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November 24, 2019

O’Leary: Grey Cup droughts link Ticats, Bombers fanbases

Geoff Robins/CFL.ca

Miles Martin and Lisa Fourneaux made their way down 1st St southeast in downtown Calgary on Friday night, decked out in Winnipeg Blue Bombers gear.

The couple made the trip in from Winnipeg and were on their way from one set of Grey Cup parties to another at a bar about a kilometre away. They had small lights as necklaces and were in the spirit of the weekend, thrilled that their team — both are longtime Bombers season ticket holders — is in the big game on Sunday. Lisa carried a green bag over her shoulder.

“He usually goes with his dad,” Lisa said, gesturing at Miles and reaching into the bag, “but his dad passed away in August.”

She pulled out a framed 8×10 photo of Miles’ dad, Ed. In the photo, he’s got a big smile on his face, the way he always did at Grey Cup weekend.

“We brought this so he could be with us,” Lisa said.

At BMO Centre, the site of the Grey Cup team parties that Miles and Lisa had left behind, Mike Tivador and Jeff Zakaluk stood outside of the Eastern Social Hall. Mike, from Hamilton, was decked out in Ticats garb, surrounded by his friends in black and yellow. Jeff, who is originally from Winnipeg, lived in Hamilton for a stretch and now calls Calgary home (this becomes relevant quickly), was in the party too, sipping on a beer and wearing a white Blue Bombers jersey. He stood out but had no complaints of mistreatment in the Ticats-heavy part of the ballroom.

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This is Mike’s 20th consecutive Grey Cup trip. There was never a doubt in his mind that he’d be going this year, whether the successful season he was watching his Ticats have panned out or not.

Jeff played baseball and hockey when he lived in Hamilton and met Mike through that. They became fast friends.

“We had a lot of good times, man,” Mike said.

“We’d go to Ticats games at Ivor Wynn, sit on the 50-yard line and muck it up with the locals, so to speak,” Jeff said, laughing.

When he moved away, they lost touch. Until Friday. Mike was texting with a mutual friend who mentioned Jeff would be there. Contact info was shared, a call was made Friday morning and there they were, 30 years later, one rooting for Hamilton and the other rooting for Winnipeg like nothing had changed.

Walk through downtown Calgary and the Grey Cup festivities this weekend and you’ll trip over stories like these ones and thousands of others. No two fans and certainly no two fan bases are the same, but when it comes to the Tiger-Cats and the Blue Bombers, there’s one thing linking them all together.

Some are calling it the Drought Bowl, or the Dust Bowl. It’s a combined 46 years since either team has won a Grey Cup, with both teams bookending the ’90s. Winnipeg won the championship in 1990, and Hamilton took its turn lifting the trophy in 1999.

On Sunday, in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, one drought will come to an end.

The painful ties that bind

Bombers and Ticats fans are among the most passionate in the league. Every team goes through winning cycles and comes out of them into leaner times. Every other fan and every other CFL city in the league, though, has enjoyed the ultimate reward at some point over the last 20 years.

That’s where the teams playing on Sunday are different.

“I was born in ’89, so it’s more or less, I feel like the curse,” says Sean Schmatkow. Blue Bombers fans know him or at least recognize him as Bomber Fan Ted. He sits in section 141 at IG Field in Winnipeg, the rowdy one in the end zone that Bombers players run to when they score touchdowns, jump and cling to the wall and the fans reach down and pat their helmets and hug them.

Ted’s the one that’s in the teddy bear suit. Every game.

He sits outside of the Grey Cup parties on Friday night in costume, the bear’s head resting on the back of his neck like a hoodie while he nurses a beer. He’s going on about two hours of sleep, he says. He and a friend took shifts on the 13-hour drive that morning from Winnipeg.

“I remember those years from CanadInns (Stadium, the Bombers’ old home) and it was just…heartbreaking,” he said.

 

There was the 14-4 squad in 2000, led by Khari Jones that went into the Grey Cup heavily favoured against Calgary. The Stamps beat them 27-19. The next year their star receiver, Milt Stegall, was injured late in the season and missed the playoffs. Edmonton beat them by three in the Western Final. There was the 2011 edition of the Bombers, with Buck Pierce at quarterback, Odell Willis leading the Swaggerville defence and coach Paul LaPolice calling the shots. They fell in Vancouver that year to a BC team that erased a 0-5 start and seemed destined to win.

The most common heartbreak in Winnipeg, though, the one that fans seem to always talk about, is 2007. That’s the year that the Bombers surprised the Argos in the Eastern Final, but lost their quarterback, Kevin Glenn, to a broken arm early in the fourth quarter of the win.

