Defending champs face Grey-t expectations

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

Not that the Calgary Stampeders are getting ahead of themselves, but the club is already planning the Grey Cup parade.

"We're working with the city on the route," grinned team president Scott Ackles as the club prepared to open main training camp today.

OK, before we make the reigning Grey Cup champs look a little presumptuous -- if not downright cocky -- the parade Ackles speaks of is the return of the Molson- propelled march through town that used to be a Saturday staple before the CFL's championship game.

It's back for the first time since 2005 due to overwhelming corporate and civic support that has already seen more than 80% of the 47,000 tickets sold to this year's big game Nov. 29 at McMahon Stadium.

Fact is, while they're piecing the party together, the Stamps might as well start mapping out another Grey Cup victory gathering at Olympic Plaza. There's very little reason to believe they won't repeat as champs.

Oh sure, history suggests the only thing harder than repeating in the eight-team loop is winning it in your own stadium.

But given the record number of returning starters on both sides of the ball, as well as a returning coaching staff bolstered by former backup quarterback Dave Dickenson, the best team of 2008 will unquestionably open as the best team of 2009.

And will only get better.

Barring an injury to quarterback Henry Burris -- the league's best player and leader in the prime of his career -- the Stamps can rely on tremendous depth, experience, talent and coaching to repeat.

Eleven of the 12 members of the league's best offence last year will be back, including the league's top pivot, running back and receivers. A young o-line will get even better.

On the other side of the ball, there will indeed be three new starters on the defensive line, supported by linebackers and a secondary that will see seven of eight starters back.

Keep in mind, last year four new defensive line starters were required, prompting Stamps head coach John Hufnagel to point out they are 25% better off than '08.

By all accounts, the few holes Hufnagel has to fill will be plugged by a superior set of athletes than the ones he brought in last year.

The only thing different this year is the universal respect the Stamps should finally be afforded and the newfound belief they can overcome all obstacles to win big games.

Oh, and somewhere along the way, ol' Huff got funny.

Armed with several great one-liners at this week's pre-camp media luncheon, Hufnagel went out of his way to try deflecting the obvious focus away from the only thing locals care about this year -- repeating at home.

Just like last year, the regular season is meaningless, which brings us to the biggest hurdle facing the Stamps now: Expectations.

Much the way the Flames' past success has raised the bar to almost unreasonable levels, the Stamps must also come to grips with the type of criticism and concern they've never faced before.

Regular-season losses to anyone outside of contenders like Saskatchewan and B.C. are unacceptable. Even wins will be scrutinized, especially if the margin of victory is slim.

Fair or not, that's the peril of past success.

After a winter tour through every nightclub, school, house party and hot tub in town, the Cup returns to the Hall of Fame tomorrow.

However, it will be back in the Stamps' hands before you know it. (For their upcoming ring ceremony, silly.)

After that, you best believe the reigning coach of the year will do a masterful job keeping his team motivated and well-equipped to continue improving on a product that responded brilliantly to his refining skills and leadership last year.

This fall, the Cup will be back in Calgary, where it will stay.

Anything less is a failure.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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