With files from The Canadian Press
TORONTO -- Seven months after the Grey Cup was handed out for the 100th time, the quest for Canadian Football's ultimate prize begins tonight when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Montreal Alouettes at brand new Investors Group Field.
Week 1 Matchups:
» Montreal at Winnipeg | Thu. June 27 | 9:00 pm ET | TSN | Sold Out
» Hamilton at Toronto | Fri. June 28 | 7:00 pm ET | TSN | Tickets
» BC at Calgary | Fri. June 28 | 10:00 pm ET | TSN | Tickets
» Saskatchewan at Edmonton | Sat. June 29 | 3:30 pm ET | TSN | Tickets
Until November, the Toronto Argonauts lay claim to the title of reigning Grey Cup Champions while seven other teams look to become the next engraved on the trophy. Here is a look at how each team enters the season ahead of Week 1.
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Dan Hawkins begins his first season as a CFL head coach having the unenviable task of following Marc Trestman. Trestman led Montreal to a 59-31 regular-season record and two Grey Cup wins over five seasons before being hired as the Chicago Bears' head coach.
One factor working in Hawkins' favour is veteran quarterback Anthony Calvillo. Pro football's all-time passing leader returns for a 20th CFL season and surpassed the 5,000-yard plateau three times under Trestman. Newcomer Arland Bruce III should bolster a solid receiving corps already featuring 1,000-yard veterans S.J. Green and Jamel Richardson. Questions exist at running back with incumbent Brandon Whitaker and newcomer Jerome Messam both returning from injury.
Defensively, linebackers Shea Emery and Chip Cox, Montreal's 2012 tackling leaders, and defensive lineman leader John Bowman, who had a team-high seven sacks, are all back while free-agent cornerback Byron Parker should improve the secondary.
No one has a tougher act to follow than Scott Milanovich, who led Toronto to victory in the 100th Grey Cup as a rookie head coach.
Veteran quarterback Ricky Ray returns as does explosive receiver/kick-return Chad Owens, the CFL's top player last season, and Grey Cup MVP running back Chad Kackert. Gone are defensive linemen Armond Armstead (NFL's New England Patriots), Adriano Belli (retired), Ron Flemons (released) and Ricky Foley (Saskatchewan, free agent), and Kevin Huntley (released).
The newcomers will line up alongside former CFL all-star tackle Khalif Mitchell, who was obtained this off-season from B.C. Rugged linebacker Rob McCune anchors the front seven and the return of all-star cornerback Pat Watkins will definitely help the secondary. But the unit will miss the experience and savvy of veteran safety Jordan Younger, who retired prior to the start of training camp.
New head coach Kent Austin looks to get Hamilton back into the CFL playoffs without the traditional home-field advantage. The Ticats will play their home games in Guelph, Ont., while a new venue is built where Ivor Wynne Stadium once stood.
Austin, who led Saskatchewan to the '07 Grey Cup, should have a potent offence spearheaded by veteran quarterback Henry Burris, but the club will miss Chris Williams, who remains in a contract dispute.
Shoring up their defence was an off-season priority as the Ticats signed defensive linemen Shomari Williams and Brian Bulcke as well as defensive backs Evan McCullough and James Patrick as free agents and have high hopes for defensive back Courtney Stephen, a top 2012 draft pick.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
After a year of waiting, the Bombers will finally open Investors Group Field and do so with Buck Pierce under centre. The club needs Pierce to stay healthy to return to the CFL playoffs.
Backing him up are former No. 3 passer Justin Goltz and newcomers Chase Clement and Max Hall. There's strength at the skill positions with running backs Chad Simpson and Chris Garrett along with receivers Terrence Edwards and sophomore Chris Matthews. Two years ago, a rugged defence helped lead the Bombers to the Grey Cup. Head coach Tim Burke was the defensive coordinator then and a return to that form would also be paramount for Winnipeg to return to the CFL title game.
Given that task is defensive coordinator Casey Creehan, who served as Winnipeg's linebackers and defensive line coach in 2010 and '11 before becoming the defensive coordinator in Hamilton, which like Winnipeg finished out of the playoffs.
There's certainly a different look to the B.C. squad that finished atop the West Division last year. Gone are defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell (to Toronto), backup quarterback Mike Reilly (to Edmonton), receivers Geroy Simon (to Saskatchewan) and Arland Bruce III (released) and cornerback Byron Parker (released).
The Lions also brought back receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux following two seasons in the NFL and also re-signed such veterans as quarterback Travis Lulay, offensive linemen Jovan Oliafoye and Ben Archibald and linebacker Solomon Elimimian.
The CFL's top-ranked defence helped B.C. follow up its 2011 Grey Cup championship campaign by posting a league-best 13-5 record under rookie head coach Mike Benevides. But Calgary put a severe damper on the Lions' season with a 34-29 win at B.C. Place in the West Division final.
Quarterback Drew Tate begins his second straight season as the starter amid questions on whether he can stay healthy. He suffered a separated shoulder against Toronto the second week of the 2012 campaign, sidelining him for all but the final two regular-season games. Tate's season came to a bitter end as the result of a fractured bone in his right wrist in Calgary's West Division semifinal win over Saskatchewan. Veteran Kevin Glenn led Calgary to nine wins with Tate out, then guided the Stampeders past B.C. in the conference final and into the Grey Cup against Toronto.
Tate certainly has big-play support in running back Jon Cornish -- the CFL's top Canadian -- and veteran receiver Nik Lewis. Veteran lineman Charleston Hughes anchors the defence after finishing tied for the CFL lead in forced fumbles (five) and second in sacks (11). The addition of all-star defensive back Jonathan Hefney should help strengthen the secondary.
It's Saskatchewan's turn to try and win the Grey Cup as the host city. The Riders will attempt to become the third straight team to achieve the feat. GM Brendan Taman was busy tweaking his roster this off-season, signing free-agent defensive lineman Ricky Foley and John Chick and defensive back Dwight Anderson. But his biggest move was acquiring veteran slotback Geroy Simon from B.C. after 12 seasons there. Simon is already the CFL's all-time receiving yards leader and needs just 29 catches to become the league's career receptions leader.
But hamstring injuries limited Simon to 54 catches for 700 yards and two TDs in 2012 _ the first time in 10 years Simon didn't crack the 1,000-yard receiving plateau. The Riders hope Simon, 37, can complement speedy Weston Dressler (94 catches, 1,206 yards, 13 TDs) and give quarterback Darian Durant another go-to receiver.
Mike Reilly starts at quarterback with incumbent Matt Nichols out with a season-ending knee injury sustained in a pre-season game.
Reilly appeared in six games last year (three starts) with B.C. before being acquired in an off-season trade. He passed for 682 yards and four TDs with the Lions while also rushing for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries. Reilly's mobility is certainly an asset, given the unstable nature of Edmonton's offensive line.
Running back Hugh Charles (1,409 yards rushing) and slotback Fred Stamps (70 catches, 1,310 yards, nine TDs) are both big-time offensive weapons. Defensively, new rush end Odell Willis joins a unit anchored by linebacker JC Sherritt, the CFL's top defensive player last year after registering a league-record 130 tackles. The unit also had five of the CFL's top-10 players in interceptions, including Jonathan Burnett (league-best six, including two returned for TDs).