There are five Ws and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats can answer four of them.
They know what they are, and where they are, given that it’s in the name. They also have a good idea of when, given the CFL 2016 season starts Thursday in Toronto. The “why” is also self-explanatory: to win their first Grey Cup since 1999 after several near-misses and varying degrees of heartbreak.
But who they are? That’s a little tougher to answer.
The Ticats began last season with an established identity. They were a veteran team with 22 returning starters on offence and defence, the exact same coaching staff and they were coming off back-to-back Grey Cup losses. Zach Collaros was their quarterback, linebacker Simoni Lawrence was the heart of their defence. With so much continuity, the theme was obvious: unfinished business. There were even T-shirts.
But the 2016 campaign begins with a startling number of unknowns, especially by comparison.
First, there has been an exceptional amount of roster turnover: of the 46 players on the game day roster for last November’s East Final in Ottawa, 17 are no longer with the club, and 11 of 24 starters — plus all-star kicker Justin Medlock — will be different. Offensive coordinator Tommy Condell and line coach Allen Rudolph are both gone, too.
Collaros begins the season on the sidelines, still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last September. The Ticats cycled through three starting pivots after he went down, finally settling on Jeremiah Masoli, who gets the start week one against Toronto.
How will he fare? It’s hard to be sure.
On defence, Lawrence is back, but he’s surrounded by new faces ranging from the familiar — veteran defensive end John Chick and repatriated former Ticat Geoff Tisdale — to the brand new: Middle linebacker Larry Dean gets his first career CFL start on Thursday.
Here’s what we do know: It’s still the Argonauts against the Tiger-Cats, a fierce and long-standing rivalry that has, recently at least, gone largely in the Ticats’ favour — especially when it’s mattered most. Hamilton went 4-0 against Toronto in 2015 and ushered them out of the post-season two of the last three years (claimed the last two Labour Day Classics along the way.)
“This team is very different and there’s been a lot of turnover on their team, too. But it’s still the black against the blue and we’ve had some success against them in big games,” says Ticats receiver Luke Tasker. “So I have a little bit of confidence in our rivalry against them, yeah.”
The animosity has a little extra spice to it this year, in large part because some key players on both sides swapped jerseys. Ex-Ticats defensive tackle Bryan Hall has spent much of the off-season trolling his former fan-base on Twitter — and threatening to choke out his old head coach — while Argo icon Chad Owens came to Hamilton after being spurned by the team that made him famous.
Owens won’t say it, but it’s not hard to read between the lines — he wants this one bad.
Putting all the juicy story lines aside, this game could have some sneaky-important implications as well. These teams play each other three times in 2016 — including twice at BMO Field — and the winner of the season series could have a crucial advantage in the standings come playoff time. Thinking about November in June is tough — as Canadians, we’re conditioned against it — but this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill opener.
And, if nothing else, we’ll start to get the answer as to the true nature of the 2016 Ticats as this year’s team will, for better or worse, finally begin to reveal itself.
“There’s nothing wrong with having to find a little bit of your identity. But confidence-wise and skill-wise, I think we’ve got all of that already,” Tasker said. “We know there’s the talent in the room to be championships.
“And that’s a pretty good place to start.”
Hamilton Tiger-Cats (0-0) at Toronto Argonauts (0-0)
BMO Field, Toronto
Thursday, July 23
Game time: 8 p.m. (kickoff has been moved back to accommodate pre-game ceremonies)
TV: TSN Radio: TSN 1150
The storyline for Toronto: After years as the neglected tenants in the cavernous confines of the Rogers Centre, the Argonauts are moving to the renovated BMO Field and making it their permanent home. The brand is in dire need of rejuvenation and while the road is long, the early returns are promising. Speaking of returns, quarterback Ricky Ray is fully healthy after being limited to just nine games and two starts last season.
Key injuries: Defensive back A.J. Jefferson (18 starts in 2015), receiver Diontae Spencer (1,146 combined yards last season), and Canadian defensive tackle Brian Bulcke, a former Ticat still recovering from a knee injury suffered last season, are the notable injuries for Toronto. There’s some inexperience on the field side of the Argo secondary.
Five funky Toronto stats:
1. Ray will be making regular season start No. 192 on Thursday, moving him past Danny McManus for No. 5 on the CFL all-time list. His Ticat counterpart Jeremiah Masoli will be starting game No. 2 (not including two in the post-season.)
2. The Argonauts have played more regular season games than any other CFL team, and Thursday’s game will be 1,304 since 1907. Their all-time record is 621-656-26.
3. The Argos have faced the Ticats 224 times since 1950, with Hamilton holding a 129 to 93 advantage, with two ties.
4. Toronto’s roster features 28 players who will entering their first or second CFL season, representing 51 per cent of the total. That’s the highest percentage in the league where the average is just 37 per cent.
5. With the 2016 opener set for BMO Field, the venue will be permanent home stadium No. 6 in franchise history. The others: Varsity Field-Stadium (1907), Rosedale Field (1908), Scarborough Beach Park (1922), Exhibition Stadium (1959), and SkyDome-Rogers Centre (1988).
The storyline for Hamilton: The Ticats begin the season without starting quarterback Zach Collaros as he recovers from the torn ACL suffered last September. Jeremiah Masoli, who led the team to a thrilling playoff win over Toronto last season, gets the start. After a stretch of remarkable continuity on the field and in the coaching ranks, the Ticats have undergone significant change this off-season.
Key injuries: Collaros was put on the six-game injured list on Wednesday and all-star defensive tackle Ted Laurent is also out with a lower body injury and the team is also without a Canadian backup running back.
Five funky Hamilton stats:
1. Hamilton starts 2016 with the largest roster in the CFL at 62 players, including nine players on the six-game injured list.
2. After winning 10 games last season, the Ticats will be trying to reach double-digits in consecutive seasons for the first time since back in 1999. They’ve done it just once since 1965.
3. The Tiger-Cats have made the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, a run that was last matched from 1995 to 2001. They can make it 7 out of 8 years for the first time since making it in every year from 1978 to 1989.
4. The Ticats have finished second in passing yards every year under head coach Kent Austin (2013 to 2015.)
5. Ticats finished tops in the CFL with a plus-14 turnover ratio last season. They also scored eight defensive touchdowns, best in the league.
TSN play-by-play: Chris Cuthbert and Glen Suitor.
Referee: Al Bradbury
Weather: Sunny, 20 degrees, 5 km/h winds, zero chance of rain. Just like the Dome.