TORONTO — For Argos fans, all that’s left to do is wait.
June 23 is the day the Argos play their first game at BMO Field, still three months and three weeks away. It’s early March and Toronto is covered by a heavy blanket of snow, and for the players and front office the work is far from over.
Combine, the draft, mini-camps, training camp – they stand between now and then. But when asked about the thought of stepping onto fresh grass on that late June Thursday evening against, who else, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, some Argos had chills.
“That first game, oh man,” said Argos safety Jermaine Gabriel, almost at a loss for words. “Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”
Gabriel, a 25-year-old Toronto native, signed a contract extension with the Argos in February just in time for free agency. One of the reasons was he just couldn’t miss the transformation of his hometown franchise, both on and off the field.
“Just knowing that the organization is moving on up to better things, I wanted to be a part of that and just see the progress from where we were two years ago to where we’re going to be now,” said Gabriel.
“It’s just an exciting moment for us and even when I’m talking to my teammates, we’re just excited to see how it’s going to be on game day.
“Everyone can’t wait.”
While players count down the days, so do the fans, and on March 1 it all got a little more real as season tickets officially went on sale for the first time (available HERE). Fans could see how their view of the field will look from any seat in the house with a virtual stadium map, while the team advertised tickets priced as low as $199.
Off the field, President and CEO Michael Copeland is certain the Argos are ready to restore their prominent place in the City of Toronto.
“It’s not that we’re going to try to,” said Copeland of the stated goal in a video posted on Argonauts.ca. “We will.
“This is going to be the best experience in professional sports. That is our goal, and not only is it going to provide a fantastic fan experience, but it’s going to be home.”
WATCH: Fresh air, new era for Toronto Argonauts football
‘Home’ is the operative word there, and it’s exactly where the on-field aspect comes into play as well. Scheduling conflicts at the Rogers Centre forced the Argos to play four home games outside of Toronto last season including one outside of Ontario, a non-issue for the team in its new venue.
Instead, the Argos have a chance to establish a true competitive homefield advantage, much like they watched the Ticats do during their rise as an elite CFL powerhouse.
“Every seat in this house is gonna be taken,” said Ricky Foley, also a Toronto-area native. “It’ll be a home base, homefield advantage, playing on grass – I think it’s going to be the best gameday experience in the CFL, bar none, and I can’t wait.”
Added Copeland: “It’s going to be a really tough place for opposing teams to play.”
Now set to enter his fourth season, Gabriel remembers playing in that infamous Labour Day matchup with the Ticats in 2014, a sweltering afternoon in the Hammer and the first ever game at Tim Hortons Field.
“That was crazy,” recalled Gabriel, who made two tackles in that game.“It was loud, hot – they were handing out little footballs and they were pelting them on the field and the fans were going crazy, calling names. It was hectic.”
The Ticats won that game 13-12 and eventually established themselves as the best home team in the CFL – a spark that helped Hamilton go from 1-6 that season to appearing in the Grey Cup before falling to the Calgary Stampeders.
It was nearly a year before the Ticats lost their next game at home, and by that time Tim Hortons Field was a place no one wanted to visit.
“That’s what we’re hoping to have,” said Gabriel. “We’re hoping to have the same things they’ve got over there. You go over there to play and everyone knows it’s a madhouse.
“We just want the same thing for us – we want the fans to come out, go crazy at our games, we want to put on a performance for them so they have a reason to come out, and we just want to have a good time.”
Of course, Hamilton’s success at home might not have happened without one of the best defences in the CFL. That fact isn’t lost on the Argos, who spent their off-season adding proven veteran players and on the sideline a renowned defensive specialist in Defensive Coordinator Rich Stubler.
With Casey Creehan and a young, unproven defence, the Argos were anything but difficult to play against in 2015. They surrendered a league-worst 429 completions, allowing opponents to complete 70.2 per cent of their passing attempts.
Overall, Creehan’s defence ranked sixth in the league in allowing 348.6 yards per game, but opposing quarterbacks often shredded Toronto’s secondary at will. A look back to last Labour Day is a stark reminder for Argos fans, when former Argonaut Zach Collaros threw for 400 yards and four touchdown passes in a 42-12 win – a game in which the outcome was never truly in doubt.
The unit that was torched in that game, while a little familiar, will also have a brand new dynamic. On top of adding Stubler, who engineered Calgary’s Grey Cup-winning defence in 2014 and is usually one of the stingiest against the pass (Calgary ranked second in the league against the pass last season and second in the league in net yards), GM Jim Barker has been adding experienced veterans.
Keon Raymond, Andre Monroe, Jerald Brown and former Ticats Bryan Hall, Justin Hickman and Brian Bulcke are among those the Argos have added, providing a new stable of leadership to complement the current.
“I kind of had an idea of what Scott and Jim wanted to do with their vision,” said Foley, “and then to see it come to fruition – they did a better job than I could even hope for. We got some great guys.
“I’m just really looking forward to bringing some good guys to the locker-room,” he added. “We’ve got the same like-minded attitude, we’re all going to be focused on the same thing and we’ll have fun doing it.”
It’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ kind of story in Toronto, where the Argos will want to do well off the field in order to thrive off it, but also face the pressure of winning in a year when everyone will be watching.
Hall and Bulcke have the same memory as Gabriel dating back to Labour Day a couple of years ago, when the Ticats and Argos crossed paths in the first game at Tim Hortons Field – only they were on the other side. Hall had a tackle and Bulcke had a sack as the Ticats fed off that rabid Hamilton crowd and limited Ricky Ray’s offence to just 12 points.
Part of the reason they switched sides in one of the CFL’s most heated rivalries? The opportunity to be part of something similar.
“A few factors made me decide to want to go there,” said Hall, this year’s Grey Cup being in Toronto among them. The Argos hope Hall, a 295-pound defensive tackle, will add to what promises to be an energetic Argo D-line.
“Just to see they’re making positive strides to not only be one of the best teams in the CFL but to be one of the best top flight organizations just means a lot,” he added.
“I’ve seen what Hamilton was able to do with a new stadium and a better opportunity, and now I’m looking forward to what Toronto holds.”
Then for others, the wait has been so much longer.
Gabriel remembers sitting in the 300 level at the Rogers Centre growing up, watching closely as Willie Pile, Jordan Younger and Mike O’Shea made plays on a Rich Stubler-coached defence. Durie, meanwhile, is old enough to have gone to games at the Rogers Centre when it was still the SkyDome, and when he was really young at Exhibition Stadium, the site the Argos will return to this spring.
For those guys, this new era of Argos football resonates so much deeper.
“It was a big ticket, it was a big deal,” Durie, a Toronto native and along with Foley a graduate of York University, said in a past interview. “It was one of those events where you wanted to take the whole family and go down and see it. Being a kid playing football, you wanted to be the kids at halftime running out on the field before games.
“There’s that kind of pride and that kind of love for the sport – our game that was once one of the big loves for our city.”
And in three months and three weeks, it all starts again. Fresh air and a new beginning in Toronto.
– With files from Argonauts.ca