But it is showing its age.
And, after Saturday’s Ticats-Blue Bombers game, it will be no more.
The wrecking ball is poised to swing, making way for a new stadium.
While traditionalists will shed a tear, Ivor Wynne’s demise was merely a matter of time — and manner. Let’s just say it’s a good thing they’re knocking it down before it falls down.
“I’m not saying it is unsafe, but it’s time has passed,” says Earl Winfield, a member of the all-time Ticats team. Winfield had one of the greatest games in the history of the CFL here in 1988 when he ran through, over and around the always-hated Argonauts. But that was when he, like the stadium, was in his prime. “I came back for the Labour Day game this year,” says Winfield, now 51, and a youth counsellor in Pennsylvania. “I’m sitting in the seats and I felt like one of those sardines they squeeze into those cans. You hate to lose a historic place, but the fans, not only the players, deserve a better facility.”
Contrary to local lore, this is not the stadium Angelo Mosca built. Actually nobody knows who built it. The early history of Ivor Wynne is spotty; its architect is unknown or, at least, nobody is admitting to it these days. The cost to build it is also lost to time. The area has been a recreational site since 1900. By 1927, tenders were being called for construction of a 2,000-seat grandstand. Mosca? He and his wrecking crew didn’t really show up until 30 years later.
Ivor Wynne reeks of an era lost in the footnotes of time, a structure buttressed in steel, from the stadium girders to the mettle of the men who have played here, cheered here, wept here and helped forge a football legacy here.
This is a workman’s neighbourhood, shoulder to shoulder with wrecking yards, factories, even headquarters for the notorious Hells Angels. And, yet, in the sooty industrialism that surrounds it, there are cosy porches and two-storey homes. In the hulking shadows of its grandstands lie a high-school playing field, ball diamonds and a rink. There are no neon signs on its approaches. Across the street, kids with skateboards clatter across the sidewalk in front of a school.
There is a sense of community.
It is what sets the Ticats apart from other professional sports entities. The Tiger-Cats may be guys with licence plates from New York State to California and Alberta sitting in the parking lot, but they are also neighbours. That sense of “We Are Family” is what has made Ivor Wynne such an anomaly ever since the Ticats moved in.
“Regardless of whether I came here as a visitor or home player,” says current quarterback Henry Burris, “there’s no other atmosphere like this in the league. This stadium exemplifies to me the people of Hamilton. Hard-nosed. Blue collar. When you come here on game day, you can feel the spirit in the air.
“One thing I always find ... is when there’s a big play here, the way the crowd erupts, it feels like a college football stadium in the States when the stadium starts shaking. People are passionate.”
Today, Joe Montford lives quietly in Atlanta, but between 1996-2001 he was a defensive demon. But of all the games, the honours, the plays, the sacks, it is the people — both fans and teammates — he recalls with the most affection.
“I created bonds there that will last a lifetime. (Former teammate) Calvin Tiggle and I are like brothers. Mike Philbrick (with whom Montford celebrated a Grey Cup) lives in Etobicoke, but we talk regularly.”
Sometimes it isn’t the fame or the glamour that sticks in the minds of professional players. Sometimes it isn’t even the roar of a crowd, even though at Ivor Wynne that roar always seemed to be somehow lascivious, louder and more intense than almost anywhere else.
For Montford, his special place at Ivor Wynne is the dugout, that curious outcrop under which opposing players could find refuge from the furious commentary of fans, errant beer cups and the occasional spitball.
“What a marvellous place. I came from the Arena league where everyone is right on top of you and this place had that same feeling, only bigger.
“You came off the field and you could high-five the fans. They were so close you could smell the beer on their face. There was a passion with those people and I know some of them spent their last dollar just to come and see us play,” says Montford, who also will be back Saturday for the dying of the light.
“It will be kind of sad to see the old stadium go. It was great to sit in that dugout and listen to the fans. I might go back there before the game — before anyone else gets there — and just sit in there one more time to relive those days.”
