Two months. That is approximately how long the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will have between home games this season. The team played in front of their home crowd this past Monday, a 37-10 win over the Ottawa RedBlacks in preseason action, and will not get the chance to do so again until an August 3 matchup with the Toronto Argonauts.
That means that if the Hamilton Tiger-Cats want to get off to a winning start this season, they will have to do something they have not done well over the last decade and a half: win on the road.
Being able to win on opposing turf separates the good teams from the great teams. The defending Grey Cup champion Calgary Stampeders went an incredible 8-1 on the road last season en route to a 15-3 regular season record. Last year, no other team won more than five road games and the entire East Division combined for just seven victories away from home.
Since Hamilton’s last Grey Cup triumph in 1999, the team has finished above .500 on the road just once, going 5-4 in 2004. In that same time span, they have gone either 1-8 or 0-9 an astounding six times, mostly recently going 1-8 in 2012. Winning on the road is not easy, but those win totals are tragically low even for a team that spent close to half a decade as the league’s doormat.
Winning on the road is not the only impediment to a strong start. The Ticats also have the dubious distinction of having not started a season at 1-0 since 2004, which for those keeping tally at home is 10 straight years and counting. While many CFL observers like to point out that the season does not really get started until Labour Day, it is well beyond time for the Ticats to start a season strong. We know they can finish strong — 8-3 after a 1-6 start last season and 9-4 after a 1-4 start in 2013 — so now is the time for the team to start the season well and use the latter half of the season to pull away from the rest of the league.
But if they are to do that, they will have to get over some hurdles that have dogged them for years. The Ticats start the season on the road mostly in places where they have had very little success over the years. They start the season in Calgary, where they have not won since 2004. After the following week’s game in Winnipeg, where the team has had a fair amount of success recently, they head to Montreal, where they have failed to win a regular season game since 2002, and then Saskatchewan, where they have won just once since 2000. If history holds, the Ticats will be lucky to end the first month of the season at 1-3, but if the two-time East Division champions want to be taken seriously and viewed as one of the league’s top-tier teams, they will need to find a way to escape a couple of those places with wins. While the Ticats have proven over the last two years that they can dig themselves out of a hole, if they have a record at or above .500 by the time they take on the Argos on that August holiday Monday, they could be on their way to a 12- 13-, or 14-win season.
A lot of good has come over the past two seasons, and the success Kent Austin and his staff have attained has not been taken for granted. But if the Ticats want to be mentioned among the league’s elite teams, they will need to make like Mad Max or Hawk and Animal (depending on your pop cultural leanings) and finally become road warriors.