Simoni Lawrence woke from a late-afternoon nap on Monday and peered outside to see the Hamilton area’s first heavy snowfall of the season. The Tiger-Cats star linebacker jumped up excitedly and hustled his dog Willow outdoors to play fetch.
Lawrence recounted the anecdote vividly the next day, during an interview after a Tiger-Cats practice. A jolt of happiness had filled him as he watched the energetic black lab mix he adopted from Thailand scamper with unbridled joy through the cold white powder, delighting in her first experience with snow.
The brisk and idyllic wintry weather also gave Lawrence the invigorating feeling that playoff football was in the air. With their franchise-best 15-3 record, the Ticats topped the CFL’s regular-season standing and showed they might be special. The opportunity to prove it had finally arrived, along with the November snow.
After earning a bye through last week’s divisional semi-finals, the Tiger-Cats will play host to the Edmonton Eskimos in the East Division final this Sunday, with the winner playing for the Grey Cup next week in Calgary. The Ticats haven’t hoisted the Grey Cup since 1999 and they’re eager to end the drought.
As Hamilton deals with the early dump of snow, the players can sense the growing excitement in the region before the sold-out game at Tim Hortons Field. Lawrence says he has noticed more fans approaching him in public during this season, such as the boisterous one who hollered out his name in a Shoppers Drug Mart this week and drew in more chatty supporters to gather round.
Lawrence has been a Ticat for seven seasons, including the 2013 and 2014 campaigns, which ended with painful losses in the Grey Cup. His CFL-best 98 tackles this season helped make him the East nominee for CFL defensive player of the year – one of five Hamilton finalists for the seven major awards to be handed out during Grey Cup week. He was also one of the franchise-high 13 Ticats who were chosen as all-stars.
“When you have this kind of talent, belief and leadership on one team, you’ve just got to take advantage of it,” Lawrence said. “I feel like this year is so different. I don’t even think about the possibility of losing. I feel like we’re going to win everything.”
Lawrence often carpools to practice with slotback Brandon Banks – the East nominee for the CFL’s most-outstanding-player award after leading the league in receiving yards (1,550) and touchdowns (16). Banks was also with the Ticats during those Cup losses; he had his late-game 90-yard punt return for a touchdown nullified in the 2014 Grey Cup because of a teammate’s illegal-blocking penalty. Banks and Lawrence are leaders on this team – and not just in the team’s lively sideline dancing during practice sessions. During one car ride, the two lighthearted players shared a serious moment.
“It was silent in the car and I just came out of nowhere and said, ‘Hey man, we can’t let this one slip away,’” Banks recalled. “I’m not going to lie about it; we’ve definitely got a different chemistry on this team, like we’re tighter knit. We’ve got a great coach that’s leading that way and that mentality is stronger than in previous years.”
Banks and Lawrence weren’t the only stars this year. Hamilton’s Frankie Williams topped the CFL in punt return yards (874), while adding 1,020 kickoff-return yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Dane Evans hardly missed a step filling in for Jeremiah Masoli, when he sustained a season-ending ACL injury. Hamilton’s defence allowed the fewest points and touchdowns, along with the lowest opponent-passing efficiency. Orlondo Steinauer matched a CFL record for wins by a first-year CFL head coach, including a 9-0 mark at Tim Hortons Field.
The Hamilton neighbourhood of Stipley, which surrounds the stadium, has black-and-gold Tiger-Cats flags on the houses. In each of the past few years, the team has gone door to door handing out exclusively made Stipley porch flags, strictly for the residents of the nearby streets.
The thriving Ticats have galvanized Hamilton in times of civic hardship. Recent bad-new stories included the tragic stabbing of 14-year-old Hamilton boy Devan Bracci-Selvey outside his high school. Statistics Canada showed Hamilton to have the highest rate of police-reported hate crimes in the country. There were protests at City Hall by members of the yellow-vest movement and far-right groups. Violence erupted at its Pride festival.
Hamilton’s recent local sporting successes have provided some civic pride. Tim Hortons Field is preparing to play host to next year’s Grey Cup. In its debut season, the city’s new pro soccer team – Forge FC – won the inaugural Canadian Premier League championship. McMaster University just surprised previously undefeated Western in the Yates Bowl. But the Ticats – Hamilton’s 150-year-old football team – are the most popular team in the city.
The Ticats have asked fans to show up to Sunday’s 1 p.m. game dressed head to toe in black, to create a blackout effect inside the stadium. There will be rally-towels and pyrotechnics, music and drums.
“One of the most common calls to our customer-service line this week has been ‘What time do the parking lots open on Sunday?,’” Matt Afinec, Ticats president and COO, said. “That should tell you how fans might be feeling about going to this game. The answer is 7 a.m.”
David Cicci will be there bright and early to set up a tailgating spot. He is a member of the well-recognized black-and-gold kilt- and helmet-wearing Ticats fan group, the Box J Boys. He said the peameal and egg sandwiches will be cooked up early, along with coffee and Bailey’s, with plenty more food planned for their large group after the game, too.
“You can see the cohesiveness with this team gelling; you can tell there is something special there, that they’ve bought into Orlondo’s system,” Cicci said. “We came so close in 2013 and 2014, but I think this is the year for sure.”
The Ticats got crushed in last year’s East final – 46-27 by the Ottawa Redblacks, led by quarterback Trevor Harris. But Harris, who threw a CFL playoff-record six touchdown passes against the Tabbies in last year’s final, is now Edmonton’s pivot. Hamilton won its two games against Edmonton this season – both of which Harris missed because of injury.
The Ticats will have to hold off an Edmonton team that pressing to become the first crossover squad to reach the Grey Cup.
“We know that when we prepare the way we’re supposed to, we kick ass,” Lawrence said. “Everything aligns perfectly for us this year. Now we’ve just got to go handle our business.”