Beer wars. In the ’80s, Ivor Wynne became perhaps Canada’s biggest beer garden. Fans got so rambunctious — some would suggest crude and ugly — that people complained and the Ticats had to tame the beast. Like most stadiums today, suds sales were limited. As well, in 1983, the city rented out the concession stands to owner Harold Ballard. They soon were arguing over who got what profits. Ballard, after threats to move the team, won. Hamilton mayor Bob Morrow relented and allowed Ballard to keep the profits from both beer and concession stands. Ballard might not have won much on the scoreboard but when it came to the money game he rarely lost.
For many who walked these pillared corridors as a fan or player, the sights and the sounds, reverberate as a life force.
“I’d sit in the stands sometimes the day before games. The stadium would be empty,” reminisces Montford, “but in my head I could hear the crowd noise.”
The place may not have had amenities, but it had soul.
And it had characters.
At one game, a parachutist was supposed to land at midfield but missed his mark, went sailing past a few living room windows, and ended up in some trees near the north west corner of the stadium. At the 1972 Grey Cup they launched a paraglider on Melrose St. with a race car. This time the gimmick worked as he came sailing over the stands, and floated onto the field, to cheers.
Harold Ballard owned the team from 1978-89. One of the zaniest characters ever to frequent the joint, he also happened to control the cashbox known as the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“There was no elevator and he couldn’t get up the steps to the boxes,” recalls Bob Bratina, now the Hamilton mayor, and formerly the Ticats’ play-by-play announcer. “So they brought in this crane and he’d get out of his car behind the south stands and get in this bucket. The crane would lift him up. It always reminded me of the Wizard of Oz leaving for the last time in that balloon — this larger-than-life figure rising above the stands.”
If Ivor Wynne was a reflection of Hamilton society, then Angelo Mosca — unyielding, gritty bordering on coarse, unfailingly loyal — was a reflection of the stadium. The Ticats won a Grey Cup in 1953, but it is probably no coincidence that this city’s love affair with its team was consummated with the arrival of Mosca.
The 1950s-60s were the glory years. And Mosca was its lead rabble-rouser. He grew to love the city. Still lives here. Still shills for the team. He recalls walking into Ivor Wynne in 1958 as a rookie out of Notre Dame.
“I came from a school where we sometimes had 70,000 people come to games. And, my first year, they made us line up to kick the point after touchdowns from the back of the end zone. They didn’t want to lose any footballs. So it was an eye-opener. Kind of a ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But I liked the city. It had interesting people. There was an ethnic community. It felt like home to me.”
In his final game, in 1972, he got to raise the Grey Cup for his adopted hometown fans. Brash, irascible, tough, he could trash talk before they invented trash talk.
“Back then we had a lot of good teams and it was like the Grey Cup game was just part of our schedule,” says Mosca. “But I think our best team was in 1967. We didn’t give up a touchdown the last six games of the season. Still, that 1972 Grey Cup win at Ivor Wynne sticks out.”
There have been other moments of lore: The 1961 comeback to eliminate the Argos in overtime; Paul Osbaldiston’s 54-yard field goal to put the Ticats into the 1998 Grey Cup just a year after a then-worst 2-16 record in franchise history; the 1996 Grey Cup game — the only Cup game ever held in Hamilton without a Hamilton team — was played on a snow-carpeted field and is considered one of the best in history.
Then there is the Labour Day Classic, that one time of year when the “Argos Suck” chant becomes a neutered city anthem.
Turfed: In 1970, U.S. networks refused to televise games from Ivor Wynne because it looked “bush league,” so the city spent $2 million for renovations. It included the addition of permanent bleachers on the north side. It bumped capacity to 30,000, making it the largest stadium in the league. The bleachers on the south side were repaired and Ivor Wynne became the first stadium in Canada to install — at a cost of $400,000 — artificial turf.
Players, whether they played for, or against the Ticats, regard the stadium as one of the most exhilarating and intimidating places in which they ever played.
“We beat Ottawa in the Eastern final one year and when I walked through the parking lot, there were five cars with American plates pulling big U-Hauls,” says Mosca. “They belonged to a bunch of the Ottawa players. They’d already packed up before they drove to Hamilton. They knew they were going to lose so they had just hooked up the U-Hauls and when the game was over they just kept right on going across the border and headed home.”
He laughs. He can afford it — he was on the home side.
Visiting players have fans hanging over their heads as they enter the playing field. Stu Laird played 13 seasons with Calgary.
