December 5th, 2021, its been a long and up and down season for the contenders in the East, and it all comes down to this, an East Semi-Final between the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
There’s not been much between the two sides this season, just as there isn’t off the field, with only 68 KM separating Toronto’s BMO Field and Hamiltons Tim Hortons Field. Being in the same division and so close geographically, it was perhaps always the destiny of these two franchises to be rivals, and before they can battle it out for 2021 supremacy in the East, let’s take a look at the history of the two rivals to further appreciate the occasion of December 5th.
The history of the Toronto Argonauts is arguably the history of Canadian Football itself. They were founded by the Argonaut Rowing Club for which they are named in 1873 and are the oldest professional team in North American sports to still use their original name. They might be the oldest professional sports team in Canada, but that’s a discussion point to be addressed later on. The Argos were founding members of the Inter-provincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) in 1907 alongside the Hamilton Tigers, Montreal AAA Football Club and Ottawa Rough Riders, which would become the precursor for the CFL East Division we know today.
Just seven years later, the Argos would win their first-ever Grey Cup against the Toronto Varsity Blues 14-2, a feat they repeated in 1921 helping to establish them as a premier name in Canadian Football. The 1930s would be a very successful period for the club as they would win three further Grey Cups in 1933, 1937 and 1939 giving them a total of five, tying them with the Hamilton Tigers for the most successful team in Canada at the breakout of the Second World War.
The ending of the war would coincide with the Argos embarking on a run of three successive cups in a row which would set them apart from the rest of Canada and to this day they still have the most Grey Cups. The beginning of the new decade, 1950, would be the genesis of a Southern Ontario football tradition, a Labour Day matchup in Hamilton against a new yet also familiar foe, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were established 77 years after the Argonauts but the history of football in Steel town stretches back much further and even predates the Argos. In 1869, the Hamilton Tigers were founded, four years before their Toronto Argonauts. 1873 would also be an important year for Hamilton football, the black and gold colours synonymous with Hamilton to this day were first worn this year and it would be the first time they would face the Argonauts.
Hamilton would join their Toronto counterparts in the IRFU in 1907 and became the first IRFU team to lift the Grey Cup in 1913. The following decade would bring further success to the Tigers after the Argos won three successive division titles in the early ’20s, the Tigers would usurp them as kings of the East with six division titles in eight years and lifted another three Grey Cups between 1928-1932.
The ’40s proved to be a more challenging time in contrast to the success of five Grey Cups in a 19-year span previously. The Tigers postponed football operations for much of the war years but in their place, another Hamilton team, the Hamilton Flying Wildcats would fill the void of success. The Wildcats were formed in 1941 and were substituted for the Tigers in the Canadian Football landscape. Filled with at the time ex-Tigers players on their roster, the Wildcats performed well enough in the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) to merit back-to-back Grey cup appearances and they took home the trophy in 1943.
The Wildcats stuck around after 1945, even with the re-emergence of the Tigers meaning Hamilton had two teams both competing against each other in a city that just wasn’t big enough for them both. After just five more seasons, the almost inevitable happened when the two sides merged forming the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
So who’s older? What city is the cradle of Canadian Football we know today? In 1873 we had the Toronto Argonauts, and in 2021 we still have the Toronto Argonauts? But the Hamilton Tigers never went away, they never folded and their colours are even the exact same as they were in the 1800s, they simply merged with another side and while the league official thinks differently, many people in Hamilton count the Tigers and Wildcats Grey Cups alongside the Tiger-Cats haul of championships. But this is just one side to this rivalry, now that both franchises are set in place in 1950, it’s time for the first matchup and beyond.
The Tiger-Cats won their first-ever game against Ottawa on September 2nd, 1950, then just two days later, Labour Day 1950, the first-ever Queen Elizabeth Highway (QEW) rivalry game between the Ti-Cats and Argos took place at Ivor Wynne stadium with just under 13,000 fans there to witness a 13-6 win for the black and gold which proved to be crucial for Hamilton going onto win the East Division that year.
