HAMILTON — Having already made the leap from shameful to respectable, the 2010 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, some feel, could challenge for the Grey Cup this fall.
Not that “contender” is a word many Winnipeg Blue Bomber fans would use to describe the TiCats. “Shameful,” maybe. And, “showboats,” that definitely works.
In case you suffer from forgetful-itis like I do, here’s a quick recap.
With a playoff berth at stake for Winnipeg, and home-field advantage in the playoffs on the line for Hamilton, the Ticats and Blue Bombers squared off in the final game of the 2009 regular season at Canad Inns Stadium.
With 8:28 left in the final quarter and the score 22-29 in visiting Hamilton’s favour, linebacker Markeith Knowlton intercepted Bombers quarterback Michael Bishop and ran the ball back 35 yards for the touchdown.
Before you could say “game over” Knowlton and seven of his teammates piled into an empty fishing boat parked near the end zone for an impromptu, over-the-top, TD party. Their act made every television highlight reel in the civilized world as well as earning each of them an undisclosed fine for “excessive celebrating.”
“If I know Winnipeg,” Ticats quarterback Kevin Glenn said on Wednesday — and he does, having spent five seasons as a Blue Bomber — “they probably got a picture of that boat pinned up in their locker room right now. I just hope they don’t get so upset, that it comes back to bite us.”
As luck — or more likely the CFL schedule-maker would have it — the Cats and Blue Bombers pick right up where they left off Friday, kicking off a brand new CFL season at Canad Inns Stadium.
The Ticats, 9-9 last year even with a boatload of rookies in their lineup, will be expected to win this game, too, against a Bombers team which had major issues on and off the field last season. While new coach Paul LaPolice appears to have the dressing room under control, Winnipeg is still in rebuilding mode.
If the Bombers have a wildcard, it’s veteran quarterback Buck Pierce, who has been a winner wherever and whenever he has played. It’s just that he has been injured so much, he hasn’t played a lot. Winnipeg signed Pierce in the off-season after the B.C. Lions, concerned about the QB’s dreadful history with concussions, released him.
Veteran Ticats linebacker Otis Floyd, Pierce’s teammate for three seasons in B.C., expects a heckuva fight from Buck on Friday.
“He’s a competitor. He’s never going to back down from anybody,” Floyd said. “He reads defences very well. He’s going to sit in the pocket, and if he doesn’t like what he sees, he’ll run.”
Marcel Bellefeuille, the 20th head coach in Hamilton history, and already one of the Ticats better ones, has some jitters, too. Yes, the Ticats are supposed to be much improved this year, but until you play a game, how do you really know?
“The first week is always a challenge,” Bellefeuille said after practice. “You’re still setting the roster for the first time, you’re dealing with injuries from training camp ... You see the most improvement between the first and second week.”
Bellefeuille also is aware of some particularly high expectations for his team, goals general manager Bob O’Billovich happily repeated while watching Wednesday’s near two-hour workout.
“Last year, we thought we would have a winning team,” O’Billovich said. “We came close to it. We were 9-9. We made progress.
“This year the goal is to win the East and win the Grey Cup. Nothing less than that is going to be too satisfying.”
O’Billovich, who won a Grey Cup as head coach of the 1983 Argonauts — their first since 1952 at the time — knows he has an elite quarterback in Kevin Glenn, a solid receiving corps, a league-best linebacking unit and arguably the steadiest field goal kicker in the game, Sandro DeAngelis.
But it’s a handful of sophomores — like running back DeAndra Cobb — who could have the biggest impact in 2010, says the GM.
“I’ve always felt that a guy coming into the league for the first time has so many adjustments to make. New rules, bigger field, new teammates.
“When they come back the second year, they’re so much better. There’s no such thing as a sophomore jinx in the CFL. They know what to expect, they’re smarter and they absorb more of what you’re trying to teach them.”
Cobb, a 5-foot-10 bullet, rushed for 1,217 yards last season, caught for another 542 yards and scored eight touchdowns. This, from a guy who had been out of football since 2006.
“I’m very excited about this game, but I know Winnipeg is going to come out fighting because we knocked them out of the playoffs last year,” Cobb said.
Not to mention that little game-ending episode with the boat.