“I didn’t really find it intimidating so much as it was exciting. I remember the first time driving up there in the bus and thinking, ‘hey, there’s houses right on top of you.’ Then, you get off the bus and they’re already bombarding you with insults.
“You come out of the locker room and the stands are right on top of you. You get to the sidelines and it was, ‘Wow!’ There’s fans looking you right in the face and you can hear every insult. And it didn’t stop until you got back on the bus.”
Some handle the slander and effrontery better than others.
In the late ’90s, Calgary kicker Mark McLoughlin missed a field goal. This, to an Ivor Wynne crowd, is like blood in the water is to a shark. They hooted. Jeered. Sneered. In the end, McLoughlin got so incensed he pointed — “Me-You. After the game!” — at a particularly brutal assailant.
This year, after a game-clinching interception on Labour Day, players on the Argos’ bench turned and, in unison, pointed derisively at the crowd.
Laird recalls the boistrous enthusiasm with equanimity.
“I think it was the 1985 season and it was probably one of the worst I spent in professional football because we didn’t have a very good team,” he says.
“It was the last game of the year. We were getting beat and tried to run a fake punt that Ben Zambiasi sniffed out. So I’m walking to the bench and, you know, you’re all dejected. You’re losing, the season has been nothing but losing, you’re missing the playoffs and those fans were calling us out.
“But it kind of made me smile because I thought, this is AWESOME. This is what professional football should be like. This is what a home crowd should sound like.”
The Grey Cup has been played 10 times in Hamilton, but only three of those games were played at Ivor Wynne — and one of those was when it was still known as Civic Stadium. In 1944, Montreal beat the local Wildcats 7-6. The Ticats beat Regina 13-10 in 1972 and the Argos defeated Edmonton 43-37 in 1996. The other seven were played between 1910 and 1935, at the crosstown Hamilton Amateur Athletic Association grounds.
If playing against Hamilton has had its challenges, making a living in black and gold hasn’t exactly been a picnic, either.
There are high-school teams in the U.S. that live in fancier digs. But speak with many former, even current Ticats, and they will say the lack of amenities helped bring them closer together.
Current owner Bob Young has made the clubhouse as cosy as possible given what there is to work with. Osbaldiston, now a coach, was the club’s placekicker from 1986-2003.
“The place creates an atmosphere that is unequalled. As a fan, you are close to the players and field. And, as players, because of the facilities, you were forced to be close to your team-mates here. When I played, the locker room was the place you spent all your time. We ate there. We played cards there. We worked there. We met there. There was no way to hide your short-comings.
“There will be nicer locker rooms in the new stadium. For fans, the lines will be shorter. The seating will be better ... but there’s not going to be the same closeness.”
It is curious how people’s perceptions change.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Ivor Wynne was already regarded as a blight on the sporting world with its tiny sidelines, wooden seating and pseudo-suites. But since the turn of this century, it has become almost chic again, a sporting heirloom not unlike Boston’s Fenway Park.
Reality is, Ivor Wynne just isn’t what it used to be. There are doors that don’t unlock and others that won’t close. So pranksters climb up on rooftops and deface the Wall of Fame. Inside, the entrance to the Hall of Fame doubles as a platform for television coverage. Water pipes and electrical conduit line the ceiling. Rain seeps through the press box windows, pooling around electrical outlets.
The temperature in the control room is regulated with a portable air conditioner — its exhaust pipe sticking through a wall of patched, stained wallboard.
It is a stadium vilified and loved. When ABC — citing the stadium’s rundown appearance — refused to show games from Ivor Wynne as part of its television contract, it became the shame of the CFL.
The public washrooms exude all the comfort of something out of Penitentiary U. Broken doors. Leaky pipes. Its bowels stink of bad plumbing. Urinals gurgle ominously. There’s a reason the demolition crew is poised outside.
“Ivor Wynne had its day, but it’s getting tacky. It has that old, tired look,” says Bratina.
“The seats are hard and it’s always difficult to figure out where your seat is, and then somebody has to squeeze in and there’s not enough room.
“The new stadium won’t be overly fancy either, but I think it’ll connect with the Ticat sense of, ‘Hey, we’re here for a football game, not to drink out of stemware.’ ”