Hamilton football at all levels on Canadian stage

It could not have been scripted any better: Football in Hamilton was represented well in 2011 with two of its three major teams making it to national championship in their respective divisions.

There are only three football national crowns in Canada: The Grey Cup, the Vanier Cup, and the Canadian Bowl. Hamilton was represented in the Vanier Cup (McMaster Marauders at the University level) and the Canadian Bowl (Hamilton Hurricanes at the Junior level). The Hamilton Tiger-Cats fell just one win short of playing in the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were East Division finalists after dominating the reigning Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes on the road in the Eastern semi-final. A game that had more emotional meaning to it for the Tiger-Cat players than the fans could see on the television. It was not only a win for the Hamilton club, but also a special win for hometown boy Jake Rayner, who was fighting a battle against cancer. The Tiger-Cats pulled off the victory in overtime to advance to the East Division final against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and their tough defense. In conditions that can only be described as ridiculous in terms of cold and snow, the Tiger-Cats took to the field at Canad Inns Stadium with a trip to the 99th Grey Cup on the line.

After a disappointing performance compared to that of the previous week, the Tiger-Cats were eliminated from the playoffs by the Blue Bombers by a score of 19-3, dashing their dreams of playing in the Grey Cup for the first time since 1999, the last year the club won the Cup.

It was an up-and-down season for the Tabbies who finished with an 8-10 record thanks to a strong receiving game, a solid running attack, and great defensive play from a number of players. The Ticats had a pretty good season and represented Hamilton very well in the playoffs, giving fans hope that the team can build off of its success and go all the way in 2012.

Building off team success, it seems, is what the Hamilton Hurricanes do best.

A very successful 2010 season saw the club capture the Ontario Football Conference title with a last minute win over the visiting Ottawa Sooners. The Hurricanes advanced to the Intergold Cup, but lost a tough game to the Vancouver Island Raiders. The ’Canes entered the 2011 season with the goal of hosting the Canadian Junior Football League’s Canadian Bowl championship on their minds.

Hamilton Hurricanes hosted the Saskatoon Hilltops at the Canadian Bowl, featuring the best in Junior football. (Photo: Ron Bernardo)

The one thing that head coach Jason Hayes wanted from the beginning was not to go 0-1 to start the 2011 campaign. It was a trend that followed the Hurricanes every season since their return in 2008. That goal was quickly met when the Hurricanes opened the season with home-and-home games against the Burlington Braves, which amounted to two convincing wins and a quick 2-0 record.

That record would climb each and every week thereafter with wins against the Twin Cities Predators, Ottawa Sooners, St. Leonard Cougars, London Beefeaters, and Brampton Bears. The Hurricanes outscored their opponents 233-41 en route to a 7-0 record heading into the final game of the regular season against another 7-0 team – the Windsor AKO Fratmen.

The Fratmen upset the Hurricanes, 27-21, ending the ’Canes perfect record and dropping them to 7-1 on the season. That did not sit well with the Hamilton coaching staff or players and the ensuing playoff game the following week against St. Leonard showed the displeasure. Hamilton handled St. Leonard easily, 42-3, advancing the ’Canes to the Ontario Football Conference championship for the second straight year and one step closer to their goal of hosting the national final.

The team in the way of that goal; the Windsor AKO Fratmen.

Hamilton traveled to Windsor for the second time in as many weeks for the OFC final looking to exact revenge on the team that handed the ’Canes their one and only loss of the regular season. The Hurricanes were a team possessed, putting up 42 points and limiting the Fratmen to six points on the day to capture their second consecutive OFC crown and the right to host the Canadian Bowl.

The Hurricanes had accomplished their first objective, hosts for the National Championship. Now they had to complete the task and win the Canadian Bowl on their own field. Their competition; a strong Saskatoon Hilltops team which won the Bowl in 2010.

The Hurricanes battled hard against the Hilltops, but in the end were unable to secure a victory to bring the National title back to Hamilton for the first time since 1972.

It was a great season for the Hurricanes who represented Hamilton well on the national stage of junior level football in Canada.

In writing this article, it is interesting to see the links between junior football, university football, and professional football in Hamilton forming. One of those links is a special one between the Hamilton Hurricanes and McMaster in current Marauder linebacker and Hurricane alumni, Aram Eisho.

Aram Eisho helped lead the Hurricanes to the 2010 OFC championship by physical play on defense and now he has helped lead the Marauders to their national showcase for university football in Canada, the Vanier Cup, in 2011.

Who would have thought that the exhibition game on Aug. 28 between the Marauders and Laval’s Rouge et Or was a foreshadow of what was to come during Vanier Cup weekend three months later.

The Marauders won seven of their eight regular season games, with their only loss coming at the hands of the Western Mustangs in Week Two. One could say that the one loss early on gave Mac the spark they needed to win their remaining six games of the regular season in convincing fashion.

McMaster knocks off Queen's on their way to the Vanier Cup (Photo: Ron Bernardo)

McMaster moved in to Ontario University Athletics playoffs as the No. 2 seed. They were able to knock off Queens in the OUA semi-final to advance to the championship against Western for the Yates Cup. McMaster put on a show in the title game and atoned for their earlier loss to the Mustangs by outscoring Western 41-19.

A victory in the OUA championship advanced the Marauders to the Uteck Bowl to face a tough Acadia squad. Once again, the Marauders proved to the country that they were for real and would not let anything stand in their way of clinching a berth in the Vanier Cup. A 45-21 victory over Acadia met that objective.

The Marauders were one win away from capturing their first-ever Vanier Cup, but first had to defeat the reigning national champion, Laval.

The 2011 Vanier Cup was one of the best intercollegiate football games this country has ever seen. Mac led 23-0 at half time, causing Hamiltonians to think the game was over and that Mac would beat Laval handily.

That was at half time. There were still 30 minutes of football to be played.

Laval came out strong in the second half and began to put points on the board in rapid succession, eventually tying the game and forcing it into overtime. Now, what categorizes this game as the “best ever” was that not only did it go into overtime, but it went into double overtime and McMaster’s season came down to the foot of kicker Tyler Crapigna. With the score tied at 38, McMaster set up for the game-winning field goal. Crapigna split the goalposts and cleared the Marauder’s sideline as the team rushed the field in celebration of the school’s first-ever Vanier Cup.

Football in Hamilton is alive and well with 2011 being one of the most successful years for the sport. The Hurricanes have won back-to-back provincial titles and hosted the Canadian Bowl, McMaster captured its first-ever Vanier Cup title, and the Tiger-Cats continue to grow on the field and attract major talent that will one day help bring a Grey Cup title back to the Steel City.

Hamilton football has been represented well on the national stage this year and one can only hope that it continues its success in 2012.