Backup Ryan Dinwiddie — now the Calgary Stampeders’ quarterbacks coach — was thrown into the spotlight of the biggest game of the season. He threw three interceptions to the Saskatchewan Roughriders defence and the drought grew a year older.

Down goes Glenn: Bombers fans on the 2007 Grey Cup

Lisa Fourneaux: “The Toronto one (Grey Cup in 2007) and the one before that in Montreal against Calgary. Those ones wrecked me. When Kevin Glenn broke his arm, everyone was crying, it was so sad.”

Eric Scheepers, from Winnipeg, attending the game with his father, John: “The ’07 one I think is the biggest heartbreak I saw. It’s kind of like a jack-in-the-box. You get wound up, then, (boing). It’s been tough. There have been some tough ends to the season.”

Jeff Zakaluk: “I was at that game in Toronto, when Dinwiddie played. He didn’t have a lot of playing time at all. He was a backup quarterback all season and you get thrown in there for the final game, that’s tough.

“From my own perspective, I don’t think the expectations were high. You want to see them win, but unless this guy has a good game, and it’s a great opportunity to test his mettle. But I mean, how many times in professional sports does that happen? It doesn’t happen often.”

Flag on the play: Ticats fans know heartbreak too

Bob Young couldn’t help himself. With this year’s Grey Cup just over 24 hours away, the owner/caretaker of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats threw it out there, one more time.

“We’ve had great teams. They’ve come within a bad officiating call of winning Grey Cups before,” Young told reporters on Saturday. He laughed when he said it, but it’s indicative of what remains for those still with the team five years removed from one of the most jarring finishes to a Grey Cup game the CFL has ever seen.

Brandon ‘Speedy’ Banks lived up to his nickname, taking a Calgary punt 90 yards, all the way to the end zone in the final minutes of the Grey Cup game in 2014. He thought he’d won his team a championship. He collapsed in the end zone and a few teammates that had run in behind him fell on him, celebrating.

 

Then came the call. A flag on the play, an illegal block. The ball went back 80 yards and the Ticats’ desperation heave at the end of regulation didn’t get it done. The Grey Cup was Calgary’s. Banks was completely devastated.

It took players months, some even a full year to get over it. The Ticats have been to just two other Grey Cups since they won it in 1999. They were swept up in a sea of green in Saskatchewan in 2013. Then came the flag on the play in 2014.

Justin Medlock, Bombers kicker and Ticats’ kicker in 2014: “I think I thought about it for maybe about six, seven months and then once we got back next I tried to move on. But obviously, being back here with the Ticats you see former players and stuff like that and it brings back memories, right? It was a tough one. I try not to see those guys, just to keep it separate but yeah, it’s stings a little bit.”

Mike Tivador: “I was there (in Vancouver), I was sitting in the stands. I just remember Speedy running and I was cheering and cheering and jumping up and down. Then somebody beside me said there was a flag on the field and they called it back. It was heartbreaking, but I was happy for our team to be there.”

Brandon Banks: “I went to my hotel room and sat for four hours by myself. Kent Austin came to my room, I looked through the peephole and saw it was him. I told him I was OK and he left me alone. I saw everybody else on the plane the next morning.”

Mike Filer, Ticats’ offensive lineman: “Being at two (Grey Cups) and losing two, being able to step on the stage and experience it but not walking off with what we came for was tough. But this team has something different. We’ve got our mindset, we’ve had it since day one at training camp and we’re excited to play. We’re excited to be here and we know we’ve got some unfinished business.”

Do it for Winnipeg

Before he was the face of his hometown team, Andrew Harris played a part in extending the Bombers’ drought. The running back was named the Most Outstanding Canadian in his team’s 2011 Grey Cup win over the Bombers at BC Place. After six years with the Lions, he signed with Winnipeg as a free agent in 2016.

Now the most dominant running back in the league, he’s led his team on what has to feel like a long, inch-by-inch drive up the field. The Bombers haven’t been back to the Grey Cup game since that 2011 defeat and it’s the team’s sixth appearance in the game since they won it in 1990.

“Growing up I definitely saw them going to the Cup and losing,” Harris said.

“Going to the Cup and losing is a little bit bittersweet for people but it’s indescribable for me at this point. We’ve still got a lot of work to do and I’m just excited for the opportunity.

“In 2011 I didn’t realize or appreciate how difficult it is to get to these games and represent my city, the city I grew up in. I know how excited everyone is back home. The sense of pride the community has in the team is massive.”

