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Grey Cup Festival: ‘You will be wowed’

Six days of events ahead of the CFL’s championship game in November, will showcase the best of Hamilton.

When two teams line up for the 6 p.m. kickoff of the 110th Grey Cup at Tim Hortons Field on Nov. 19, it will mark the 12th time Hamilton has hosted the CFL’s ultimate game.

That includes 2021 when a drastically scaled-down game was held in the east Hamilton stadium amid pandemic restrictions. It was perhaps one of the greatest championship games ever, with the Tiger-Cats falling 33-25 in overtime to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Off the field, Hamilton lost, too. COVID meant none of the traditional parties, concerts and other public events could happen.

So the CFL announced in October 2021 that it would give Hamilton the Grey Cup in 2023 and the Tiger-Cats and the city have been planning ever since. 

“We have an opportunity now to do what we want and what we hoped to do in 2021,” says Gerry Fonzo, vice president of stadium events and operations with Hamilton Sports Group, which oversees the Ticats, Forge and events at Tim Hortons Field. Fonzo is also general manager of the Grey Cup Festival, overseeing a core team of 10 that is dedicated full-time to the event.

“This will be the Grey Cup, Hamilton way.”

There is no doubt this is a very special chance to shine a light on Hamilton for CFL fans. 

The festival’s theme, Built in the Hammer, centres around a series of community partnerships that include Supercrawl, YWCA, Around the Bay Road Race, and the Hamilton Santa Claus Parade. There will be more than 40 events, including traditional Grey Cup staples, such as team parties in unique Hamilton venues, and many family-friendly events.

Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath joked at a festival event announcement in August that she ran for the top post in order to lead the city when it hosted the Grey Cup. She said she’s been a Ticat fan her whole life, going to games with her mother and grandmother, who were season-ticket holders. Horwath even worked the concession booth at Ivor Wynne Stadium as a teen.

After the event, she told HCM that Hamilton will show off for Canada.

“We are going to invite people in to share the pride in our community. It’s a great honour to host the championship of our national league.”

Shining a light on Hamilton

The last time Hamilton hosted a full-scale Grey Cup was 1996 atIvor Wynne. It’s no exaggeration to say the city is vastly different now. The opportunity to show off a new, revived and growing Hamilton – not to mention a new football stadium – is a repeated theme among Grey Cup Festival organizers and partners. 

“Thousands of visitors to our city will see the best of Hamilton and experience Hamilton for what it is now,” says Fonzo. “If you’ve been to a Grey Cup before, you’ll remember this one, and if this is your first one, you will be wowed.” 

Just a few highlights of the many changes that have come in 27 years: 1996 was five years before Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook and Stoney Creek merged with the big city they surround to become the new city of Hamilton; the Eaton Centre downtown (later renamed the City Centre) was just six years old. It’s now boarded up and ready for demolition to make way for five towers. Bayfront Park, the first piece of the unlocking of Hamilton’s previously entirely industrial waterfront, was just three years old. And all those construction cranes now dotting the skyline were a generation away.

So was all the talk of the renaissance, Hamilton’s place as a foodie town, and any hope of a train running through the downtown.

“All of Hamilton is excited and should be proud to showcase what Hamilton is and what we’ve become since we last hosted a full Grey Cup,” says Lisa La Rocco, director of operations at Sonic Unyon, which brings Supercrawl to downtown Hamilton each year. 

Sonic Unyon will be producing Fan Central, a street festival on James Street North that will form one of the key events of the Grey Cup Festival. 

It’s part of a vision for a dense, walkable footprint linking venues together. That starts, of course, with Tim Hortons Field, affectionately called The Donut Box.

“It’s a unique fan experience,” says Fonzo. “We aren’t surrounded by a sea of parking in the middle of nowhere. We are a neighbour in a great area of Hamilton. That’s evident every game day but will be on a very large scale for Grey Cup.”  

