Transporting an entire football team in gear to and from a temporary practice facility every day could have been a real drag for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats this season – but the players will attest those cross-town bus trips have helped weave something special.
The Ticats missed the CFL playoffs last year, and entered this season with a new head coach, great turnover among players and no home stadium or practice facility of their own.
While their home stadium is being rebuilt, they have played out of a 13,000-seat facility at the University of Guelph and bussed across Hamilton daily from locker rooms at their downtown offices to a practice field at McMaster University. Rides filled with games of Cash Cab or renditions of 99 Bottles of Beer have become symbolic for a team that has chosen to look on the bright side of adversity. They may have started the year 1-4, but they battled to earn home-field advantage versus the Montreal Alouettes in this weekend's East semi-final.
The Ticats and Alouettes last met in the playoffs in 2011, with Hamilton upsetting the 2010 Grey Cup champs. The Ticats have fired two head coaches since then and missed the 2012 playoffs after finishing 6-12. This year's squad hasn't been the picture of consistency either, struggling to string together two wins in a row, getting blistered 37-0 by the Saskatchewan Roughriders at one point, later pulling off back-to-back wins over the reigning champs, the Toronto Argonauts.
But Hamilton was able to finish 10-8; Montreal was third in the East at 8-10. The winner of Sunday's game will play in Toronto the following week in the East final.
"Nobody on the outside would have picked us to be hosting a playoff game," Ticats linebacker Jamal Johnson said. "There hasn't been any finger-pointing in this locker room, but in past years there was. The family concept has been really prevalent this year. Simple things like those two, 15-minute bus rides every day have really helped build camaraderie."
Henry Burris and the Ticats' other quarterbacks have been known to host games of Cash Cab on the bus rides, pulling up various players as contestants and grilling them with trivia.
"Our bus rides are some of the funnest times I've ever had playing football," said Burris, a Grey Cup winner with the Calgary Stampeders in 2008. "We've gotten to know each other as men away from the game. It has allowed us to go out and lay it down for one another.
"Your willingness to lay it down for every guy in crunch time comes out of those times you spend off the field with those guys, and that's what we're thankful for this season."
The Ticats won two of the three meetings with Montreal this season, but also learned brutal lessons. After allowing five sacks to the blitz-happy Als in a 36-5 defeat in Montreal, the Ticats went into the second game of the home-and-home series with a new gameplan, featuring three different quarterbacks and new formations. The changes resulted in just two sacks allowed to Montreal, the East Division sack leaders, and a 27-24 win.
Hamilton will bring new wrinkles to this week's gameplan, but facing the blitz issue head-on will remain key.
The Ticats have had a saying this season, uttered constantly in team meetings, practices and pregame speeches, from the early moments of the 1-4 start to finishing the regular season with four wins in the final five games:
"No matter who is talking this year, it always ends with, 'Who's got your back?'" receiver Bakari Grant said, "And then everybody always yells out, 'I've got your back!'"