Toronto would have the last laugh however when the two sides met in the playoffs, despite losing a tight game in Hamilton 13-11, a decisive 24-6 at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium meant it was Toronto marching on all the way to the Grey Cup where they once again were crowned champions of Canada that year. The early 50’s indeed seen the two sides evenly matched in big games. In 1951 the TiCats once again won on Labour Day and this time got revenge in the playoffs. 1952 would then be the last dance for the Argonauts of that era, they won the Labour Day match-up 33-13 and again defeated Hamilton on their way to another Grey Cup trophy which at the time, no one in Toronto must’ve assumed it would be their last championship for an unprecedented amount of time.
Hamilton turned the rivalry on its head starting with 1953, for the first time in 10 years, the Grey Cup was won by a Hamilton team and the first time in Ti-Cats history. While Toronto did best them again in the playoffs in 1955, Hamilton closed out the decade with eight wins out of 10 Labour Day matchups and made three successive Grey Cup appearances including a win in 1957. While Toronto dominated in playoff games and enjoyed early 1950’s Grey Cup triumphs, it was clear going into the ’60s which team was the kings of southern Ontario football, and for those in black and gold, it was about to get even better.
In 1958, the CFL we know today was established and Hamilton had begun putting together a vintage team including future Hall of Famers such as Angelo Mosca, Bernie Faloney and Garney Henley and were reaping the rewards with nine division titles between 1957-1967. This was reflected in their dominance in the Labour Day Classic at the time with just two defeats in the fixture during the ’60s. Toronto did win in 1960, and that season they won the East title, their first division title since 1937.
Going into 1961, both teams made the playoffs and met in the first-ever East Final between the two. A two-legged affair, Hamilton won the tie 55-27 on aggregate. While they didn’t win the Grey Cup that year, it was the start of a remarkable run that saw Hamilton play in six Grey Cup finals in seven seasons, Hamilton would be champions of Canada three times in this run in 1963, 65 and 1967. While Hamilton was a model franchise at the time, Toronto in 1967 was about to appoint their fifth coach in just eight years, but the fifth time was the charm in 1968 as new coach Leo Cahill, guided Toronto to their first playoff win since 1961, the team they defeated? The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who they then again defeated in 1969. After going an entire decade without a Grey Cup championship, Toronto looked to have momentum heading into the ’70s. But the decade was truly a black and gold decade, Hamilton rounded off the ’60s with a .629 win percentage, the best in club history.
Hamilton’s dynasty still had some life left in it in the early ’70s, but their quest for more silverware in 1971 was once again thwarted by the Toronto Argonauts in the playoffs for the third time in four years. That 1971 East final win for Toronto earned them their first Grey Cup appearance since 1952, but their wait for a Grey Cup would become a two-decade stretch as they were undone 14-11 by the Calgary Stampeders.
The following season, 1972 would see the Ti-Cats soar to new heights, they would win a franchise-record 11 games in a 14-game season en route to their 11th Grey Cup final in 19 years and they would capture their sixth title since 1953, and all since the last time Toronto won a championship. The Ti-Cats were a model franchise in the league at this time, but in 1973, they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1960, which would set the precedent for a decade of challenge in Hamilton.
They would still make the playoffs consistently, but they would win just one post-season game in seven years. On top of that, they would have their own head coach conveyor belt with seven head coaches in the 70’s as the dynasty era was getting further and further away in Hamilton. The ’70s wouldn’t be much better for Toronto, who despite making a Grey Cup in 1971 would only make the playoffs two more times in the decade and finish last in the East division six times in eight seasons.
The decline in fortunes for the QEW rivals can be summed up in the marquee Labour Day Classic matchup only being played three times in the 1970s. Indeed the 1980s couldn’t come soon enough for Toronto and Hamilton.
The decade got off to a strong start for the Ti-Cats who made their first Grey Cup in eight years in 1980, despite losing to Edmonton in the final, they once again had forward momentum. In 1983, Hamilton made the East Final, the team standing in their way was the Toronto Argonauts. Just two years after a franchise-worst 2-14 record, Toronto rebounded to win their first division title in 11 years make the Grey Cup final in 1982 and were ready to go again in 1983. Toronto would win the 1983 East Final 41-36 and followed it up with an 18-17 win against BC in the Grey Cup final.
