HAMILTON — The Winnipeg Blue Bombers spilled out of their chartered airplane at the Hamilton airport on Tuesday, marking the official start to Grey Cup week, feeling in a defensive mood.
The Bombers have the rare opportunity to claim back-to-back Grey Cup titles, an achievement that has happened just twice – Montreal Alouettes (2009-10) and Toronto Argonauts (1996-97) – since Edmonton claimed four straight championships more than 40 years ago. If the Bombers are to repeat, they'll have to get through the Hamilton Tiger-Cats first – the team they beat, 33-12, in 2019 to snap a 28-year Grey Cup curse.
"Every season is different. With (the Grey Cup) being the ultimate goal, it’s hard anyway (to win)," Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros sais shortly after touching down.
"2019 was 2019. This is a different season, a different team, a different challenge and it’s going to be very hard to win. It’s a very good football team we’re going up against. They’re very well coached, great organization, with great players. We understand the challenge ahead of us and we plan to have a great week of preparation here."
While it's certainly a different year, made even more unusual owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced a cancelled season in 2020 and a 2021 campaign full of strict health protocols, there's a lot of the same for Winnipeg. Of the 24 players that started for the Bombers on offence and defence in the 2019 Grey Cup, all but three – defensive back Marcus Sayles, defensive lineman Drake Nevis and centre Cody Speller – are back this season.
The same can't be said for the Tiger-Cats, a team that finished 15-3 two years ago but are without several starters from that club, including five players on defence and another five on offence. It's the continuity on the Bombers roster that coach Mike O'Shea believes will help his players navigate what will be a busy week full of obligations off the field and even more work on it.
"They've understood all season what it's going to take, and I don't think this week's gonna be any different," O'Shea said. "The veteran leadership we have will help the young guys along and they understand how important their time is this week and how important it is to stick to the process that’s carried them here. So, by design, having this many guys back should prove its value."
Unlike the last time they met, the Bombers enter the week the favourite to win. They finished atop the West Division with a CFL-best 11-3 record and were victorious in their only game against the Tiger-Cats in 2021 – defeating Hamilton 19-6 at home in the first game of the regular season. Winnipeg avoided a scare last week, earning a narrow 21-17 win over the 9-5 Saskatchewan Roughriders in the West final at IG Field.
After finishing a league-best 15-3 in 2019, the Tiger-Cats finished second in the East this year, creating a more challenging road to get here. Hamilton hosted the 6-6 Montreal Alouettes in the East semi-final, winning that game 23-12. They then had to travel to Toronto to play the first-place Toronto Argonauts, where the Tiger-Cats rallied down 12-0 at halftime to win 27-19.
Playing two games versus one is an obvious advantage. But while the Tiger-Cats are likely a bit more banged up — every player is dealing with something this late into the season — they have the greatest advantage of all: playing in front of a home crowd.
"Once the ball is snapped, I'm not sure the players hear the fans," O'Shea said. "I mean, obviously it'll be a hostile crowd. But if you've been to Saskatchewan on Labour Day you know what that's all about. And the idea of being favourites, I don't know that we've ever thought about that as a team. That doesn't enter into our conversations or into our thoughts really."
It was a curious answer by O'Shea, who fewer than 24 hours earlier saw just how powerful a raucous crowd at IG Field helped, at least in part, will his team to victory over the Roughriders. O'Shea also knows how loud the Hamilton crowd can be; after all, he began his career there, spending his first three seasons (1993-95) in the CFL as a Tiger-Cat and then returned again for the 2000 season.
He also knows how it feels to be public enemy No. 1 in Hamilton. O'Shea spent 12 seasons with the Argonauts, winning three Grey Cups in Toronto, including being a member of the team that went back-to-back in the mid-90s.
"There are a lot of fond memories here," O'Shea said. "And then there was a lot of boos. The joke is, there might be a few D cells coming my way, as I'm standing there. We'll see."
With the East designated as the "home" team in this year's Grey Cup — the West got that edge in 2019, with the Bombers using the Calgary Stampeders locker room — that means the Tiger-Cats will have the luxury of sleeping in their own beds, while being familiar with their locker room and other facilities at Tim Hortons Field.
"It’s just understanding the expectation of all the different obligations that you’re gonna have during the week," Collaros said.
"Busing to practice is gonna be different and I don’t know what the dressing room is gonna be like. In Calgary, we dressed in our hotel rooms and then went into practice. All those little wrinkles that throw a wrench into what you do make it a little more difficult, but it is what it is."
Collaros started his career with the Argonauts, but it was with the Tiger-Cats that he got his first real shot to play. In his first season, in 2014, he led Hamilton to first-place finish in the East, at 9-9, before falling to the Calgary Stampeders in the Grey Cup.
The next year, Collaros was on pace to lead the CFL in passing yards and touchdowns, making him a clear leader to win the league's most outstanding player award. But a torn ACL in his right knee ended his season 11 games into the year and two seasons later he was replaced by Jeremiah Masoli after an 0-8 start to the 2017 campaign.
Collaros still has strong ties to the Hamilton community. His wife, Nicole, is from the area and they own a home not far from the city. Collaros said he has reserved 42 tickets for friends and family to attend the game.
"Having played here for so long I understand how much of an advantage it is for the home team and how great of a crowd it is. It’s nothing that we haven’t done before, but we haven’t done it in a while so we’re gonna have to keep working on it," said Collaros.
"I’ve only played three plays here since (I left), so we’ll have to see. I only have good memories here. If you get booed, you get booed, it’s part of the fun."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.