Ticats-Redblacks’ clash at McMaster, the home opener that wasn’t, should still be thrilling

Saturday's Hamilton Tiger-Cats game against the Ottawa Redblacks (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN3) was once perhaps the most-anticipated date on the team's 2014 calendar. Now, it may be the most unusual one. This Week Five game was initially scheduled to be Hamilton's home opener at the new Tim Hortons Field, with their first home game coming so late to try and allow them time to finish the stadium. However, construction delays led to the team announcing July 7 that the stadium wouldn't be ready for at least their first two home games on July 26 and 31; that's meant that those games have been moved to Hamilton's McMaster University. Thus, instead of opening their big new stadium with its capacity of around 24,000 fans, the Tiger-Cats will be facing the Redblacks in front of just 6,000 fans at McMaster's Ron Joyce Stadium. As Redblacks' receiver Scott MacDonell (who played there in college when he was with the Queen's Golden Gaels) told Gord Holder of The Ottawa Citizen, those lessened numbers might help out the visiting team:

“Last time I was at Mac, they were heckling (Gaels players) from behind,” MacDonell said Tuesday after Redblacks practice at the University of Ottawa’s Lees Avenue stadium. “If the fans decide to, it could be a pretty cool atmosphere. It could sort of alter us and give us a bit of a disadvantage.

“But I do think there is a difference,” from playing in a CFL-size facility, he added. “Any time you can go from a stadium like Ivor Wynne to a college stadium that only holds 6,000, I’d like to think it’s a bit of an advantage for the visiting team.

It's going to be fascinating to see what a CFL game looks like in a 6,000-seat facility. We've seen preseason games at places that small before, with the Argonauts playing at the University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium a couple of times in recent years, but those games haven't usually been televised, and they didn't mean anything in the standings. Of course, the Ticats have some experience in unusual surroundings, as they played in Moncton twice in recent years (before crowds of 20,153 and 15,123 respectively) and they played last year's non-Moncton home games in Guelph before a maximum crowd of 15,123 and a low of 12,612. Plus, this will be the first home game they've played in Hamilton in 637 days, so they've got that going for them. Still, this stadium will hold less than half of the lowest crowd they saw last year. That's going to make for a very different experience.

The stadium is going to affect TV broadcasts, too. The July 31 game against Winnipeg was initially set to be broadcast on ESPN's main network as part of the CFL's new US TV deal, but the stadium issues led to the cancellation of that and the game being moved to streaming-only service ESPN3. From CBC Hamilton:

“Originally, this game was scheduled to be on ESPN to showcase Hamilton's new stadium,” said CFL spokesperson Jamie Dykstra. “But since the game has been moved to Ron Joyce Stadium, it will now be carried on ESPN's live multi-screen sports network, ESPN3.”

“ESPN will explore opportunities to feature Hamilton's new stadium on one of its linear TV networks later on in the season.”

That's not a crisis, but it does mean that the CFL lost a chance for great exposure (and that ESPN may not be all that thrilled with the league for having to change its plans at the last moment). Of course, there will be more of those chances; tonight's later game between Toronto and Saskatchewan will be carried on ESPN2, and ESPN plans to pick up other games for its TV networks later in the season (and through the remainder of this five-year deal). Still, it's yet another impact of this stadium mess, and more may be to come; as Steve Milton of The Hamilton Spectator wrote this week, the August 16 home game may still have to be played at McMaster, and even the Labour Day clash against the Argos could be threatened. The full repercussions of these construction delays haven't been seen yet.

Setting that aside for a moment, though, this should be a great game. It will be particularly interesting to see Ottawa quarterback Henry Burris return to face the team that cut him this offseason despite him leading them to a Grey Cup appearance. That led to Burris heading to Ottawa, where he's provided a lot of hope for that expansion team so far and was essential in their first win last week. Meanwhile, his replacement in Hamilton, free-agent acquisition Zach Collaros, remains out, meaning that Dan LeFevour will start for the Ticats with Jeremiah Masoli backing him up. It should be fascinating to see how those young guns do and how Burris performs in his return to the city that spurned him. Sadly, though, substantially fewer fans will be able to see this in person thanks to the stadium problems. The small stadium should lead to an experience unlike any other CFL game in decades, but that's not necessarily a good thing.

(Update: This post initially said tonight's game was intended for ESPN initially. It was the July 31 game that was meant for ESPN. Both are now ESPN3 only.)

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