The Argonauts fans were celebrating like it was 1952, it was their first championship in 31 years, ending the longest drought in CFL history. As the champions, Toronto looked to repeat the feat in 1984 and only the Ti-Cats stood between them and another Grey Cup appearance with the two meeting in the East final. The game was a tight low scoring affair and it took overtime to separate them as Hamilton won 14-13. It was the Ti-Cats first playoff win against Toronto since 1961 having lost all of the previous four matchups.
1984 would be the start of a run in Hamilton not seen since the 60’s dynasty as the team made three consecutive Grey Cups. They would end Toronto’s season again in the 1986 East Final and follow it up with a 39-15 final win over Edmonton, their first Grey Cup triumph since 1972. It was a great time for football in southern Ontario when Toronto defeated the Ti-Cats in the 1987 East Semi-Final on their to the Grey Cup, it marked six seasons in a row one of either Toronto or Hamilton reached the Grey Cup, and a further appearance by Hamilton in 1989 made it eight appearances in total in the 1980s.
The end of the decade even saw a return for the Labour Day Classic with Toronto taking the spoils in 1987 before Hamilton would get revenge in 1988 and 89. But while both teams were strong on the field, the ’90s would lay bare a contrast in fortunes off the field with dramatic consequences.
In 1991, arguably the two best-known and beloved men in Canada were Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, and alongside LA Kings owner Bruce McNall they formed the new ownership group for the Toronto Argonauts. They marked their intent for success by luring the projected number one pick in the 1991 NFL draft, Raghib ’Rocket’ Ismail to Canada by giving him the largest yearly salary ever in the history of both the CFL and NFL at the time. Ismail, alongside future Hall of Famers like Dan Ferrone and Michael “Pinball” Clemons, played their football in the newly built Toronto SkyDome, a brand new half-billion-dollar 50,000 capacity stadium. A Grey Cup was the expectation for Toronto and the team lived up to the hype winning the big game against Calgary 36-21 with help from a man-of-the-match performance from the Rocket.
Rocket and the big-spending wouldn’t last but in 1996, the acquisition of the league’s superstar Doug Flutie helped propel Toronto to two more championships in 1996 and 1997, their three Grey Cups in the ’90s was Toronto’s best return for trophies in a decade span since the 1940s.
While Toronto was attracting superstar players, celebrity ownership and playing in a world-class stadium, Hamilton was facing a battle for their very survival. By the late ’80s, it was public knowledge the Ti-Cats were struggling financially, the team consistently changed ownership at this time going through four ownership groups in just six years. The situation got so desperate, that in 1994 the league gave Hamilton an ultimatum, sell 12,500 season tickets and raise $1 million in corporate sponsorship or the franchise would be revoked. Hamilton did enough to survive as a club, but the turmoil was taking its toll on the field.
They missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years in 1990 and went on to have just one winning season from 1990 to 1998. This run of futility was summed up in the mid-’90s with Toronto winning three Labour Day Classics in a row for the first time ever, beating Hamilton heavily 38-7 in 1996, and again 46-3 in 1997. The end of the decade would bring a silver lining to Hamilton, they reached the Grey Cup final in 1998 and were looking to go one further in 1999. To get there they would have to get past the Argos in the East Semi-Final, and a 27-6 win over their QEW rivals was a welcomed win on their way to the Grey Cup. They went on to defeat Calgary 32-21 in the big game, bringing home their first championship in 13 years and ending a challenging decade on the Canadian football summit.
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Hamilton entered the new millennium with optimism, but it wouldn’t last long, however, culminating in their 2003 season. Just four years after winning the Grey Cup, the Ti-Cats finished the 2003 season 1-17, the worst record in CFL history. They rebounded to make the playoffs in 2004 but in the East Semi, their old foes the Toronto Argonauts soundly defeated them 24-6. Toronto would go on to win the Grey Cup that year against the BC Lions 27-19. Toronto would be constant playoff contenders for the rest of the decade but despite two Division titles in three years, lost in three consecutive East finals.
