There was a time, not so long ago, that included with the towels and soap in the visitors’ locker room at Tim Hortons Field was the certainty of defeat.
Unlike cranky old Ivor Wynne Stadium, their quarters had reliable lighting and hot water in all the showers, but other CFL teams just couldn’t win in the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ new digs. It was discomfort amidst comfort.
Ah, but things change and not always for the better. Hamilton home-field advantage has become at best a misnomer, at worst a mocking mythology.
The Ticats who christened the long-delayed new stadium with 10 straight victories beginning, deliciously, with a 2014 Labour Day win over the Toronto Argonauts, have devolved into a team which has lost 12 of their last 14 regular-season and playoff games at home.
Despite their still-raucous fan support they have allowed the east end to become the least end.
“You don’t lose at home if you want to be a champion,” says head coach June Jones. “You have to win your home games and be able to steal a few on the road. It’s got to become an attitude and an infectious thing.”
Jones and Co. will try to spread that infection Friday night when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers arrive for the Ticats’ home opener.
Both teams are 1-1 and coming off big road wins.
The Bombers had a chance to win on opening night against Edmonton but let it slip away, on the same weekend that the Ticats had the game in their hands in Calgary, but threw an interception.
Last week, Winnipeg hammered the hapless Montreal Alouettes 56-10 while the Tiger-Cats surprised Edmonton, 38-21, to end their nine-day Alberta road trip.
It’s that satisfying split which gives Ticat veterans confidence that a new era of homeland security is possible.
“You stay in hotels for a week and then go and beat a dominant team like Edmonton, this is a game we should play very well in,” linebacker Simoni Lawrence says of the home opener.
“It’s going to build your confidence and let you know what you should be doing to teams at home. You have to be confident that you’ll win at home and we feel like we’re going to win until proven otherwise.”
Winnipeg comes in riding its own buoyant bubble, with 86 points scored in their first two games, despite the loss to injury of starting quarterback Matt Nichols.
Replacement Chris Streveler, the first quarterback to go directly from college to starting in the CFL since Anthony Calvillo 24 years ago, has thrown for six touchdowns and run for another in his first two games.
He’s fourth in CFL rushing and his tailback Andrew Harris is third, giving the Bombers a one-two punch on the ground and Streveler the classic CFL quarterback run-throw duality.
“He’s very athletic and faster than I thought he was,” says Jones, who was impressed with Streveler’s maturation between his first and second starts. “We’re going to have to take the run away from him…you can’t let him have both.”
The Ticats can counter with their own Canadian running back and double menace at quarterback. Jeremiah Masoli is the second-ranked passer in the league and has scampered for 71 yards in just nine carries, scripted and impromptu, while Mercer Timmis ranks second in CFL rushing after churning up 133 yards in Edmonton.
In both Alberta games, the Ticats’ defence surrendered some big plays, then tightened. But one of their emerging traits is a nasty physicality that even shows in practice. That could help incite a fan base raised on anti-visitor truculence.
“The crowd responds to that mentality on defence,” says receiver Luke Tasker, who’s off to a great start. “The all-black jerseys and a tough defence is kind of the nature of the city, right?”
No one can accurately pinpoint why home-field advantage has so clearly drifted away, but it revolves largely around the team not being good enough.
The Ticats opened Tim Hortons Field as a team on the way to its second straight Grey Cup appearance, but home superiority was never the same after mid-September, 2015 when Zach Collaros, enjoying a season for the ages, was injured.
Since, and including, that game, despite winning the 2015 semi-final against the Argos, the Ticats have been a less than mediocre 7-and-17 at home.
It took them nearly a year to lose a game at Tim Hortons Field after it opened. Then it took them nearly a year to win one after beating Montreal in mid-September 2016.
“In the times when we were really struggling, we had to get some things figured out offensively and defensively, all around,” Tasker says. “You can’t rely on home-field advantage to fix problems like that.
“I think this is a team where we can see home field advantage again. We start having success early in games, it will become really uncomfortable to play against us here.”
That progression has to begin Friday. They did their job in Alberta, now it’s time to start doing their job in Hamilton.
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