A Beautiful Night for Football – In Toronto (Part II)
Part one of this series can be found on my blog at http://lawrencethomas.blogspot.com)
Football in Canada took on a new meaning for me this past Thursday, as for the first time, my game day experience was not set amongst the grounds of the place where I fell in love with Canadian football.
Ivor Wynne Stadium is very special to me. It was one of the spaces our family bonded growing up, and a place we still create fond memories together to this day.
In high school, I had the pleasure of playing under the lights at IWS a handful of times. Our team lost a heartbreaker under a rain filled sky versus our arch nemesis, the Glendale Bears, my junior year The very next fall however, our Barons team made the best of clear evening skies, and paid back our cross town rivals.
Playing hockey all my life, I knew very well how amazing it was to win a championship game (or even how painful loosing those big games could be), but there was something special about celebrating such a victory at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
I have always been skeptical about what the atmosphere would be like in a dome. There was just something not right about watching Winnipeg and Saskatchewan playing indoors, in a country where many of the fondest memories Canadian football fans share, are of mud bowls, or white outs – touques and mittens and huddling together to stay warm.
Out of the offers I received from the desperate Facebook post I threw out last week (minutes before game time - looking for anyone interested in attending the season opener in Hamilton), one of those was to make the trip to Toronto for the Argos opener against the Cats.
I hadn’t thought of making the trip to the big city. I had never been to a football game outside of Hamilton, so immediately I was intrigued about the idea of experiencing football beyond these city limits. Especially in light of the worry amongst Canadian’s over the NFL testing the waters north of the border, and the inevitable fate of the league should Toronto venture into that market.
Bob Young had saved our franchise from an impending death, and now suddenly it was the league that was under pressure. If there was ever a time to showcase what was special about this pastime, it was now. What a better way, than to see how other fans experienced the only game that is truly Canadian.
So, early last week, I called up my friend (whom I hadn’t seen in a few years), and we starting making plans to meet in Toronto on game day.
The morning of the Argos season opener didn’t look too promising. Dark skies, a cool breeze, a light drizzle. A closed Dome surely wouldn’t deter many game goers in Toronto, but I had my heart set on experiencing football under an open Toronto sky. I know I didn’t enjoy baseball indoors and after watching the Tiger-Cats play under all elements imaginable over the years, I had no desire to sit with a big concrete umbrella over my head. Certain sports were just meant to be played outside.
As the day progressed, the skies opened up, the temperatures continued to rise, and the prospect of football in the sun was looking good.
4:30 came fast, which was good as I was still recovering from an extra long weekend. I shutdown my laptop, threw on my Ti-Cat hat, jumped on the bus, and made it to the train station in plenty of time.
There weren’t a lot of people on the train when I first boarded, but there were a few football fans behind me. “Argooos…? was the first thing I heard as I stepped onto the upper deck. If you have ever witnessed a game in Hamilton vs. the Argonauts, you know what I said quietly to myself in response.
I was truly looking forward to my first Tiger-Cat game outside of Hamilton. Having lived in the steel city my entire life, I understood and appreciated the depths of this Queen Elizabeth Way rivalry. Yes, the Boatmen won the east division last year and the Tabbies would like to forget theirs, but no matter the standings, no matter the importance of the game, they are still Toronto – they are still the enemy.
The rail route between Toronto and Hamilton is quite captivating at many points along the way. My favorite spots are the Cootes Paradise and Burlington Bay lookouts. The route to that night’s game was certainly a little further than my usual 10 minute walk to Ivor Wynne, but the experience quickly becoming special in its own way.
As we pushed our way towards Toronto, more and more fans boarded the train - dawning mostly Argo colors. I had to remind myself a few times, that we were entering hostile territory. I was so used to having home field advantage.
A gentleman and his grandson board the train about half way to the game. “Who are you guys cheering for?? I inquire. “Toronto,? smiles the grandfather as he looks up at my hat. Our foe.
Our train car continue to fill with Argo fans as it made it’s many scheduled stops along the way. The grandfather shares a little history and facts with his grandson as we enjoy the scenery under the blue summer skies outside our window. “This is where they wash the trains,? I overhear. I find myself looking out the window to see for myself. Neat. I didn’t know that. Watching them bond, I suddenly imagine sharing a similar football experience with my children one day.
As the train doors burst open at Union Station, I watched as a sea of blue and white crowded the narrow platform. “Argooos,? a couple of brave black and gold wearing fans chant. A little taste of home.
I had found out from the online forums on Ticats.ca, that there was a Tailgate party on Bremnar Ave, so I ventured through the ACC and made my way west toward the Rogers Centre. My friend wasn’t going to arrive from Hamilton until almost game time, so I decided to take in as much of the festivities as I could. I was usually literally running to the games after work, so I had forgotten how nice it was to arrive early and enjoy the entire game day experience.
I arrived at the stadium, purchased our tickets, and then suddenly I noticed a crowd of fans making their way across Bremnar – looked like a Tailgate party to me.
