Champs aware heat's on high

Stampeders kicker Sandro DeAngelis celebrates and punches the air after nailing a field goal in a...

Stampeders kicker Sandro DeAngelis celebrates and punches the air after nailing a field goal in a CFL pre-season game between the BC Lions and the Calgary Stampeders in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 17, 2009. (Sun Media/Jim Wells, file)

ERIC FRANCIS

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

After years of season openers filled with little more than faint hope the Stampeders would turn fortunes around, things are radically different down at McMahon.

This year, the defending champs are so heavily favoured to repeat on home soil the team will now have to deal with Calgary Flames-like expectations.

With an evolving defence and the return of the league's best offence, the players know they'll be hammered in the media after every loss.

Even the wins will be heavily scrutinized as meager 10- or 14-point triumphs over the Winnipegs and Hamiltons won't cut it anymore.

The players spent yesterday rehearsing their "taking it game by game" cliches, followed by "we're all zero and zero," and the ol' "our Grey Cup rings won't get us one first down this year."

At least the ever-elusive Henry Burris did a little freelancing when asked about managing expectations.

"One thing we have to do is win -- that's all I care about," Burris said.

"At the end of the day, if you said you were going to make $1 million and you made $500,000 instead, are you upset?

"You might be a little disappointed, but the bottom line is at least you're in the green and at least you're not in the recession like everybody else is."

There he goes, talking about his contract again.

With Burris signed to a lucrative four-year extension, the Stamps are obviously in good hands as they embark on a journey that can have only one finishing point -- a start in the championship game here Nov. 29.

And if there's any way to fulfil expectations without winning a Cup, the players are unaware how.

"After what we went through last year and we really gelled, I think a lot of teams and people are going to expect nothing less than the Cup," admitted defensive end Mike Labinjo, a poster boy for his club's heightened expectations following his playoff dominance.

"We, as players, recognize there are expectations. The bar has definitely been raised, but the league is more competitive, and when you look at the history of this game, there have been so few repeat winners. No, I haven't ordered (Grey Cup) tickets yet."

That's not to say he doesn't plan to.

John Hufnagel said he hasn't gone out of his way to warn of the pitfalls of looking too far ahead.

He senses the club has been through sufficient playoff disappointment and has enough savvy veterans not to let overconfidence creep in.

With his entire offence returning and several exciting additions to his defence, Hufnagel said yesterday he's more comfortable with this year's team than last year. That said, he won't lose sleep if indeed there are lessons along the way and the team builds momentum throughout the season as it did in 2008.

"I only have a handful of new players for this game, and last year, I had 42 players who were new to me" said the second-year head coach.

"Preparation is exactly the same as last year, and our goals are simple -- win the next football game."

Even with a better team, things should be tougher this year given the rings on their fingers.

"Every Grey Cup team is marked -- we have to come out with the right mentality," said Stamps receiver Jeremaine Copeland.

"Everyone's going to see (tonight) against Montreal what they're going to have to fight for. Just because some people have you winning by lots of points some games doesn't matter. Lots of games are going to come down to field goals whether it's the best or worst team. No matter what happens tomorrow, people have to understand you continue to grow from one game to the next, and it's probably going to be the same this year."

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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