Still sore from their Grey Cup loss, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats thanked their fans on Tuesday and promised they'll be even better next season.
"Stay with us," said Kent Austin, the Ticats coach and general manager.
The Ticats packed up their gear for the last time this season on Tuesday, marking their last day together as a team until next spring's training camp. For the team, it's been a long season that saw them transform from a 1-4 walkover to the CFL's East Division champions. Though they were trounced by the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Grey Cup final last Sunday, Austin said the team now knows what it'll take to capture a league title.
And, he said, they know how important a Grey Cup would be to Hamilton, where the team hopes to play again next summer when their new stadium opens. Tim Hortons Field is set to open next June.
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"We've got a great venue getting ready to open up with a good young talented football team. There's a lot to be excited about…I really believe that," Austin said.
It won't be the exact same Ticats team. Some players may leave the team as free agents, while others could be lost in the off-season's expansion draft as the Ottawa Redblacks build a team. Austin said he'd like to keep all of his players, but admitted that won't be possible.
And while Austin was still sore from the Grey Cup loss — at one point, Austin appeared surprised upon learning he would be getting honoured at City Hall on Wednesday night and barked "Thanks a lot, Scott [McNaughton, the team's communications director]" then turned to reporters and said "Oh come on, I gotta laugh at something not to cry" — he was optimistic about the 'Cats future.
"If you don't grow, you're going backwards," he said.
That feeling was echoed by the Tiger-Cat players who spoke with the media on Tuesday.
"We're gonna be back strong next year. I can't wait. I'm excited…it's gonna' be unbelievable," said Delvin Breaux.
"We're gonna win this thing next year."
First, though, Breaux will have surgery to repair his torn labrum — a "very painful" injury to the shoulder that he's been playing with for much of the season. Once he's recovered, Breaux said dropping the Grey Cup will be "fuel to the fire" during off-season workouts.
For Jamall Johnson, one the Ticats leaders on a young, athletic defence: "the sky's the limit for the team."
Johnson is a free-agent this off season. While he said he'd like to stay in the city — "the Hammer's in my heart," — the realities of a busy professional football off season mean he could wind up anywhere. His first stop, though, Johnson said, will be away from football for a while to spend some time with his daughter.
Johnson said when he gets back to training it'll be the sting of losing the Grey Cup that drives him. Motivation to work out a bit harder.
His parting message?
"We gave our fans some good football this season, and we appreciate their support," Johnson said.
"They deserved a little bit more. We gave them all we could though…hopefully next year holds something better for us."