I got my wristband and scrounged for some change to buy a drink – realizing too late that I had spent all but a couple toonies and a loonie purchasing our tickets, and there was no bank machine in site.
It was a little different than the gatherings on the fields of the old Scott Park high school in Hamilton, or at Brian Timmins Stadium adjoining Ivor Wynne, but it was a good different. There was a lot going on, plenty to keep the fans entertained, and with an hour to go until game time, the tailgaters were flowing through the zone quite steadily.
About 20 minutes before game time, I make my way towards our gate, and catch a little of the band while I wait for my friend to arrive. I end up chatting up a gentleman waiting for his son to join him. It was actually his first game as well.
My phone rang at about 5 minutes after 7, and I see my friend rounding the corner. We enter the stadium, load up on some dinner, grab our drinks, and make our way to our seats.
We have a great second level view, just to the left of the Jumbotron. I quickly notice that there is very little black and gold support in this section. I take a good look around - breathing in the energy. It was a new feeling – a good feeling.
The upper bowl was closed off, covered instead with a wall of much larger than life prints of Argo greats. It actually looked quite sharp.
I have always loved Skydome (now the Rogers Centre). It was an impressive structure from the day it opened, and although it is showing its age a little, I am still amazed each time I am in its presence. If those walls could talk.
I had been there for concerts and many Jays games - including the first every World Series game in Canada. I even seen the Raptors play there (the first and only basketball game I have attended), before they moved over to the ACC. I love the atmosphere of the building, but I will admit I had been skeptical about football in a dome.
The Argos score first, and suddenly I am left wondering if cheesy 50’s style jingles are a theme around the CFL? “Pull together fight the foe foe foe.? It grows on me as the game progresses. Thankfully it didn’t have much of a chance to cultivate in my memory. Maybe we should bring back “Tiger-Cat’s are gonna maul ya.? I can’t even find that one in a Google search?
The fans, graphics, lights and sounds all exploded from the limits of the stadium after the Argos scored their first field goal. I couldn’t imagine how loud this place would be if they scored a touchdown? I suddenly miss the cannon that used to go off after a score at Ivor Wynne. I could tell from my front porch if I couldn’t make it to a game, if the Cats scored or not. Cheers can mean any number of things. Booms and crashes and music pounding into the soul, those sounds could only mean SCORE!
The Cats tally early into the second quarter and silence the capacity crowd, and they didn’t look back from there. They would have two touchdowns to their credit by halftime, and a two score lead. Argo’s faithful were in shock.
We chatted with the fans next to us throughout the game, rubbing it in a little each time the Cats scored. We even threw in a few Oskee wee wee’s to get a little further under their skin. All in good fun. They were good sports. I think they were giving us the benefit of the doubt considering it had been awhile since the Cats beat the Argos – not including pre-season.
We wander about the dome at half-time. We didn’t spot any end zone parties, but suddenly I realized that I was too busy looking to find in Toronto, what I loved about football back home, and forgetting that this experience was supposed to be about discovering what was special - what was different, about football outside of Hamilton.
The second half, much to the chagrin of the Argos faithful, was all Hamilton. It was the best game I had seen our Cat’s play in a very long time - A great all around team effort. Of course, my highlight was seeing Lumsden tearing up that gridiron again. It was one of the many things missing from our home opener a week prior. I could watch our local boy run the ball all game.
As the 4th quarter progressed, reminisce of the previous week’s game in Hamilton, the fans started to pile out in droves. My friend and I however, took in every last second of the evening. I have always been one of those people who never liked it when a good thing came to an end - taking in every aspect, every second, of the moments that were dear to my heart.
We finally made our way onto the crowded concourse level, and my friend asks if I am in any hurry to leave. Our bus back to Hamilton wasn’t due to depart Toronto until 11pm, so I had no particular place to go.
We walked around the stadium and checked out the various vantage points from around the field. There wasn’t really a bad seat in the house. Just before we were about to make our exit, we noticed fans lining up to get on the field. “Do you want to?, my friend inquires?
I had been on the field once on Jr. Jays day, when the kids under 14 get to run the bases after the game, but that was baseball. This was football. “Sure?, I reply.
We made our way onto the grass-like turf, and the clock started counting down to indicate how much time we had to take in the field level experience. A few Argos players were signing autographs, young kids with Blue Thunder calendars challenged their friends to get all the cheerleaders autographs. Fans were lying on the Argo’s logo at centre field getting their pictures taken. I took a similar photo of one Argo fan for him.
I stopped for a few moments while my friend took out his camera phone and snapped a couple of shots off to preserve this memory, to take a good look around and reflect on the evenings festivities. In the end, I came to the conclusion that these fans in double blue, were no different than the ones I had known all my life in Hamilton. The families and friends were the same - just different colors.
The final seconds of the fifth quarter wind down. I noticed Pinball Clemens greeting the fans and talking with the media as we started to make our way off the field. I paused for a few minutes to watch him interact with the crowd around him. A true gentleman. A fans man. A storytellers final image of what was a very memorable night in Toronto.