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O’Leary: Rivalry blossomed with Stamps, Ticats in the late ’90s

There’s no shortage of rivalries in the CFL and the ones that come to mind first are the regional ones.

What would the league be without the Battle of Alberta? Or the other half of the Labour Day Classic coin in Hamilton, where the Ticats annually host the Argos? The Banjo Bowl might be the best, most intense rivalry the league has at the moment, with the Bombers serving as defending Grey Cup champs, having gotten to the big game in Calgary last year by stepping over the Roughriders in Saskatchewan to do it.

The beauty of a nine-team league, though, is that shorter-term rivalries can flare up when two teams are good and stand in each other’s path to a Grey Cup.

That was the case in the late ’90s, when the Ticats and the Stampeders closed out the decade with a pair of Grey Cup battles.

The Stamps got the best of the Ticats in the 1998 Grey Cup game, winning 26-24 in Winnipeg on a Mark McLoughlin walk off field goal. For a Hamilton team that carried the sting of the loss through the winter into training camp, it was all the motivation it needed for the 1999 season.

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Ticats’ QB Danny McManus remembered head coach Ron Lancaster setting the tone of revenge immediately in training camp that year.

“He did a great thing back in training camp,” McManus told CFL.ca’s Brodie Lawson in the Ticats’ Remote Reunion, driven by Kubota.

“He showed us the ’98 highlights of the Calgary Stampeders beating us in the Grey Cup. After the film was over he turned on the lights and said, ‘OK, practice at 9 a.m. tomorrow.’ At that point I knew we were going to win the Grey Cup in ’99.”

The Stamps went into the ’99 season with a ton of confidence, given that they’d run the table with their Eastern rivals the previous year and defended their home turf in the regular-season, beating the Ticats 21-17 at McMahaon Stadium on Oct. 1. There had been a change at quarterback in Calgary, with Jeff Garcia going to the NFL and Dave Dickenson assuming starting duties (two decades later we can look back on that as a *very* smooth transition).

The Ticats closed out the regular-season by ending that losing streak with a 31-28 win over Calgary in Hamilton. After each team picked up two playoff wins, they travelled to Vancouver for the 87th Grey Cup to settle their differences. The Ticats’ heartbreak stuck with them when they took the field.

“When we went and played Calgary the year before, we felt we had it,” Ticats defensive end Joe Montford told CFL.ca last summer, when he had his name added to the team’s wall of honour.

“They kicked a last-minute field goal and ended up winning. We were so hurt but at the same time we were more determined to wait for the next year. We knew the next year what was happening.”

On top of the heartbreaking loss the year before, the Ticats were carrying the hopes of a fan base that had been starved for a title. Hamilton had gone 13 years without winning a Grey Cup. The players wanted to not only avenge the loss to Calgary, but to bring the trophy home for some long-suffering fans.

Danny McManus threw for 347 yards with zero interceptions in the 1999 Grey Cup, earning game MVP honours in the Ticats’ big win (Photo: The Canadian Press)

“As a Hamiltonian, that was the greatest thing ever in my life, to be able to do that,” Ticats’ receiver Mike Morreale said. He was named the game’s top Canadian in their 1999 meeting.

“I think back to days when I was five-years’ old as a fan in the stadium. To bring it back home to Hamilton, that was icing on the cake.”

It was a pressure that the Stampeders felt the year before. Their drought was modest in comparison, stretching six years between Grey Cup wins, but it drove them in that ’98 game in the same way.

“Going into that season we’d been so close so many times and hadn’t been able to finish,” Garcia said.

“For us to finish at that point…as soon as we finished I ran directly to the Calgary fans and was pumping my fist, ‘We did this for you guys!’ It was for us, too but we were bringing this home to Calgary.”

“This game was special because we got the monkey off our back,” Stamps offensive lineman Rocco Romano recalled.

“We won in ’92, lost the Western Final in ’93. In ’94 we lost to BC…then we finally get back in the (Grey Cup) game and win in the manner that we won it.”

The Stamps got the dramatic win, off the foot of McLoughlin. A year later, the Ticats built up a 21-0 halftime lead behind the MVP play of McManus. They held off Calgary’s second-half surge and took the 32-21 win.

“The thing that was unique about this team is we didn’t go undefeated,” Orlondo Steinauer said of that 1999 team. The Ticats were 11-7 and finished second in the East.

“Those losses were just speedbumps. We didn’t point fingers, we didn’t wonder why. We were 7-2 at Labour Day, which was a pretty damn good record, but I can’t remember the losses being anything other than a challenge and a speedbump. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t overcome mentally.”
A safety on that team, Steinauer of course took over head coaching duties in Hamilton last year and led the Ticats to their best-ever record (15-3) and a Grey Cup appearance.

As serious as Grey Cup week is for the teams and as hungry as they both were to win, there was a healthy respect between both squads. Garcia let a bit of that slip when he reflected on their first meeting in 1998.

“We got there and the first night all hell was breaking loose. We were even partying with the Tiger-Cats out at some bar,” he said, drawing a ton of laughter from his teammates.

“After that first night we reeled in the reins a little bit and got serious.”

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