Adam Bighill, Bombers linebacker: “It matters a lot to me because I mean I do play this game for the love of the game and how much I enjoy playing this game and what it’s given me. I want to build a legacy for myself. But with that being said I also play for the fans because I know how much they appreciate it.

“If you’re in Winnipeg for more than one day you’ll run into people who will tell you how much they appreciate us, what we do and they bleed blue and gold. To me, I play for them too and I want it so badly as well. That’s part of the reason I re-signed in Winnipeg. I love the atmosphere out there. I love the support and dedication. It would mean the world to me to bring it back home.”

Winston Rose, Bombers defensive back: “From the first day I got here I just felt that Winnipeg was like family to me, the closeness of the coaches and players, even through social media, how it was just so welcoming.

“For the first time in my career I actually felt the love from an organization and from the city. Just to have that family vibes from the community from Winnipeg it just makes it even more for me to go out there and go hard. Especially when we play at home I just love the energy that the fans bring.”

 

Lisa Fourneaux: “You just want to win it. You just want to feel it in your heart. I just want to have that, do you know what I mean?

“Beyond the champagne and the party and stuff, just to have that (feeling of winning). And you want it for (the players).

“Have you ever been on a sports team where you knew that everybody on your team was really good but you lose? I’ve been on teams like that. That’s brutal! I feel like that’s been the Bombers for a lot of years. I feel like if this doesn’t happen now, when we’ve got such a great team, such a strong team, I just don’t even know when that’s supposed to happen then.”

Miles Martin: I just hope…for all of the people we know that have been through it, because you know everyone’s saying the same thing, saying, ‘We’ve got a winner, we’ve got a winner.’ And if we do? Everybody’s just…it’s just going to explode.”

Sean Schmatkow: “My mom took me to every game she could, she was a single mom. I played local sports. She couldn’t always get me playing sports but she found a way to get me playing amateur football. I went to high school with Andrew Harris and Nick Demski. I had them in the huddle with me and I just couldn’t…get there. It’s just what it is but, I wish them all the best. They’re rooting for us, they’re playing hard for Winnipeg so I guess that’s all I can ask for, is it bring it home for us.”

Eric Scheepers: “Everyone’s due. I know it’s not a given and everyone has to earn it, but everyone’s pretty due.”

Do it for Hamilton

Once Brandon Banks started to get settled in Hamilton, he felt the connection. In some ways, the Steeltown is a lot different from where he grew up, outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, but there were commonalities that he started to find the longer he was there.

Banks admits he has little-man syndrome. The way he describes it? He doesn’t take sh– from anybody. That’s how he came up. Seven years into his CFL career, he looks around Hamilton and sees a city with the same chip on its shoulder.

“It’s just hard-working…they don’t take no sh–, either,” he said, laughing.

“They don’t have a lot, so they embrace what their situation is and make the best of it and I like that. I lived inner-city and it’s inner-city, downtown Hamilton, people are working hard just trying to make ends meet. I appreciate people out there trying to make ends meet. We need to go out there and reward them by giving them some excitement in the city.

“That’s the reason why I’ve never touched free agency, because the city embraced me. It’s a second home. I’m very, very comfortable and they embrace me. I’m there for the rest of my career.”

Jim Barker, Ticats offensive assistant: “To see what Hamilton is all about and how important the team is to the people here…(the Eastern Final in Hamilton) was electric.

“I had no idea of what it was like in Hamilton until this season, being here and getting to meet fans and getting to watch them and I mean, you feel it.

“When you’re a part of the Tiger-Cats you’re a part of something bigger than you. In Hamilton, this team is so important and people identify with it and those types of things where maybe that’s not the case as much (with other teams).

 

“It’s exciting for me for the thought of what (winning would) mean to a lot of the people here. For Bob Young…he and (Ticats’ president and CEO) Scott Mitchell have done a lot for this league and for this organization. You feel for all of the people who have bled for that organization to now be able to be on the cusp of being able to bring home a Grey Cup. That kind of thing is important.

“This game carries carries a lot more than just the Hamilton Tiger-Cats playing the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. To me, that’s what adds to the intrigue of the whole thing.”

Mike Filer: “Being in Hamilton, being from Hamilton I’ve seen the ups and downs over the years and I know maybe a little bit better than some of the newer guys what this team (has gone through) or what the fans have done for our team, helping us and supporting us. But there’s not a guy in that room that doesn’t know that this championship is for the city of Hamilton.”

Kyle Scott, Ticats fan and Hamiltonian that won Grey Cup tickets through Nissan: “I know what it’s like in Hamilton right now and they haven’t even won yet.

“The Arkells did that song, the Ticats are Hummin. That is Hamilton. Hamilton’s going crazy right now. The bars are booking up. We were coming on the plane (on Friday) and it’s surreal. I never thought I’d be here to watch a team that I’ve watched for so long. They haven’t won in Calgary since 2003. They haven’t won a Grey Cup in 20 years. If they go out there and play their game, they’ll be fine. They play their game, they’ll be fine.”

Fanalysis: Can they do it?

“Thick and thin, thick and thin,” said Bombers fan Randy Hacock, a Winnipegger that lives in Calgary.

You can almost feel the shrug coming in Hacock’s what’re-ya-gonna-do attitude about his team. Without prompting, he defers to the rival Ticats for Sunday’s game. He’s always loved his Bombers (“I’m from Morris, Manitoba,” he says. “Once a Bombers fan, always a Bombers fan), but he doesn’t see a win in their future.

That could have something to do with his girlfriend, Jodie Theander. She’s standing next to him at BMO Centre wearing a black Ticats jersey. He’s seen a lot of his significant other’s team this year and he’s not optimistic about the Bombers’ drought coming to an end.

“Let’s face it. At the end of the day, we all know who the better team is. It’s the Ticats,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think they have a chance against the Ticats at all, I really don’t.

“But hey, they’ve had this tough road, so who knows? Maybe this is the end of the rainbow?”

 

Sean Schmatkow: “Ever since they won in ’90 this curse has come over us like a rain cloud, kind of shadowing us. I’m 30 years old and…it just has to end now. It has to end.

“I feel like this year we have the squad, we’ve got the offence, we can defend. It’s more or less just showing up on Sunday and performing.”

Mike Tivador: “These guys are the best team I’ve ever seen with Hamilton. In 1967, I was only seven years old, they had a great defence, they won a Grey Cup. But this team here, just all three facets of their game, their defence, their offence, their special teams, they’re lights out.

“I go there and I sit (at Tim Hortons Field) for 10 games, watching them play at home and we don’t lose a game. It’s a great feeling.”

Eric Scheepers: “If it’s anything like last week (in the Western Final), I’ll lose a few more years off of my life. It was a great game.”

Brent Tolton, Ticats fan from Hamilton and a season ticket holder: “Based on the last couple of games that they played and especially beating Edmonton, the way they beat them. I think we had a little bit of trepidation with respect to how that was going to go. I’m pretty confident about beating Winnipeg and we’d love to stick it to Collaros, to be honest with you (laughs).”

If the Bombers win

Randy Hacock: “You know what, Winnipeg deserves it and you know, I think it’d be a little bit rowdy. I mean, they’re not going to wreck the streets (in Winnipeg) or anything but you know what, Bomber fans need this one. Honest to God, they need it.”

Jef Zakaluk: “There’d be a big parade down Portage Avenue, or down Broadway or Osborne. I was living in Winnipeg when they won the Grey Cup in ’84. It was huge. It’s a big deal and I don’t see this being any different.

“I mean, both cities are so similar. Very passionate, blue collar fans. Love the game. Love the sport. It’d be huge, it’d be great for the game, it’d be great for the game in Canada.”

If the Bombers lose

Sean Schmatkow: Honestly, I’ll strap my shoes up one game at a time and we go back to 0-0. Next year’s the new year. I don’t give a sh–. Let’s go. It’s Grey Cup next year, plus the fact that we’re going to win it in Saskatchewan if we don’t win it now. So, I’m coming. We’re coming. We’re a force to be reckoned with. We don’t win this weekend, we’re going to win next year.”

If the Ticats win

Jodie Theander: “They’ve been preparing for this all season. This is not just all of a sudden.”

Mike Tivador: “This is one of the one of the first years I can just tell that there’s a vibe in Hamilton. The send-off the players had to come out here, there was a big crowd outside of the Tim Hortons Field to send these guys off. I think everybody really loves this team. I think it comes down to the players, the coaching staff, everybody, they’re so good to the community. I think the community is trying to give back. Everybody there is very into it. It’d be a big party. If Hamilton wins this they’ll bring the Cup home and everyone’s going to celebrate it.”

If the Ticats lose

Kyle Scott: “The experience is epic to be here, but at the end of the day I’m grateful for my opportunity to be here. One of my best friends (and I) get to come in and do this brotherhood thing together.

“Win or lose, it’s amazing to watch a team come together, a city come together to come together, a league come together. It’s about winning, but at the end of the day there’s so much support, there’s so much more that goes into the back end of it. Yes, we want to hoist the Cup, but we also want to support these guys and we want them to know that we’re always going to be there for them.”