TORONTO – Raghib (Rocket) Ismail wasn’t a Toronto Argonaut for long. But if there was one thing he learned quickly it was how much he was required to hate the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
So when Ismail was reminded the Argos actually had to play two CFL home games in enemy territory last year, he had to compose himself – for several seconds.
“I don’t want to use strong language. That wouldn’t be cool – at all,” said Ismail, a receiver and kick returner for the Argos in 1991 and 1992. “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Such an occurrence is a thing of the past.
The Argos, who were forced out of Rogers Centre because of the Pan Am Games and Toronto Blue Jays playoff dates last season, played their first regular season game at BMO Field on Thursday. It’s a stadium they share with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.
The Argos lost 42-20 to the hated Ticats, a game they never led.
The result was hardly what the Argos had hoped for considering the pre-game buzz. Fans arrived three hours early to tailgate and meet famous alums Ismail, Damon Allen, Michael (Pinball) Clemons and Joe Theismann.
“It was awesome,” defensive lineman Ricky Foley said of the atmosphere. “What killed me though was had an awesome fan base, we had everything we wanted ... and we crapped bed.”
Still, there was a sense from all involved that there was no better place to be. They’re home.
Last season, they didn’t play their first game in Toronto until Aug. 8 when 20,642 were said to have taken in a matchup at Rogers Centre against Saskatchewan. It was their best-attended local game of the season.
The announced attendance on Thursday was 24,812 – 95 per cent of the capacity at BMO.
“It really is yin and yang. It is the opposite ends,” said Clemons, the ultimate fan favourite out of the backfield during his playing days, now the team vice-chair. “But again, it has that potential. We still have to do the necessary things that you have to do on the football field.
“The stadium is not going to sell itself. We have work to do.”
The Argonauts were a travelling road show last season.
Four of the team’s nine home games were contested outside of the GTA. The Argos kicked off the season in Fort McMurray, Alta., which made them the first team in league history to host games in three different provinces. (They acted as the home team in Moncton, N.B., in 2010).
They also played an October home game in Ottawa against the Redblacks before the pair in Hamilton.
The games in Steeltown were particularly demoralizing. Each took place in front of fewer than 4,000 fans – most of which were supporters of the rival Ticats and showed up to jeer the supposed home team.
Argos quarterback Ricky Ray said he’d never experienced anything like it in his long and storied CFL career. Coach Scott Milanovich called the atmosphere “terrible.”
The Argos lost both times, to Calgary and Montreal, and went from targeting a first-place East seed – or at least a home playoff game at Rogers Centre – to dropping down to third.
Including the playoffs, the Argos lost all five times at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field. They went 2-2 in home games that weren’t really home games.
“You try to be a professional, but the reality is you’re human and it wears on you,” Clemons said. “By the end of the season you could see it a little bit. You try to be excited and you try to encourage, but there is a reality of us almost being unloved, homeless, uncared for that is undeniable. Now that feeling is gone.”
Now, as Clemons notes, there’s this “newfound freedom” with the Argos having a field they can call their own. When a reporter suggested it’s akin to a young couple moving out of one of their parents’ basements and into their own apartment, Clemons wholeheartedly agreed.
“Not only do you have that freedom from the basement, it’s something that you’ve longed for,” he said.
Mayor John Tory has been hoping for something to rejuvenate the Toronto football scene since he was CFL commissioner from 1996 to 2000.
This is it, he said.
“We always knew there was a fan base because the TV ratings were fantastic. We couldn’t rouse them to go down to the Rogers Centre,” Tory said. “It was such a big place. It was half empty. You had teams that were strapped for money so they didn’t market very much.
“Now you’ve got the right combo. The new ownership (Bell Canada and Larry Tanenbaum), the new stadium, tailgating. Toronto is crucial just because it’s the media capital, the sponsorship capital of the country. If you can’t make a team work here it’s not fatal to the league, but it sure doesn’t help.”
A renewed rivalry with Hamilton couldn’t hurt, too. The Ticats drew first blood this year, tearing apart the Argos and spoiling their housewarming party.
“I don’t expect this kind of effort or this kind of result at all next week let alone for the rest of the year,” Foley said.
It wasn’t a banner night for the Double Blue. But as Ismail explains, the players will undoubtedly feel more comfortable playing at BMO in due time. It beats playing home games in Hamilton, that’s for sure.
“As a player, you appreciate it. I guarantee you, whoever was on that team the last couple of years they’re going to appreciate what this environment brings to the table,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be something that’s beneficial to them.”
NOTES: Argos DB Jermaine Gabriel had to be carted off the field after colliding with teammate Matt Black. He was able to wave his hand. Milanovich said Gabriel was taken to hospital for tests but was moving and talking.