Hamilton, however, had problems for most of the 2000’s just making the playoffs. Their 2004 season was the only time between 2002-2008 that they would make the playoffs. They would also struggle in the Labour Day Classic at this time, winning just one matchup from 2003-2008 going 1-4-1, their worst showing being a 40-6 defeat to the Argos in 2006. The 2000s wasn’t a vintage decade for QEW football but Toronto at least had a Grey Cup to show for it and they had their best ever decade in the Labour Day Classic recording four wins. For Hamilton, the 2010s couldn’t come soon enough.
Hamilton had the chance to start off the 2010s in a much more positive way when they made the East Semi-Final in 2010. Their opponent, the Toronto Argonauts. It was a close game, but Toronto, who were swept by Hamilton in the regular season stunned the Ivor Wynne crowd to win 16-13. Toronto finished that season 9-9 in the regular season, they would again finish 9-9 two years and it was again enough to make the playoffs in 2012. Critical to this was winning the last ever Labour Day Classic at Ivor Wynne stadium 33-30. They would set aside Edmonton and Montreal in the playoffs to make the 2012 Grey Cup. The Grey Cup that year would be held in Toronto, it was the first time the Argos would play in a championship game in their home city since 1952. In front of their home crowd, Toronto defeated Calgary 22-35 to win their sixth Grey Cup in the CFL era, tying Hamilton in championships won in that time.
Toronto was in good shape to make the Grey Cup again in 2013, reaching the East Final where they would take on the Ti-Cats. In the first QEW East Final game since 1986, Hamilton shocked the SkyDome crowd winning 36-24, making their first Grey Cup final since 1999. They came up short to Saskatchewan however, officially extending their Grey Cup drought to the longest in franchise history.
In 2014, Hamilton opened their brand new stadium, Tim Horton’s Field. The first game at the new stadium was the 2014 Labour Day classic against Toronto, and a 13-12 win has set the tone for Hamilton, they have won every Labour Day Classic played at Tim Horton’s Field to this day. Despite another Grey Cup final loss, it looked likely that Hamilton would be the more like team to bring the cup back to southern Ontario in the near future and backed this up with another playoff win against the Argos in 2015.
The Toronto Argonauts would change the narrative however in 2017, despite again finishing just 9-9, they defeated Saskatchewan at their new home stadium, BMO Field to again reach the Grey Cup. They defeated Calgary 27-24 to lift the 17th Grey Cup in franchise history, and their seventh in the CFL era, now overtaking Hamilton’s haul. It was a strange decade for Toronto, they ended it with as many winning seasons as they did Grey Cups. There was still time for another strong season for Hamilton in 2019, they swept Toronto in the regular season en route to storming the East and making their third Grey Cup in seven years. They would again be undone however in the big game, losing to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 33-12 despite being favourites, extending their drought to 20 years.
This is a rivalry with a lot of talking points and grounds for argument with plenty of back and forth. Hamilton has dominated Labour Day matchups with a 36-13-1, record, but playoff history is much tighter with Toronto holding a slender advantage. Hamilton, however, has won the last three East Finals. Hamilton currently has the longest cup drought in the CFL at 22 years, Toronto in that same time has won three titles. But Ti-Cat fans would be quick to remind Toronto of their 31-year drought, and just one title in 39 years from 1952-1991.
Toronto has more Grey Cups in the CFL era, but it’s close, with Toronto having a 7-6 edge. Overall Toronto has 17 Grey Cups, but if you include the original Tigers and Wildcat titles (I’ll leave that for yourself to decide) then the Ti-Cats have a history of winning 15 total Grey Cups, right behind the Argos total.
The history of Canadian Football is the history of football in Toronto and Hamilton, since 1873 both have been playing the game professionally longer than anyone else and the Argos and Ti-Cats are the only ever-presents of the CFL East Division. Nearly 150 years of football rivalry between Hamilton and Toronto will be brought to the forefront again this Sunday in the East Final, and whether you’re a double blue Argo or black and gold Ti-Cat, I’m sure we all agree that the QEW rivalry is one of Canada’s finest.
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