Playing host to the Grey Cup game was often the kiss of death for CFL teams.
Prior to 2011, only three clubs had ever won it as the host city – the 1994 B.C. Lions, ’77 Montreal Alouettes and ’72 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. But B.C. and the Toronto Argonauts have bucked that tradition with convincing Grey Cup victories in their home stadiums the past two seasons.
This year’s Grey Cup will be played Nov. 24 at Mosaic Stadium. But recent history has convinced Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Corey Chamblin that his team is destined to reap the benefits of home-field advantage playing the big game before its rabid fans.
“If it was guaranteed like that, then I’d start playing the 6-49 and find a pattern there,” Chamblin said with a chuckle. “If I had to put a percentage on it, I’d say I’ve thought about that [continuing recent Grey Cup trend] maybe 1 per cent.
“I honestly think it just happens that way, I don’t think guys play with any extra juice or anything like that. Now, it would be great being at our house, but I don’t think about what’s happened the last two years.”
The 2013 season kicks off Thursday night with Winnipeg playing host to the Alouettes at Investors Group Field. The Bombers were scheduled to move into the new stadium last year but construction delays forced them to remain at Canad Inns Stadium.
The Tiger-Cats visit Toronto on Friday night to renew their long-standing rivalry. The Argonauts are scheduled to unfurl their 2012 championship banner prior to the contest.
Later on Friday, the Lions are at Calgary in a rematch of last year’s West Division final won by the Stampeders.
The Edmonton Eskimos are host to Saskatchewan on Saturday to cap the opening week.
Saskatchewan last won the Grey Cup in 2007, but came close in 2009 when Damon Duval’s 33-yard field goal on the final play earned Montreal a 28-27 victory. Duval had missed from 43 yards out to seemingly give the Riders a 27-25 win, but a too many men penalty gave Duval a reprieve from 10 yards closer.
The Riders will look to improve last year’s 8-10 record that left them third in the conference before losing a 36-30 semi-final decision to Calgary. GM Brendan Taman took steps in that direction this off-season, signing defensive back Dwight Anderson, linebackers Rey Williams and Tristan Black and defensive linemen John Chick and Ricky Foley as free agents while trading for defensive lineman Jermaine McElveen.
But his biggest move was acquiring slotback Geroy Simon from B.C. in January. The six-foot, 198-pound Simon is the CFL’s all-time receiving yards leader and needs just 29 catches to break Ben Cahoon’s league mark of 1,017 career receptions.
“There’s definitely a sense of excitement around here with all the additions that have been made,” said Foley, the top Canadian in Toronto’s 35-22 win over Calgary in the 100th Grey Cup last year. “As a veteran, I know you don’t win the Grey Cup on paper and every team made moves in the off-season to put themselves in a position to win it.
“But I think it’s known around the league what this team has done, the guys they’ve brought in and what they’re trying to do and they’re making that push for the hometown Cup.”
Simon was a two-time Grey Cup champion and six-time all-star over 12 seasons in B.C., but missed five games last year with hamstring ailments. He finished with 54 catches for 700 yards and two TDs, the first time in 10 seasons Simon hadn’t cracked the 1,000-yard receiving plateau.
Saskatchewan is counting on the 37-year-old returning to form and taking some heat off speedy Weston Dressler (94 catches, 1,206 yards, 13 TDs).
“Obviously, his on-field play speaks for itself,” Taman said. “His value to our team on and off the field is going to be immense. Geroy’s got some points to prove to a lot of people he still can play, so I think there’s a lot of bonuses to doing it.”
The addition of Simon boosts Saskatchewan’s experience level, but Chamblin said a successful squad needs a blend of veteran savvy and youth.
“If I was a position coach, I’d just take the younger guy because I’d want to mould him my way,” Chamblin said. “But as far as being a head coach, you’ve got to have a balance of both.”
Getting out of the West Division won’t be easy for the Riders as B.C. (league-best 13-5 record last year) and Calgary (defending conference champion) both look strong. New Edmonton GM Ed Hervey takes over a team that, despite its 7-11 record, still made the playoffs last year.
In Toronto, quarterback Ricky Ray and CFL MVP Chad Owens both return to help the Argos defend their title. But gone are defensive linemen Foley, Ron Flemons and Kevin Huntley (both released), Armondo Armstead (New England Patriots, NFL) and Adriano Belli (retired), linebackers Black and Ejiro Kuale (free agent, Montreal), defensive backs Jordan Younger (retired), Pacino Horne (released) and Evan McCollough (free agent, Hamilton) and kicker/punter Noel Prefontaine (released).
Two East Division clubs will sport new head coaches in 2013.
Kent Austin, who guided Saskatchewan to its 2007 title, returns to the CFL sidelines with Hamilton while Dan Hawkins takes over in Montreal. Austin takes over a Tiger-Cats squad that finished tied with Winnipeg with a league-worst 6-12 record.
Austin, a Grey Cup champion as a player, assistant coach and head coach, faces two big challenges with the Ticats. They’re minus big-play receiver Chris Williams, who remains embroiled in a bitter contract dispute, and must play their home games in Guelph, Ont., while a new facility is being built where Ivor Wynne Stadium once stood.
The Ticats are scheduled to move into the new stadium, which will be host to the 2015 Pam American Games soccer competition, next season.
Hawkins, 52, begins his first season in Canada with huge shoes to fill. He replaces Marc Trestman, who guided Montreal to a 59-31 regular-season record and two Grey Cup titles in five years before becoming the Chicago Bears’ head coach.
Fortunately for Hawkins, quarterback Anthony Calvillo, 40, returns for a 20th CFL season. Pro football’s all-time passing leader flourished under Trestman, winning two Grey Cups and two CFL outstanding player awards while being named a league all-star three times over their five seasons together.
League sources say the CFL’s five-year agreement with TSN/RDS is worth about $43-million annually, almost triple the existing deal that expires at season’s end.
This year’s 77 league games (72 regular season, four playoff and Grey Cup) will be televised. The 2014 broadcast schedule will expand to 84 contests with Ottawa’s expected return.