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Friday, June 24, 2016

TICATS SPOIL ARGOS BMO FIELD DEBUT

CFL Photo/Dave Chidley

TORONTO - Jeremiah Masoli and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats spoiled the party Thursday night.

Masoli threw three touchdown passes as the Ticats crushed Toronto 42-20 in the Argonauts' official BMO Field debut. Masoli finished 27-of-37 passing for 318 yards as Hamilton was an unruly guest at its arch rival's opening-night party.

The Argos relocated to BMO Field after 27 years at Rogers Centre. They moved to the domed Rogers Centre in '89 after 30 years at Exhibition Stadium, where it flourished in the 1960s and '70s.

"It's a rivalry and we gave it some attention before the game,'' Masoli said. "This is their home opener, this is their big party and we'd love nothing more than to spoil it.''

Vidal Hazelton brought the enthusiastic crowd of 24,812 - just short of a sellout - to its feet with two third-quarter TDs that pulled Toronto to within 25-20. He took Ricky Ray's one-yard TD strike at 9:40, then scored from 10 yards out at 10:26 after Cam Walker recovered Brandon Banks' fumble on the ensuing kickoff.

But Masoli - who led the Ticats past Toronto 25-22 in last year's East semifinal - found Banks on a 19-yard TD pass at 14:28 that put Hamilton ahead 32-20. Masoli then connected with former Argo Chad Owens on a 30-yard scoring strike at 7:29 of the fourth.

On those two drives, Masoli was 15-of-15 passing for 176 yards.

"They got a little momentum but learning to be a great team you've just got to be able to respond,'' Masoli said. "I'm so proud of my guys, they did a great job responding.''

Hamilton coach Kent Austin said those two drives were pivotal.

"It was really important we respond,'' he said. "It's a sign of a team that's maturing to be able to do that, especially in tough conditions.''

Toronto defensive back Jeremaine Gabriel left on a stretcher with an apparent neck injury at 9:23 of the fourth, giving the crowd the thumbs up and waving before departing.

Toronto beat Hamilton 25-16 at BMO Field during the pre-season. But the Ticats handed the Argos their first season-opening loss in five seasons.

Toronto's last home-opening victory at Exhibition Place came in 1988, a 34-11 decision over Ottawa.

"It's so exciting,'' CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said. "It's a new era for the Argos.

"A brand new field, new ownership (under MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Bell), new energy and new excitement and a beautiful place to play. And a place that they can call home for really the first time in a long time.''

Linebacker Simoni Lawrence, the East Division's top defensive player last year, returned a John Chick deflection of Ray's pass for a TD just 1:07 into the third. That gave the Ticats a 25-6 lead after Toronto pulled to within 18-6 on Lirim Hajrullahu's 52-yard boot to end the first half.

Ray finished 26-of-36 passing for 282 yards and two TDs but surrendered an interception and lost fumble to Lawrence. Ray was sacked six times and faced constant pressure from Hamilton's relentless defence.

"Oh for sure they wanted to ruin (Argos' BMO debut),'' Ray said. "They did a great job of batting balls, they were in my face all night.''

The atmosphere at BMO Field was electric on a brilliant summer evening. Ticats supporters wasted little time being heard, chanting "Argos Suck'' well before the opening kickoff but Toronto supporters countered by showering Hamilton players with boos when they came on to the field.

"It was awesome,' Argos defensive end Ricky Foley said. ''This field has every thing we have ever wanted ... and then we came out and crapped the bed.``

Added Argos coach Scott Milanovich: "The atmosphere was going to be great. The thing you hope doesn't happen happened. They got out to a great start and took the crowd out of it.''

Prior to kickoff the Strumbellas and Kardinal Offishall performed at a free concert near the stadium. And 250 spots were sold in two areas where fans were able to tailgate hours before the contest.

Jacob Hoggard, the lead singer of the Canadian pop group Hedley, performed the national anthem. Then former Argos Joe Theismann, Damon Allen, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and Mike (Pinball) Clemons all received warm ovations as they walked to centre field to participate in the coin toss.

Toronto Mayor John Tory wasn't so lucky. And Owens, who spent six seasons with the Argos before joining Hamilton as a free agent, was booed after registering a seven-yard catch on the Ticats' first possession.

"I'm sure all of those people were drunk so they don't know any better,'' Owens said. "We had a lot more cheers at the end than we did boos so that's all that matters.''

Owens had six catches for 67 yards and admitted it felt good to score against his former team.

"Scoring always feels good regardless of the circumstances,'' he said. "They had some momentum and then we were able to come back and put a couple (drives) together and really steal the momentum back.

"I went out there like (it was) another practice, just another game. They tried to get into my head a little bit early in the game with some extra hits. At the end of the day it's about winning.''

Andy Fantuz had Hamilton's other touchdown. Brett Maher added four converts and four field goals. The other points came on a safety.

Hajrullahu had two converts and two field goals.

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TORONTO - The nostril-massaging scent of grilled hamburgers hung in the air, fans threw pigskins around and tailgaters set up shop on lawn chairs and downed a few cold ones Thursday outside BMO Field.

This was a new pre-game experience for CFL fans in Toronto and it seemed to be a big hit.

A few hundred fans were on hand in one designated tailgate parking lot south of the Argos' new stadium and a few hundred more were in another lot across the road at Ontario Place.

Sporting a blue Argos jersey, Julie Mogk of Guelph, Ont., drove in with a few friends in the late afternoon.

"You just look around, you see games, you see BBQs, it's amazing,'' she said. "The atmosphere is wonderful.''

Joe Theismann greets fans pregame
Argos legends Joe Theismann, Raghib (Rocket) Ismail and Mike (Pinball) Clemons were on hand to socialize with fans, sign autographs and pose for photos.

"It is palpable, it is infectious, it is energy personified,'' said a beaming Clemons, the team's vice-chair. "The first game of the year is always crazy. There is always great energy, but this is different. It is indescribable.''

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats would later spoil the home opener party, topping the Argonauts 42-20.

The weather co-operated as blue skies and warm temperatures helped give the pre-game scene a summertime urban campout feel.

Classic rock boomed from car speakers. A marching band and cheerleaders added to the football atmosphere.

Jennifer O'Brien drove down from Burlington, Ont., for the home opener.

"This is great, we're close to the field,'' she said while turning sausages and flipping burgers on her grill. "The new field is lovely and our seats are in the sun.''

Rogers Centre has a retractable roof but BMO Field, also home to Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, is an open-air facility. It has natural grass and with a seating capacity of about 27,000, is much cozier than the domed stadium.

The Argonauts played home games at Rogers Centre for the last 27 seasons before moving a few kilometres west for the 2016 campaign.

Tailgating is a tradition in many football cities but Argos fans couldn't do it at Rogers Centre since it's in the heart of Toronto's downtown core. However, there is plenty of space near BMO Field with several large parking lots in the area.

"Very cool vibe,'' said CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge. "It's just very cool. It's fun, it's exciting. I've been here for quite some time in Toronto and I haven't felt a vibe like this in a long time.''

A handful of police officers and security guards were on hand but the crowd seemed well behaved. It cost $35-$40 to park and tailgate depending on the lot.

A cold beer cost four bucks a can and lineups were quite reasonable.

"There was no tailgating experience whatsoever at Rogers Centre,'' Mogk said. "This is what football is about. This is what gets people excited. You get the fans out, you get that camaraderie, everybody goes into the stadium at the same time.

"We're all excited and pumped up for the game, ready to cheer on our team. It's such a different experience. It's exactly what we needed.''

(Canadian Press)