Improvements made public

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:13 AM ET

Christmas in July? It is for Calgary Stampeders fans, expecting tonight to unwrap a present they've waited for and dreamed of the last six months.

Whether they'll find a shiny new toy to dazzle and entertain them this CFL season or another lump of coal remains to be seen.

Yet one thing's certain.

Head coach Tom Higgins is just as rapt with anticipation about tonight's home opener against the Toronto Argos.

In just six months, local ownership -- after hiring Higgins to also run the football operations -- has completely overhauled the staff, bringing in experienced, qualified coaches who ran a remarkably productive and efficient training camp.

To a man, the 40 players who survived are raving about the progress they think the team achieved in May and June without whipping the spirit out of the players.

Upgrades at quarterback, within the receiving corps and the secondary would seem to have the Stampeders light years ahead of last season.

The high-priced addition of quarterback Henry Burris and receiver Jeremaine Copeland is expected to boost the offence to new levels of production.

Free-agent defensive back Anthony Malbrough leads a new-look secondary, with only halfback Joey Boese surviving the last two disappointing seasons.

Off the field, fan support has surged back to what the team had become accustomed to in the 1990s, with close to 21,000 season tickets sold and more than 30,000 fans expected to attend tonight's game.

Red and White supporters are confidently buying into the theory the new crew is making all the right moves to build a contender and that's fine with Higgins, who spent the last decade with the Edmonton Eskimos, where only a Grey Cup championship is acceptable.

"I'm absolutely pleased with the expectations that are put upon us," Higgins said yesterday.

"I don't believe anyone ever exceeds their own expectations and there's reasons for optimism, there's reasons for the expectations to be exactly where they're at.

"It started in January when the new ownership group took over, made a commitment to put a coaching staff together and that was done. Made a commitment to try to bring in the kinds of players who could help the football team, within reason.

"I spent the last 11 years in an organization that had the same kinds of pressures and expectations and it feels good. It doesn't mean anything, it doesn't guarantee us anything when we step on the field, other than the attitude is right. The attitude now is such that we expect to go out on the football field and win and that's a good feeling."

The Stampeders are slight underdogs tonight and for good reason. The defending Grey Cup champs, despite losing in Week 1, look like a confident contender once again after merely tweaking it's lineup from last season.

Meanwhile, the Stampeders have made wholesale changes while Higgins contends the remaining players who endured some or all of the past three painful seasons without a playoff berth have grown from the experience.

"The most pleasant surprise was the talent that was here, albeit maybe wounded, and I believe a fresh start was great for everybody," Higgins said.

"There's a lot of athletes who were here contemplating not playing anymore and after things occurred people were pretty excited about the prospects of this year."

Now optimistic fans are thinking about a date with the post-season, a goal that once again seems legitimate, while Higgins will accept nothing less.

"That's what's going to be fun about this football game -- if you're going to get tested, be tested against the best and this is going to be a true test for us to see exactly where we are," Higgins said.

"I expect to get a very clear answer because there's a lot of uncertainty going into this football game: 'Where will we be?' I think we're exactly where we want to be. There's nothing else we could have possibly done from the athletes' point of view, coaches' point of view and management's point of view.

"Now it's a matter of winning. Let's bring it on. Let's get it started."


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