time Grey Cup champion who at age 32 would seem to still have plenty of good football left, but getting so little in return.
While Jyles is three years younger than Ray, he’s poised to play for his fifth CFL team in seven seasons and is in his second stint with the Eskimos.
The opening week of the season will conclude July 1 with Montreal visiting Calgary. Alouettes starter Anthony Calvillo, pro football’s career passing leader, will begin his 19th CFL season and 15th with the Als while Drew Tate begins his first full season as the Stampeders’ starter after wresting the No. 1 job from Burris late last year, resulting in Burris, the CFL MVP in 2010, being traded in the off-season.
The season will culminate with a Grey Cup at Rogers Centre that will be unlike any other held in league history. And with the game being played literally in his backyard, it only adds to the expectations on Milanovich, who takes over a club that’s missed the playoffs three times in the last four year.
“My answer to that question, because I know I’m going to get it every single day, is going to be boring and the same: We would want to win, and win the Grey Cup, no matter where it was,” Milanovich said when asked about the expectation he faces in Toronto. “And so to me, it really doesn’t put any more pressure on us. It is always the goal for every time in this league.”
Milanovich knows what it takes to win a Grey Cup. He was part of two CFL championship teams as the Montreal Alouettes offensive co-ordinator in 2009-’10 with Calvillo at the controls. In Toronto, Milanovich will also have a reliable starter in Ray.
With all the off-season movement in the CFL coaching ranks, Calgary head coach/GM John Hufnagel and Montreal’s Marc Trestman — both entering their fifth season — hold the distinction of being the league’s longest-serving active head coaches.
But Benevides said his long relationship with Buono — he began his CFL coaching career as Buono’s special-teams co-ordinator in Calgary in 2000 — has helped with the transition.
“From the outside looking in it would be extremely difficult if I did not have a relationship with him,” Benevides said. “If I looked at it that way, it would be impossible.
“There will never be another Wally Buono, there will never be anybody to win that many games again as long as this league is around. I can only be myself.”
Benevides inherits a solid team that includes quarterback Travis Lulay (CFL’s outstanding player), tailback Andrew Harris (top Canadian in Grey Cup game), kicker Paul McCallum (CFL’s top special-teams player) and offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye (West Division’s top lineman). And a solid secondary featuring such CFL stalwarts as Dante Marsh and Korey Banks was bolstered by the addition of former Argos Byron Parker and Lin-J Shell.
Ending his inaugural season as Lions coach in Toronto would be especially memorable for Benevides, a Toronto native who is also the CFL’s only Canadian-born head coach. However, history isn’t exactly on Benevides’ side.
Since Edmonton won the last of its five straight Grey Cups in 1982, only two teams have successfully defended their titles — the ’96-’97 Toronto Argonauts and ‘2009-’10 Montreal Alouettes.
What’s more, only seven times in the last 25 CFL title games has one of the finalists reached the Grey Cup the following season.
Burris will lead Hamilton in its final season at Ivor Wynne Stadium, the club’s home since 1950. Following the Ticats’ final home game of 2012, the facility will be replaced with a new one that will be used during the 2015 Pan Am Games but be available for the CFL club in time for the 2014 campaign.
However, that will leave the Ticats without a home stadium for the 2013 season. The club approached McMaster University about playing some games there but the school declined, forcing team officials to continue their quest for a temporary home.
And Winnipeg will be staying put at Canad Inns Stadium, at least for this season. The club had hoped to play at brand new Investors Group Field in 2012, but construction delays will force the Bombers to remain at Canad Inns before moving into the facility in time for the next year.