HAMILTON - A lot has changed for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Toronto Argonauts over the off-season, but at least one aspect of Wednesday’s rendition of the Battle of Ontario should be familiar to CFL fans.
Pivots Henry Burris and Ricky Ray are set to don their new colours for the first time as they renew an old rivalry at Ivor Wynne Stadium for the CFL’s pre-season opener, in a battle that fans have become used to – kind of.
Ray and Burris have featured prominently in the Battle of Alberta since 2005, when Burris re-joined the Calgary Stampeders for a second stint and the two quarterbacks dueled back and forth in the West Division.
But no later than a month after the Argos acquired Ray from the Eskimos, the Ticats completed a long-anticipated swap for Burris.
Add in a high volume of new coaches for both teams and one of the league’s top receivers, Andy Fantuz, and it would seem like the Hamilton-Toronto rivalry of the last several years is barely even recognizable. But while excitement mounts with new faces, fans will likely have to wait until the first regular season meeting – still a month away – for the rivalry to take full flight.
Tiger-Cats Head Coach George Cortez knows well that with position battles ongoing for both teams, this meeting will be about evaluating.
"It’s like any game in that we want to win the game, but we also want the players to be in the best position that they can be in to show us what they can do,” said Cortez told Ticats.ca. “It’s still an evaluative program. We haven’t picked the team yet, and there’s competition at positions.”
One area where competition will be scarce is at quarterback, which in the past was riddled with competition between former starter Kevin Glenn and incumbent backup Quinton Porter. Burris is expected to bring the kind of veteran savvy and stability to the position that only comes with 12 years of CFL experience.
And while he’s excited to get to work with his new team, Burris realizes that pre-season is a good time to get in sync with his offence, but also that he needs to avoid unnecessary risks.
“In the pre-season you want to go out there and do what you can to improve yourself within the offence – get better timing and chemistry – but to also get better at some things you might not be as good at in practice,” the veteran quarterback told Ticats.ca. “But there’s no sense in trying to run over two guys to get an extra yard for a first down in this situation. Let’s be smart, get down and save yourself because the game that really counts is on June 29th when Saskatchewan rolls into town.”
Most of Hamilton’s receivers return from last season, but leading the group will be Fantuz, who earned a reputation in Riderville as one of the league’s top Canadian receivers. At six-foot-four and 220 lbs., the Western Mustangs alum adds some much-needed size and grit to the Ticats receiving corps.
One player who won’t play on Wednesday but should expect to be a key contributor on Hamilton’s offence this year wasn’t even in camp a week ago. After what appears to be a season-ending injury to prized free agent running back Martell Mallett, who was the CFL’s top rookie with B.C. in 2009 with over 1,240 rushing yards, the Ticats brought Avon Cobourne back into the mix just months after become an off-season cap casualty.
Despite the key additions on offence, perhaps the player most excited for Wednesday’s pre-season tilt is on the other side of the ball. Linebacker Kevin Eiben will face his former team for the first time after spending 11 years with the Argos and being named an East Division All-Star five times.
“I tell everyone that it’ll be nice running into Ivor Wynne and not getting booed,” Eiben told Ticats.ca. “It’s nice to be in the right colours in Ivor Wynne.”
Still, Eiben says he’ll be treating his pre-season debut like any other game, and that the focus will be on getting ready for the regular season.
“Now it’s the real thing. The lights are on and all of Canada gets the chance to see you. You’ve got the cameras going and this is when you need to step up and be professional,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure that you’re in the right position for the coaches, make sure that you’re doing your job so that the other 11 guys can do their own, and just enjoy it.”
The Argonauts view Wednesday’s matchup in a similar light, as Ricky Ray will head under centre to lead first-year Head Coach Scott Milanovich’s newly-installed offensive system.
The Argos’ offence returns with many familiar faces, including one of the league’s perennial top rushers in Cory Boyd along with rising stars Andre Durie and Chad Owens.
Ray isn’t the only quarterback expected to make his Double Blue debut on Wednesday, as free agent signing Jarious Jackson joins the Boatmen after spending seven years with the BC Lions.
Still, while everyone’s talking about how Toronto’s new quarterbacks will fit in, the biggest adjustment may come on the offensive line, where major voids are left by the departure of Dominic Picard (Saskatchewan), Taylor Robertson (retirement), and Rob Murphy (retirement).
With several bodies in a heated battle for starting positions, shoring up that part of their offence will be the key to finding success. The Argos were among the league’s worst in giving up quarterback sacks last season with 40, and with the majority of starters not returning to action this season, it’ll be a major challenge to improve in that area.
Wayne Smith, who is slated to protect Ray’s blindside, is one of six non-imports who should figure significantly into the equation, along with Andrew Jones, Marc Parenteau, Joe Eppele, Jeff Keeping, and Chris Van Zeyl.
There will also be key battles on the defensive side of the ball through pre-season, with the biggest changes coming in the Argos’ secondary after the departure of perennial all-star Byron Parker and leading tackler Lin-J Shell to the BC Lions.
Youngsters Evan McCollough and Sean Smalls will have a greater responsibility this season, along with veteran Jordan Younger, who returns to the secondary after spending time as a linebacker last year.
Kickoff is at 7:00 pm ET tonight and can be seen on TSN. Hamilton wraps up its pre-season slate on June 20 in Winnipeg to face the Blue Bombers, while the Argonauts will return home to face the Montreal Alouettes on June 19.