HAMILTON - There were piles of rebar, lumber, scaffolding, pipes. There were portable toilets in different colours, tucked away behind a row of delivery trucks. The biggest upper deck was empty. Why was it empty? “Well, look up there, and you can see the railings are made of wood right now,” said one Hamilton Tiger-Cats employee. “Kind of a huge hazard.”
On Monday, Tim Hortons Field was the CFL’s Sochi: not quite finished, but finished enough. The Labour Day Classic was a pretty awful game, truth be told. But it was a game, in front of 18,135 people. That wasn’t sure to happen until Sunday evening, when the city granted a one-day occupancy permit, and Tiger-Cats staffers stayed late into the night making sure the bathrooms had toilet paper.
“It’s like Christmas, times 10,” said Hamilton owner Bob Young, wearing steel-toed boots with his tailored suit. “It’s been an adventure.”
That it has. Hamilton caught a once-in-a-lifetime stadium rocket in the Pan Am Games, so nobody could complain. The last day before the game was spent frantically closing off parts of the stadium that were dangerous or non-functional — an elevator here, a storage area there, the upper deck.
The closest thing to a backup plan was a Tuesday night game in Toronto, and everybody knew how awful that would be. You can still see the steel mills and the golden-spired churches and the brick houses that surrounded old Ivor Wynne, and you still know where you are when you come here.
Toronto likes to look down on Hamilton. But tiny, modest, blue-collar, down-the-road Hamilton got it done, and Tim Hortons Field will only get better.
Toronto is the poorer franchise here, now. As one Tiger-Cats player put it, “other teams won’t be able to threaten guys with a trade to the Hammer.”
As for the game, Hamilton won 13-12 to move to 2-6, Toronto fell to 3-7, and nobody fell down an open elevator shaft. Someone may one day burn down the CFL’s East Division for the insurance money, but in Hamilton it was a good day.
Young runs this team in honour of his younger brother Michael, a diehard fan who died of cancer in 2002, and says, “From when I first got into it, Michael and I, our goal was less about winning Grey Cups . . . and more about getting our favourite team to financial stability.
“Between the new television and this stadium, we will be there for the first time in 45 years. You talk to my uncle Bill, who served on the board of directors, he says they didn’t make any money in the 1960s. But I think they did.”
The Argonauts, meanwhile, haven’t made money for decades and could only look on in envy, just like they did when Ottawa’s new stadium opened. Toronto has a new practice facility which is still being completed at Downsview, after practising in four different venues this season. That will help. It’s half a home.
But they don’t have a stadium, and that’s the big difference. Rogers Centre is going to release the Argos into the wild at the end of the 2017 season. Argonauts owner David Braley missed a window to sell the team to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment earlier this year, which would have gotten the Argos into BMO Field.
Braley thought the sale was happening earlier this year, according to one source, and it paralyzed Argonauts operations. Now, the BMO plan is $10 million short, and somebody’s going to have to bridge the gap.
If it’s still possible, that is. MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, the big driver of a deal for the Argos, is heading out the door, and nobody knows what that means yet. The MLSE purchase of the Argonauts was believed to be part of a plan to bring the NFL to Toronto, and it seems to be dead, or dying.
The Argonauts are drifting in a cloud of uncertainty, and Labour Day only helped drive it home. According to one official, the Argonauts have about six months to get a deal — a real deal, signed and funded, wheels in motion — for a new stadium. After that, nobody has a solution.
“It reminds me a lot of Ottawa — it’s an intimate little stadium, and I think it fits the CFL perfectly,” said Argonauts coach Scott Milanovich. “That’s the big talk, right? Everybody says that if we were in BMO Field that we’d have a little bit of this for ourselves, and we would certainly like that.”
“Definitely, that would help,” said Ricky Ray. “With our situation, trying to figure out where we can get a better place to play, where we can get the fans excited, have a great atmosphere for a football game . . . (Rogers Centre) is just tough on the team. It would be great to have a stadium like this.”
“That is the number one priority the CFL has,” said Young.
Braley has been an incredible steward for this league. He is a brilliant businessman. He told me last year he didn’t intend to lose money on the sales of either the Argos or the B.C. Lions.
But the future is coming fast. Nobody seems to love the Argos right now, but somebody’s going to have to find a way to save them. And he’s the only man in the country who can.