The Rogers Centre has not been kind to the Calgary Stampeders. In the past decades, the Stamps have won just twice in 10 visits to the Big Smoke.
The Stamps, however, feel primed, unbowed by a hostile crowd. The last time Calgary won a Grey Cup, (2008) it was on the road in Montreal, where Calgary overcame the hometown Alouettes.
On Saturday morning after their last practice before the Grey Cup on Sunday, star running back Jon Cornish went so far to declare: “We are more ready than any team to win this cup.”
In the past three years, it has been series of close losses for Calgary at the Rogers Centre. The Stampeders lost two games in 2010 and 2011 by a combined five points. This July it was yet another narrow defeat, 39-36, where Toronto’s Ricky Ray threw for 407 yards and Calgary running back Jon Cornish managed just 39 on the ground – and lost a fumble, too.
While the Stamps recent record at the Rogers Centre is perhaps more coincidental than statistically significant, the team – a slight favourite to win on Sunday night – knows it has stumbled here often.
“I would say it does have bearing on tomorrow,” said Cornish on Saturday, after Calgary’s final practice before the Grey Cup. “Not because we’ve lost games here in the past but because we have the opportunity to remedy the things we’ve done wrong in the past. As a team, we all know exactly what has gone wrong, and things we haven’t done right.
Cornish sees parallels between last week, when Calgary came to Vancouver and overcame a B.C. Lions team that had twice beaten the Stampeders this season. The Stamps were not in the least rattled by the loud 40,000-plus hometown fans in last Sunday's game at B.C. Place as they delivered a wire-to-wire victory.
“I don’t like talking about fate but every team we’ve lost to, we’ve then beaten them in their house – except for Toronto. We are a battle hardened team. We’ve played in every weather imaginable, snow, rain, cold. We’ve played in the loudest stadiums in the league, and won. At this point, we are more ready than any team to win this cup.”
Nik Lewis said Calgary in recent years didn’t have the intense focus necessary to win when they have visited Toronto, and sometimes didn’t take the Argonauts seriously enough, given “you kind of tend to overlook them sometimes,” said Lewis. “I won’t say we disrespect them by overlooking them but we feel like we’re going to go in there and beat them. In the past, we’ve lost games when they’ve had third-string quarterbacks in, things like that.”
Asked about the value of the acid test in Vancouver last week and winning on the road against a home team and their fans, exactly what Calgary has to do again Sunday night, Lewis turned the question back to the Stamps’s electric last-second win against Saskatchewan. Lewis noted he had never beaten Saskatchewan in the playoffs in his career, losing four times.
“That was a huge hurdle for us,” said Lewis, wearing a Grey Cup 100 toque. “We could have let that win define our season. But we played better against B.C., and now we want to carry it over and play better here this week than we did last week.”
Juwan Simpson, the all-star linebacker who missed last week’s game in Vancouver with injury, has no concern about being on the road. He called the Rogers Centre a “neutral site” that will have fans from all over – even if the truth is the crowd is likely to be heavily pro-Argos.
“You’ve just got to deal with it,” said Simpson. “We’ve been in a hostile environment. That’s not our concern.”’
The return of Simpson to the lineup will be a challenge for Toronto. The Stamps were weak getting to quarterbacks earlier this year but finished the year tied for second in the CFL at 43 sacks. As the season progressed the defence began to gel and then added veteran D lineman Anwar Stewart, bolstering the strong crew led by all-star Charleston Hughes. Simpson said he’s confident the Stamps will be able to put heavy pressure on Ray.
“Nothing against their O line or anything but our defensive line has done a great job, especially these last four or five games getting pressure on the quarterback, whether it’s knock downs or anything like that,” said Simpson.
Of Calgary’s two wins in Toronto in the past decade, the one that was the most convincing came in 2008, when Calgary eventually rolled to the championship. The Stamps pummelled the Argos 44-16 in late September.
But Ws and Ls in the past are irrelevant today, said head coach John Hufnagel.
“That’s history,” said Hufnagel. “We don’t take too much into account on history, whether it’s good history or bad history. This game is a 0-0 game at the start and hopefully we’ll have enough points at the end.”