Every Labour Day Classic between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts is a big deal for the Canadian Football League and the longtime rivals, but this year the matchup felt a little more meaningful.

Not only did the Tiger-Cats play in front of an adoring hometown crowd of 15,000 people – a sellout amid provincial government COVID-19 protocols – it was also the Ticats’ 2021 home opener, and their first game in Hamilton in 659 days.

On this sunny and windy Labour Day afternoon in Hamilton, there were, as usual, also a handful of fans in double blue in the stands cheering on their Argos, but the 2021 iteration of the Classic belonged to the Ticats, who did not disappoint their fans, emerging victorious 32-19.

As a sports lover and journalist with a burgeoning fondness for the CFL, I wanted to get a sense of what the game means for the fans. Before Monday’s kickoff, I walked through the streets surrounding Tim Hortons Field, which is nestled in Stipley, a residential neighbourhood in the city.

From the nearby Tim Hortons, FreshCo, and other parking lots, tailgate parties began early and were exuberant. There were impromptu cheers of “ARGOS SUCK!”, the most famous cheer in this rivalry. But there is also a rich history in the lovely and simultaneously bizarre chant of “Oskee Wee Wee,” which turns 100 years old this season. 

As I watched the fans line up at various gates, all masked and waiting patiently to enter, the sense of excitement, and of history, was palpable.

I am not from ‘The Hammer’ but have a solid knowledge of the area. I am a life-long football fan (proper football) but a novice-level CFL fan.

I’m accustomed to watching NFL football primarily because of my dad. He was a Winnipeg Blue Bomber fan after moving to Canada in 1963 but his loyalty followed coach Bud Grant south to Minnesota in the late 1960s. So, I grew up listening to my dad holler at the NFL broadcast as his beloved Vikings lost pretty much every Sunday. 

But the culture around the CFL, and these two teams in particular, is riveting.

On my way up to the media level, I shared an elevator with lifelong Ticats fan Paul Knox who explained his deep connection to the franchise.

“This is much more than a football team for the city of Hamilton,” he said. “It’s part of the identity of the city of Hamilton.”

Knox has as close a bond to the Tiger-Cats as possible. More than 60 years ago, at the age of seven, he started selling potato chips in what was the old Civic Stadium, then Ivor Wynne Stadium, on the same parcel of land that now is Tim Hortons Field. He was promoted to selling Coca-Cola and even returned home on weekends while in University to attend the games.

“Argos fans need to get off their butts and go to the games!” he told me half-jokingly. Although Knox has lived in Toronto for years, he still prefers attending games in Hamilton. “There’s nothing like it,” he said with so much certainty.

The energy at Tim Hortons Field is markedly different than BMO. But Argos fans are equally enthusiastic.

I walked about and stopped a woman decked out in an Argos jersey. It just happened to be Susanna Noel, mom of Argos receiver Llevi Noel, who had her 10-year-old granddaughter in tow. Both were excited to be there.

“We want to support the Argos and the CFL,” Noel said. She told me that the atmosphere is “all fun,” despite being one of the few fans in double blue gear amid a sea of black and yellow.

“I get heckled, and I come back for more. I love it!” Noel said, laughing. 

What about the fans who are new? I wondered if they are welcomed into this space as well.

I found Tarry Upshaw in the line entering the stadium and chatted with him about what brought him to the game. Originally from Windsor, N.S., Upshaw is a basketball coach with a storied career at the University of Guelph and University of Waterloo, in addition to coaching overseas. He is the founder and head coach of the Regional Elite Development Academy (REDA). 

Upshaw told me that he got into following the CFL, and specifically the Tiger-Cats, five years ago when a hockey teammate gifted him tickets. He was hooked immediately and considers himself a part of the Tiger-Cats community. Upshaw has already purchased his tickets for the Grey Cup, which will be played in Hamilton this December.

“The CFL is great Canadiana. It’s part of our culture and who we are,” he said. “[The Labour Day Classic] It’s a celebration of Hogtown versus the hardworking guy.”

Upshaw remarked that attending this year was also special because of what can be considered a return to normalcy for sports fans who have missed attending games.

“I can’t wait to see the Boatmen lose today,” Upshaw said smiling.

I also spoke with Britney Cochrane, a proud season ticket holder and fan of the Tiger-Cats since her father used to bring her to games as a child. While we were speaking, Cochrane and her two friends waved and greeted many other fans waiting in the area.

I mentioned that young women aren’t usually the main demographic of the CFL fan base, and she replied “WRONG!” and laughed. She told me Tiger-Cats linebacker Simoni Lawrence is her favourite player.

“We are here for the environment, and it’s been a long summer without football,” her friend chimed in.

Although there is a very real rivalry here, there is also a sense of joy in being reunited.

It has been almost two years without the CFL, and fans have certainly felt that absence. These fans are committed and as dedicated as the folks on the field, and the front office.

The CFL has piqued my interest for some time now, and after attending the Labour Day Classic, it’s easy to understand why so many fans are connected to this league and these teams.

Curiosity might have brought me, but the spirit of the Labour Day Classic is what shall keep me here.

I don’t have to wait long for the next experience. The Tiger-Cats play the Argos again this Friday.