Really, this Grey Cup Festival will put five years of planning into action, says Matt Afinec, president and COO of Hamilton Sports Group.

“We are definitely excited. We hope to really introduce the Ticats and the CFL to new kids and families who will become fans.”

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said even in the muted atmosphere of the 2021 Grey Cup, the excitement in Hamilton was evident. 

“This Grey Cup Festival will showcase all that makes Hamilton so special and this region so special … There are very few things more Canadian than being at a Grey Cup.”

When big events come to town, Sonic Unyon likes to get involved, says La Rocco. “We feel like we can bring Hamilton an excellent quality event and we try to benefit the musicians and visual artists who live in the city.”

Sonic Unyon has programmed Juno festivals and the closing festival for the Pan Am Games, for instance. But since the team is made up of big Ticat fans, this event will be special, says La Rocco. 

“We are thrilled to be asked to help with the street festival. We can help put on the best Grey Cup ever.”

Santa joins the Grey Cup

Ticat caretaker/owner Bob Young says the city will prove during Grey Cup week that the region should drop the T for the big city to the east and just be called the GHA. The festival will feature community partners that will integrate the Grey Cup into their events.

“This is bringing together everything that makes Hamilton, Hamilton. If we can help our partners get out their message and they can help us with ours, everyone wins. It’s a collective effort.”

The city’s historic Santa Claus Parade changed both its date and its route to take part in the Grey Cup Festival.

It’s exciting to merge the CFL and its teams, cheerleaders and the coveted Grey Cup trophy with the traditional kickoff to the Christmas season, says the parade’s chair Doug Hobson.

The parade will circle Fan Central on James Street North, providing a longer route and more places to watch from, he says. 

“We are hoping this will be one of our best-attended parades ever. It just makes sense to merge Santa with the Grey Cup.”

COVID dealt a blow to the volunteer-led parade, which has wound along Hamilton’s streets since at least 1949.

“We definitely hope the Grey Cup helps to rejuvenate interest in the parade and get it back to what it used to be.”

A kids' road race was supposed to be part of the 2021 festival before events were cancelled, says Anna Lewis, director of the Around the Bay Road Race.

Now a free race from Gage Park to Tim Hortons Field will be held on Nov. 16.

“We are honoured and happy to be a partner in a special opportunity to showcase Hamilton.”

And it’s fitting that the next ATB, the 130th running of the historic race, will finish at Tim Hortons Field due to the closure of FirstOntario Centre for renovations.

Doing the Grey Cup right

A group of childhood friends who began gathering for game days in the cheap seats of Ivor Wynne more than 25 years ago has become the fan force known as the Box J Boys. They dress in black and gold, sporting kilts and hard hats, blowing horns and leading chants in the stands. 

And they will be busy during the Grey Cup Festival, says Jason Allan, one of the founding members. In addition to team parties and fan events, Box J Boys will be hosting a party at the Corktown Tavern on Nov. 18. Musical acts include Fast Break, Freedom Train and Funkhaus.

“It will be what a Grey Cup party should be. There will be two floors of live music and we’ll rock the night with people from coast to coast.”

And Allan knows Grey Cup parties. He’s been to every single Grey Cup since 1998. 

He says Hamilton will be a great host city and CFL fans are excited.

“If Hamilton is not your team, we are your second-favourite team. And the Ticats always put on a fantastic game-day experience, so there is no doubt it will be done right at the Grey Cup.”

The Box J Boys will host a concert at the Corktown Tavern on Nov. 18. Photo: Supplied


Grey Cup Festival 

The six-day festival includes more than 40 events hosted by Hamilton organizers and the CFL.

Fan Central will close down James Street North from York to Barton from Thursday to Sunday. Programmed by the team behind Supercrawl, it will feature music, art, food and a Christmas market. 

The Canadian Armed Forces will open the John Weir Foote Armoury, a national historic site, for a Fan Zone, including a flag football competition on a 35-yard turf field, obstacle courses, a Canadian Football Hall of Fame exhibit and other football-related activities. 

