HAMILTON — Zach Collaros couldn’t have picked a bigger game to mark his return to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ lineup.
The third-year quarterback will play Monday when Hamilton hosts the Toronto Argonauts. Not only will Collaros make his first regular-season start against his former team but also lead the Ticats into their first-ever game at Tim Hortons Field on Labour Day.
Collaros has been out since suffering a concussion in a 28-24 loss to Edmonton on July 4. He’s been symptom-free for roughly three weeks and is glad to finally be playing again.
“I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, I’m excited to get back on the field,” Collaros said Sunday. “You can’t play the game nervous or you won’t do very well.
“I’ve got some good friends over there but it’s a big rivalry for us. I think they’d say the same thing, we’re not going to be friends for a few hours come gametime.”
Toronto knows first-hand how effective Collaros can be. He was 5-3 as the starter last year when incumbent Ricky Ray was hurt, leading the Argos to four crucial road wins.
“Zach’s my kind of guy,” Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich said. “He’s just a strong-minded, confident player.
“He can run, he can throw but to me his strongest attribute is his competitiveness and the fact he’s a winner.”
The City of Hamilton still hadn’t officially signed off on Tim Hortons Field on Sunday afternoon and wasn’t expected to until later in the evening. If the game can’t be played Monday afternoon, then it will go Tuesday night at the new facility.
Even once the occupancy permit is issued, the facility will seat around 18,000 fans, 6,000 short of capacity.
The stadium was originally slated for completion June 30 but construction delays forced the Ticats to play their first three regular-season games at McMaster University.
The game is an important one for both teams. It’s the first of three head-to-head meetings with Toronto sitting atop the East Division and Hamilton just four points behind.
Ray, 34, needs just 90 yards to become the youngest player in CFL history to reach the 50,000-yard plateau. He’d achieve the milestone
10 days ahead of Anthony Calvillo, pro football’s all-time passing leader with 79,816 yards, and become just the sixth player to do so.
“He’s one of the greats to play up here,” Collaros said of his former mentor. “I’m very fortunate to have played behind him for a couple of years.
“I learned a lot from him.”
Ray said Toronto doesn’t have a 91-yard TD pass play drawn up that would allow him to quickly record the milestone. But when he does register the achievement, Ray’s not expecting a rousing ovation from the Hamilton faithful.
“I hope they save the ball for me,” he chuckled. “This is like one of the best games to play in the CFL and to do it on (Labour Day) would give it an extra special feeling.
“This is kind of when the second half of the season kicks off and teams are fighting for their playoff position and it’s starting to get real important.”
Hamilton and Toronto have met 43 times on Labour Day, with the Ticats holding a 29-13-1 edge. For many Steeltown fans, it’s the most important game of the year but defensive back Jalil Carter said the Argos want to spoil the party at Tim Hortons Field.
“We can’t let them make their name on us in their new place, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “We hate to ruin it, but we have to say good luck to them.”
On Sunday, Ticats players and coaches gathered at midfield at Tim Hortons Field and watched a video presentation about the importance of the Labour Day game in Hamilton.
“Labour Day is a unique competition between rival teams and rivalries in sports make sport special,” said Hamilton coach/GM Kent Austin. “We want rivalries, our fans want a good, tough rivalry.
“Without rivalries sports wouldn’t be as meaningful and that’s what makes it fun.”
This will be Milanovich’s second Labour Day contest with Toronto.
He said many players don’t fully understand the tradition and history of the contest.
“I know I didn’t,” said Milanovich. “When I was a coach in Calgary I was part of the one with Edmonton but that was a down year for both teams so I didn’t get the full taste of it.
“In 2012 we had played here prior to the Labour Day Classic and it was significantly different so I don’t know if you can explain it. Plus with the opening of the new stadium and all the things that are going to be into play (Monday), it should be a great atmosphere, a great day.”
Slotback Andre Durie (clavicle), safety Matt Black (arm) and running back Steve Slaton (stinger) are among eight players Toronto added to its 46-man roster although Durie remains a game-time decision. Also activated were receivers Trent Guy and LaVon Brazil, who was released by the Indianapolis Colts after being suspended indefinitely for a second violation of the NFL’s substance policy.
Slotback Chad Owens (knee) won’t play. He was injured in last weekend’s 41-27 road loss to Edmonton, his first game after missing four starts with a foot ailment.
Although the game will be Collaros’s first against Toronto, Austin said it’s not a showdown between Collaros and Ray.
“We’re not playing tennis so Zach doesn’t play Ricky but I understand the questions,” he said. “Zach’s job is to execute the offence as we’ve constructed it and play one play at a time.
“He hasn’t played in a while, we understand that. We ask our players to let the game come to them.”
But Austin said that’s sometimes easier said than done with competitive players like Collaros.
“He has a very strong desire to excel and play well with his teammates,” Austin said. “He’s pretty hard on himself at times, all competitors are.
“You don’t want to eliminate that because that’s part of who he is. But you don’t want to seep into where his execution might be hampered.”