It couldn’t have been a nicer night in Hamilton on Sunday. Because it is not Edmonton, it was only moderately chilly for December. There was a shiny, waxing, gibbous moon.
For the first time in 25 years, the Grey Cup was contested in Toronto’s smaller sibling on the lake. Fans who have been vaccinated twice filled Tim Hortons Field. They booed as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were introduced and roared as the hometown Tiger-Cats stormed out. Fireworks lit the sky.
Savannah Re, a Juno Award-winning R&B singer, led a sing-along of O Canada. As she finished, a fighter jet thundered overhead. Seconds before the kickoff the plane streaked past once more. In the middle of – what’s this now, the fourth wave of COVID-19? – the city put on a cheery face.
The only thing that would have been better for a majority of the stadium-record crowd of 26,324 would have been a Hamilton win. The last time it won a Canadian Football League championship was in 1999. Theirs was the longest drought in the league.
Make it 21 seasons.
The Tiger-Cats came ever-so-close but lost 33-25 in heartbreaking fashion. Winnipeg quarterback Zach Collaros, the most outstanding player in the league, found Darvin Adams in the end zone from 13 yards away, and then made a two-point conversion with another pass in only the fourth Grey Cup to go to overtime in 108 games.
Hamilton had tied the game at 25-25 on a 13-yard field goal by Michael Domagala with four seconds left in regulation time.
The victory was the second in a row in the Grey Cup for the Blue Bombers. They beat Hamilton in a rout in 2019. The CFL season was cancelled last year due to the pandemic.
Collaros finished 21 of 32 for 240 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Jeremiah Masoli of Hamilton was 20 of 25 for 185 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. After Winnipeg scored in overtime, the Tiger-Cats had an opportunity to match but Masoli was intercepted on the second play.
Hamilton had hoped to use the home-field advantage but fell just short. The Tiger-Cats overcame a slow start and pulled ahead 22-10 in the fourth quarter only to wither at the end. They had won 16 of 18 games at home since the 2019 season. Winnipeg is the first team to win back-to-back Grey Cups since Montreal in 2009 and 2010. The last team to win two in a row before that was Toronto in 1996-1997.
The Blue Bombers were the league’s best team during this 2021 season. They ended it at 13-3. Hamilton finished 10-7.
Masoli, who was pulled from last week’s Eastern Division final against Toronto in the second quarter, came off the bench in relief of Dane Evans and nearly engineered the victory.
The first half was sloppily played. It is Canadian football – wild and wonky if not necessarily great. Between them, the teams punted 11 times. One by Hamilton’s Joel Whitford was shanked and went nine yards. One by Winnipeg’s Marc Legghio travelled 18. There were a half-dozen penalties.
Neither starting quarterback – Collaros or Evans of the Tiger Cats – could generate much offence. Evans, who came off the bench last week to trigger a victory in the Eastern Division final, was pulled with 7:10 left in the second quarter after completing only four of nine passes for 24 yards and one interception.
As much as the first two quarters were a snooze-fest, the last two and overtime were like a dance party at Studio 54.
Over the last 30 minutes, the kickers combined to make five field goals. The quarterbacks threw for two touchdowns. There was a safety. And a single. Only in Canada.
Masoli, who had been Hamilton’s starter for much of the season, quickly led two scoring drives after he entered the game. One ended in a 13-yard field goal by Domagala. The 73-yard, 12-play drive was aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty and included a 32-yard run by Don Jackson.
Masoli pulled a rabbit out of a hat with the second. Hamilton took over at the Bombers’ 48 but there were only 20 seconds left before halftime. He completed passes for 36 yards to Jackson and 12 to Steven Dunbar for the score.
After a lot of plodding around, the teams went to their dressing rooms with Hamilton ahead 10-7.
Until Masoli’s theatrics, the only points on the board came from 38- and 34-yard field goals by Winnipeg’s Sergio Castillo and a 70-yard single by its punter Marc Liegghio.
At the half, Masoli had six completions in eight attempts for 65 yards and one score and ran twice for 12 yards. Collaros, who completed 70 per cent of his passes this season for 3,185 yards and 20 touchdowns, was a pedestrian six-of-nine for 62 yards.
Then came a doozy of a second half, and more.
Castillo ended up with five field goals. Domagala had three. Neither ever missed.
Andrew Harris ran 18 times for 80 yards for the winners. Jackson rushed 11 times for 59 yards for the Tiger-Cats and caught six passes for 48 yards.
The game was the culmination of a long-awaited Grey Cup celebration for Hamilton. Activities were scaled down due to the pandemic, but the city’s downtown convention centre drew its fair share of crazies.
Fans crowded into the Grey Cup party room on Saturday afternoon as a deejay played loud, thumping music. Amidst the cacophony, supporters of both teams bounced around with strings of Christmas lights dangling around their necks, posed for pictures with the Tiger-Cats cheer squad, and drank as many as three and four beers at a time. (They wore special giant gloves that allowed them to carry extras).
A pooch wearing a Hamilton jersey waited patiently as his owners waited to get through a security checkpoint. There was a CFL Hall of Fame exhibit inside, and another that could be viewed by passers-by through windows facing the street.
The Tiger-Cats’ loyal fans did all that they could to inspire their team. They clanged bells and waved flags and created a general ruckus. They might have played Who-Wonkers and Jing-Tinglers.
The Arkells and Lumineers provided the halftime entertainment
The game was more competitive than anticipated. Collaros and the Blue Bombers dominated the CFL awards banquet on Friday and entered the contest as solid favourites. Overall, Winnipeg had 15 CFL all-stars to Hamilton’s 10.
It didn’t matter. The Tiger-Cats nearly pulled it off.
At the end, the Blue Bombers players gathered in the end zone and hoisted the Grey Cup and passed it among themselves as a blizzard of confetti swirled in the air.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Domagala and said Trews played during halftime. This version has been corrected.