“It’s an incredible venue that so many Hamiltonians haven’t seen, so we are excited about that,” says Afinec at Hamilton Sports Group.

The festival will also include a kids' road race from Gage Park to Tim Hortons Field, a neighbourhood block party on game day, a tailgating event outside the stadium, a CFL alumni luncheon, the Tiger-Cats' TigerTown and concert series at FirstOntario Centre, a Cheer Extravaganza featuring CFL dance and cheer teams at FirstOntario Concert Hall, an industry conference for sponsorship professionals at Tim Hortons Field, and a YWCA luncheon for youth at Liuna Station that will centre around women working in professional sports.

Local school kids in both the public and Catholic boards will even have a PA day on Friday, Nov. 17, two days before game day.

Announcements about musical performers are still to come.

The CFL has its own events during the festival, including a coach’s conference and all aspects of game day. It is also co-producing the CFL Awards event with the local organizers that will be held in Niagara Falls. Free shuttles will run from Hamilton to Niagara Falls where the CFL Awards and a concert will happen at Fallsview Casino.

Broadcaster TSN will host panels from the festival events. 

If you want to be part of history in Hamilton, the Grey Cup Festival requires about 650 volunteers. 

The CFL 

The Canadian Football League is made up of nine teams – four teams in the East Division and five teams in the West Division. Teams play 18 games in a season. Following the regular season, six teams compete in the league's three-week playoffs.

The 2023 season has been “remarkable,” said CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. 

Stadium attendance is up and broadcast ratings are growing each week, now hitting an average of 637,000 viewers a game, he says.

“We are a big deal and Canadians love the CFL and football fans around the world love the CFL.”

The CFL was officially named on Jan.19, 1958, upon a merger between the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (“Big Four”), founded in 1907 and the Western Interprovincial Football Union, founded in 1936.   

It’s a point of pride for CFL fans that the rules are different from the NFL. The major differences: Canada’s teams play on a bigger field – 30 yards longer and 12 yards wider; 12 players on the field for the CFL, 11 for the NFL; three downs per possession in the CFL and four downs in the NFL; each team has a possession in overtime in the CFL, in the NFL, if a team scores on the first possession in OT, the game is over; the goal posts for field goals are at the back of the end zone in the NFL and at the front of the end zone in the CFL. 

The Grey Cup

The Grey Cup is one of Canada's largest annual sports and television events. The Grey Cup is both the name of the championship of the CFL and the name of the trophy awarded to the victorious team. The Grey Cup is the second-oldest trophy in North American professional sports, after the Stanley Cup. 

The Grey Cup was donated by Governor General Earl Grey in 1909 to the team winning the Senior Amateur Football Championship of Canada. By that time, the sport as played in Canada had diverged markedly from its rugby origins and started to become more similar to the gridiron-style American game.

The Tiger-Cats

The club traces its origins back to 1869 to the founding of Hamilton Football Club, which played as the Tigers. In 1950, the Tigers merged with cross-town upstart Hamilton Wildcats and became the Tiger-Cats.

Since the 1950 merger, the team has won the Grey Cup championship eight times, most recently in 1999. They captured the championship at home in 1972. (The former Hamilton Tigers won the Grey Cup five times, while the Hamilton Flying Wildcats and the Hamilton Alerts with one each. The Alerts played from 1911 to 1912 and won the fourth Grey Cup ever played.)

Unfortunately, the Ticats have had the longest Grey Cup drought of all the CFL teams and are the only team that hasn’t won the Grey Cup in the 21st century. 

Hamilton native and businessman Bob Young, who made his fortune in software, purchased the club on Oct. 7, 2003. On Jan. 2, 2022, the club reorganized its ownership under the newly announced Hamilton Sports Group, an entity that also owns Forge FC and the master licence for Tim Hortons Field, which opened in September 2014. The group has investment from Stelco, club CEO Scott Mitchell and Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson.