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Prior to the game, the hallway outside the Hamilton Ticats’ locker room was vibrating, the high-volume music from within hardly being contained behind a closed door.
In the aftermath of a 33-12 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, the contrast was stark. Barely a word was being spoken, when reporters began asking questions in reverential tones, the players dutifully answering barely above a whisper at times.
Down the hall, at about the same time, head coach Orlondo Steinauer was quietly answering questions from a room full of reporters, his disappointment written all over his posture and his face.
“It just doesn’t feel good,” he said, pointing out that the Ticats might be reeling just a bit more simply because they’d been so good all season long. “And we hadn’t experienced that emotion for a while, right?”
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It’s not really fair to expect clear answers on what is next when you’re just moments removed from one of the biggest disappointments of your professional career.
“There’s gonna be a bad taste in our mouth for a while,” said defensive lineman Ted Laurent, just finishing up his ninth year without a Grey Cup ring. “But you’ve gotta give kudos to Winnipeg. They had a great game plan and they played well. We didn’t play to our standards and this was the result.”
Just behind Laurent, Chris Van Zeyl sat alone at his locker, staring blankly ahead. It had been quite a season for the 36-year-old. After being unceremoniously dumped by the Toronto Argonauts, Van Zeyl found new life in Hamilton, and seemed poised to add a third Grey Cup ring to his collection.
His win as the CFL’s Most Outstanding Lineman last Thursday night did nothing at all to help see the positives at least not in this moment.
“My accolades have nothing to do with how this feels, said Van Zeyl.
“This is….” He shook his head and looked down. “I’m gutted. I feel horrible.”
“I don’t even really know what to say to be honest with you,” he added, and we ended the interview there.
This wasn’t even close to the way things were supposed to play out for the Ticats, who jovially worked their way through Grey Cup Week, showing the personality of a team that had confidence surging through its veins.
With a perfect home record, and a franchise-best fifteen wins, to go along with a dominant win against Edmonton in the Eastern Final, the expected coronation did not come and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Linebacker Simoni Lawrence, almost always the ringleader when it comes to Ticat energy, had pain in his eyes as he attempted to navigate his way through what had just happened to all the team’s best-laid plans.
Was there room in the immediate aftermath for pride in a very good season? No, there wasn’t, he said. Not at that moment.
“The only thing you can try to do is let it motivate you and let it not disturb your real-life piece,” Lawrence said. “Football’s tough, emotionally and it’ll eat your ass up if you let it.”
Receiver Luke Tasker, who’d battled his way back into the Hamilton line-up after a half-season of injury frustration, was able to find some pride, but it was overwhelmed just a bit by Sunday night’s stunning loss.
“I have pride in these teammates,” he said, quietly, “and the regular season that we had and the culture that Coach O created around here. I’m proud of my teammates and I love this organization. Then, a pause. “It’s tough,” he said.
And down the hall, Coach O was looking for the right words to put things in perspective. He admitted that the realization that things were out of reach did come during the game, though he didn’t say exactly when.
“There is a point on the clock where you know it’s not going to be and that’s a heavy feeling,” he said.
“I’m just so disappointed,” said Steinauer. “I get emotional about that. For them. The hard work, the effort. But there’s only one champion every year.”
And in the wake of the Grey Cup loss, the CFL’s Coach of the Year couldn’t really put his finger on any missteps he or his team might have made over the last week which would lead to such a humbling loss.
“I don’t feel like we were under-prepared, I don’t feel like we were overconfident,” Steinauer said. “I wouldn’t change our approach.”
“It’s gonna sting,” he said, lamenting the agony his players were going through. I told them to let their emotions out, there’s nothing wrong with that. At some point, they’ll be able to reflect.”
And then they’ll get back to work again, making another run at the top of the heap. For now, though, the Hamilton Ticats will board their flight, heads still spinning, as they contemplate this sobering loss.
But as the band of brothers that they so often to profess to be, they’ll lean on each other for solace. And that will start with the head coach.
“I’m still proud of our guys,” said Steinauer. “I told them they need to keep their head held high.”