On Dec. 12, the Grey Cup returns to Steeltown for the first time in a quarter-century. But Hamilton has a rich Grey Cup history dating back for more than a hundred years.
The current iteration of the Tiger-Cats have only been around since 1950, with the merger of the Hamilton Tigers of the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) and the Hamilton Wildcats of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU).
The Tigers were the more established of the two teams, having been around since the late 1800s, with the Wildcats only being established during the Second World War. However, neither of these two teams were the first Hamilton team to capture Lord Grey’s trophy.
The Alerts were established in 1911 and only lasted for two seasons, but defeated the Toronto Argonauts in the 1912 Grey Cup, the first for the city, which was played in Hamilton at the Hamilton Amateur Athletic Association (HAAA) Grounds.
They gave way to the Hamilton Rowing Club, which operated from 1913-1915 before both the IRFU and the ORFU suspended operations from 1916-18 because of the First World War.
The Tigers were established in 1869 and were the first to don the classic black and gold colour scheme that is still in use today. They spent much of their time in the IRFU but were founding members of both the IRFU and ORFU.
They would win five Grey Cup championships between 1913 and 1932, three of those on home turf. And two Dominion Championships, including the final Dominion title in 1908, the year before the Grey Cup was first awarded as the national championship.
In the final pre-war season in 1915, the Tigers captured the Grey Cup against the Toronto Rugby and Athletic Association at Varsity Stadium, marking the last Grey Cup game for five years.
The Second World War would be the beginning of the end for the Tigers, as much of their previous success was long gone by the mid to late 40s. Especially with the emergence of the Flying Wildcats during the war.
Hamilton Wildcats/Flying Wildcats
The Wildcats were only around for nine years and were established to fill the void left by the Tigers when they had to fold as a result of World War II. They made the Grey Cup game in back-to-back years in 1943 and 1944, winning the big prize in 1943 as the Flying Wildcats, due to the RCAF personnel that they had on their roster.
In 1948 the Wildcats made the switch from the ORFU to the IRFU, but could not replicate the success that they had in the former league and as a result, they amalgamated with the also fledgling Tigers for the 1950 season and thus the Tiger-Cats were born.
The Ti-Cats had plenty of early success, finishing first or second every year between 1950 and 1953, capping off that stretch with the 1953 Grey Cup title.
They would return to the big game in 1957, trouncing the Blue Bombers 32-7 in what was the first of five meetings between the two teams in the Grey Cup between 1957 and 1962.
Hamilton would add three more titles in 1963, 1965 and 1967.
Hamilton native Frank Cosentino played for those dominant 1960s Tiger-Cats teams, having been drafted by them with the first-overall pick in the 1960 CFL draft. He would play for his hometown team from 1960 to 1966 before being traded to Edmonton. He spent two years there before moving on to Toronto in 1969.
Cosentino appeared in five Grey Cups, winning two of them and while he never got to play in a Grey Cup at home, just playing for the team was enough of a privilege. “It’s kind of a dream come true for somebody from Hamilton,” he said.
Cosentino was elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2018 in the builder category after going on to write 18 books, three of which were on Canadian football.
Listen to more of Frank Cosentino talking about being a Hamiltonian and playing for the Ti-Cats:
Tim Horton’s Field will be just the third Hamilton venue to host Canada’s big game. The city has welcomed the Grey Cup 10 times, three times at Ivor Wynne Stadium and seven times at the old HAAA Grounds. All but one of those 10 games have featured a Hamilton team, with the exception being the 1996 “Snow Bowl” between Toronto and Edmonton.
Some interesting firsts for the Canadian game have occurred at Hamilton Grey Cup games. The first radio broadcast of the championship occurred at the 1928 game between the Tigers and the Regina Roughriders.
In that game, the Tigers shut out the Riders 30-0, ending Regina’s three-year, 17-game winning streak and would mark the first of five consecutive Grey Cup losses for the Riders.
The game in 1929 saw a rematch between Hamilton and Regina, the first time two teams to meet in consecutive Grey Cups, but also featured the first forward pass in Grey Cup history, thrown by the Riders’ Jersey Campbell.
The 1935 game was the last Grey Cup to be played at the HAAA Grounds and featured the first team west of Ontario to win the prize when the Winnipeg ‘Pegs beat the Tigers using non-Canadians on the roster, also a first for the Grey Cup.
After the Flying Wildcats lost out to Montreal at the 1944 Grey Cup, the first at Ivor Wynne, then Civic Stadium. Hamilton would not host again until 1972 marking the 60th Grey Cup, which the Ti-Cats won on the final play on a field goal from rookie kicker Ian Sunter.
It was also the last Grey Cup to be played in December until this year.
For much of the nearly 30 years between 1944 and 1972, the Grey Cup host city flip between Toronto and Vancouver, with Ottawa and Montreal thrown in there for a game each.
But why not Hamilton?
Much of the issue was the stadium. Ivor Wynne was a smaller venue, had mostly wooden or metal benches, with inadequate parking and hotel space.
“It was not a city well equipped to host a major event,” said Paul Woods, CFL and Toronto Argos historian. “I don’t think anybody looks at Hamilton as a city that would frequently host the Grey Cup because it hasn’t.”
Woods believes that the smaller markets get more Grey Cup fanfare anyways.
“Let’s be honest, it’s not a big deal at all in the big-league cities,” he said.
While the Ti-Cats have eight championships since the merger, they have also experienced plenty of heartbreak in the big game, including four Grey Cup losses in five seasons in that 1957-1962 stretch, back-back defeats in ‘84 and ‘85, and a last-second loss to the Riders in 1989.
More recently, a penalty on what probably would have been a game-winning return for a touchdown cost the Ti-Cats the 2014 title, just a year after they got stomped by the Riders in Regina.
Out of all that disappointment, the fan support for the Tabbies has never wavered.
“When you’re a fan and you’re loyal, that just defines you as a person,” said Ed Valtenbergs, manager of the Hamilton Tiger-Cat Alumni Association. “Hamiltonians certainly represent themselves at Grey Cup (time), and in other Grey Cup cities.”
Festivities will be toned down this year because of the pandemic, which is why Hamilton has also been awarded the 2023 game so that they can host a proper Grey Cup festival.
“It’s exciting that it’s back this year. Disappointing that it won’t be at the scale that it normally is,” said Valtenbergs, who has been the manager of the Alumni Association for around 14 years now and was the escort for the Grey Cup in 2010.
There are some parallels between the last time Hamilton hosted and the 2021 event.
CFL insider Dave Naylor was at the 1996 Grey Cup and remembers conversations about whether that might be the last one.
That year, the league was coming off of failed American expansion, three franchises; BC, Ottawa and Montreal, were in bankruptcy and Tim Hortons had to bail the league out so that bonus cheques could be paid.
Now, according multiple news outlets, the league is coming off a pandemic-cancelled 2020 season that saw it lose somewhere between $60 and $80 million. The league, at least for now, has also put expansion into the Maritimes on hold.
But much like Canadians, the CFL is tough and won’t go down without a fight, which maybe makes Hamilton the perfect spot to have the Grey Cup return.
“If you sit in a Tim Horton’s in Hamilton and listen to the conversations around you, there’s usually a football conversation within earshot,” Naylor said. “You’ve got a Grey Cup in a part of the country that is not as culturally attuned to the Canadian Football League but in and around Hamilton, you sort of find that sweet spot.”