TORONTO — If the Argonauts are going to play host to the 100th Grey Cup on Nov. 25th, they know exactly the path they’ll take to get there.
It starts in Toronto on Sunday as the Eskimos come to town for the Eastern Semi-Final. Then it winds east to Montreal, where the Alouettes await the winner in front of what should be a packed house at Olympic Stadium.
After that, if they’re lucky enough, the road comes full circle – right back to Rogers Centre, where the playoff run starts.
But it’s important to highlight that Sunday’s game isn’t just a playoff game.
Eastern Semi-Final Playoff Centre
The 2012 Eastern Semi-Final matchup is set as the Toronto Argonauts host the Edmonton Eskimos. Here is everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.
It’s a home playoff game – something the team hasn’t experienced since 2007, when the Argos fell to the Bombers in the Eastern Final at Rogers Centre, ironically for a chance to host the 95th Grey Cup in Toronto.
“Especially in a league where there are only eight teams, if you don’t have a home playoff game in five years, you’re not playing very good football in my opinion,” said punter Noel Prefontaine, now in his 13th season with the Argos.
“So I think to be able to have a home playoff game is pretty big.”
If one thing’s certain, it’s that Sunday’s playoff meeting between first-year Argo Ricky Ray and his former team provides the Boatmen a chance to really start something special.
The Argos have had trouble taking advantage of home field so far this season, finishing with a record of 4-5 at the Dome, tying them with Winnipeg at the bottom of the league.
It’s been five years since the Argos had a winning record at home, a span over which they’ve won just 15 of 45 games.
Meanwhile a failure to capitalize on home advantage may have been the team’s greatest downfall in this year’s regular season, despite finishing tied with a league-best record of 5-4 on the road – including wins in Montreal, Calgary, Saskatchewan in frigid conditions, Winnipeg without Ray in the lineup, and Hamilton on Labour Day.
It’s something Prefontaine said is hard to explain, but also something that can change quickly.
“It could be a combination of a couple of things,” he said. “It could be maybe the character of our team is that we’re more comfortable or relaxed at home where we shouldn’t be.”
“Maybe there’s more of an urgency on the road when you know you’re not only against the people that are on the field, but you’re against the people that are sitting in the stands – that could be part of it.”
Owens wants noise
“It’s definitely great for the city and I’m excited to be a part of it. I definitely hope that this stadium is going to be packed come Sunday. I hope every seat is filled because it is a home game and we’re supposed to have home field advantage, so everyone out there, just come on in please, support us, we’re definitely on our way, we’re doing some great things.”
– Chad Owens
One thing that might help curve the team’s home success heading into Sunday’s duel is the fact that practice has been at Rogers Centre all week. That’s new territory for the Boatmen, who usually practice in Mississauga, often outdoors.
“It’s the first time that I’ve ever done it,” said Prefontaine. “We used to have walk-through practice the day before, but that’s not the same.”
“To come out here and be able to run around and to be on the field that we’re going to play the game on, I think it’s going to be a pretty good advantage for us.”
Head Coach Scott Milanovich added that it’s a nice change for the team, which also saves the players around 40 minutes a day traveling to and from practice.
“I think it helps, practising where you’re going to be playing the game,” said Milanovich, in his first season as the Argos’ head coach. “It’s getting cold around here, so I think for us just getting in the elements you’re going to play in helps.”
Either way, with all the chips on the line and fans paying close attention, there’s a golden opportunity at stake for the Boatmen on Sunday to turn the tables and become a dominant team at home.
It might be the first opportunity for Ray, the team’s big off-season acquisition at quarterback, to start really making his mark in this city’s sporting landscape, too.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity for us as a team to kind of get things going here in Toronto, and it was kind of the same situation in Edmonton,” recalled Ray. “I don’t think we had a home playoff game for a long time since 2004, and we finally got one last year.”
“It’s just a big deal and the fans want to get excited about a good team and a team that has a chance to host a playoff team at home so they can come and watch it, and a team that can keep moving on – and that’s what we’re trying to do here by doing it out there on the field.” But in the end, a big part of home success has to do with getting fans in the stands. That’s something Prefontaine said he believes will happen on Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter what league you’re referring to, playoff time is just playoff time,” said Prefontaine.
“There are a lot of people out there that don’t start watching anything until playoff time right, so to be in the playoffs I’m sure that we’re going to get a lot more viewers, a lot more fans in the stands on Sunday, just because it is playoff time.”
Chad Owens, recently named the East Division’s nominee for Most Outstanding Player after breaking the single-season record for all-purpose yards in Week 19, said this is something both the team and the fans have been waiting for.
“It’s huge man, it’s huge,” said Owens. “It gives [the fans] something to be proud of, right?” said Owens. “It’s definitely great for the city and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
The 30-year-old receiver-returner in his third year with the Argos knows that in order to establish home advantage, though, they’ll need some vocal support. “I definitely hope that this stadium is going to be packed come Sunday,” he said. “I hope every seat is filled because it is a home game and we’re supposed to have home field advantage, so everyone out there, just come on in please, support us, we’re definitely on our way, we’re doing some great things.”
While first thing’s first, and the Argos will have to take care of business against the Eskimos on Sunday, if all goes well then a second home playoff game on Nov. 25th isn’t out of the question.
“Home game on the 25th?” asked Owens. “There are no guarantees but we’re working towards that, and I feel as if we’re going to be there.”
Prefontaine, meanwhile, knows how it feels to come up just short of being the host team at a Grey Cup. Asked about the possibility of being the host team in 2012, he recalled vivid memories of 2007, when the team was just one game away.
“This game is just as big as that Eastern Final that we played against Winnipeg here in my opinion – this is an opportunity for us to win a Grey Cup at home,” he said.
“It’s bringing me chills when I think about it, because it’s a hard thing to do,” he continued. “The statistics obviously are against us, but all we’ve got to do is go out there and win two football games and find ourselves back here.”