The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will kick off their 2023 regular season schedule with a trip to Winnipeg to take on the three-time reigning West Division champion Blue Bombers.
The last time these two teams met on opening weekend was in 2021, with Jeremiah Masoli as the Tabbies’ starting quarterback and Dane Evans as the backup, but much has changed in Hamilton since then. Both Masoli and Evans are now playing elsewhere and it will be two-time Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell leading the Tiger-Cats’ offence into Friday’s clash with the Bombers.
“You want to challenge a team, start off with the two teams that were in the Grey Cup in their house,” Mitchell told the Hamilton media last week.
After their Week 1 clash with the Bombers, the Tiger-Cats will head to Toronto to play the defending Grey Cup champion Argonauts in Week 2. The Boatmen took three of four meetings from the Tabbies last season, including winning on Labour Day for the first time in 10 years.
With Mitchell in the fold, the Ticats are hoping the slow starts that have plagued them for nearly two decades will be a thing of the past. Hamilton has just three season-opening victories since Bob Young purchased the team in 2003 and the franchise has begun a season with consecutive losses 11 times over that span.
“You want to find out who you are as a team, we’ll find out here pretty quick,” Mitchell stated.
Mitchell has not exactly been a hot starter either, despite his reputation as one of the league’s all-time great winners. In his seven seasons as Calgary’s starter, Mitchell has begun a season with consecutive wins just three times.
“You play football to play the game. (I’m) excited to get in there,” Mitchell said about finally getting to play again.
The six-foot-two, 199-pound gunslinger was acquired by the Ticats last November and signed a three-year extension with the franchise in January after being deemed expendable by his old club.
While the hope within the organization is that Mitchell can be the person to lead the team to their first championship this millennium, starting against the two Grey Cup participants from a season ago provides a difficult challenge.
Mitchell had success early in his career against the Bombers, winning 10 of his first 12 games against them. However, he has tasted victory just twice in his last eight contests against the reigning kings of the West.
He has maintained a level of success against the Argos though, having lost just twice to his newest arch-rival in 14 career meetings.
The Katy, Texas native was a model of health his first five seasons as the starter in Calgary, playing in 84 of 90 regular season games with most of his missed time coming due to the Stampeders opting to rest him heading into the postseason.
Mitchell’s body began to break down on him beginning in the 2019 season when he missed significant time for the first time in his career. Those injuries carried over in 2021 and eventually helped lead to his departure after last season.
Now 33 years old, the quarterback is focused on staying as healthy in his new uniform as he was to start his career.
“When I came into the league, it was the year that (Kevin) Glenn, (Travis) Lulay, Ricky Ray and (Anthony) Calvillo all went down. So in my mind, I was like if I want to separate myself, the only goal I wrote down was play all 18 games in 2014,” Mitchell recalled.
“For the quarterback, it’s always that you’re avoiding that big shot, that blind-side hit, the twist-up tackle, somebody gets your knee in the pocket. Health-wise, it’s being smart, getting the ball out, knowing (where) your hots are, where your outlets are and just taking care of the football. That means you’re going to be weak-minded in certain situations. Get down maybe before you’re supposed to, take care of your body, throw the ball out of bounds at times. But because it’s a long season — 23 games long — if you haven’t done this, you don’t understand what it does, the toll it takes on your body.”
The Ticats’ march to a championship will rely heavily on Mitchell staying healthy. Going up against a ferocious defence in Week 1 will be as good a test as any to start the season.