'They're a family': Fans give Ticats roaring Grey Cup send off

As Ticats players coaches and staff boarded buses outside Tim Hortons Field Tuesday en route to the airport a roaring crowd of hometown fans in black and yellow provided them with a heroes' send off.

Team off to Calgary to face Winnipeg Blue Bombers in CFL final

Hamilton Tiger-Cats players exit Tim Hortons Field to board Calgary-bound buses, and are cheered on with support from hometown fans. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

And they're off.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are officially on their way to the Grey Cup and the chance to win their first championship since 1999. 

Ticats players, coaches and staff boarded buses outside Tim Hortons Field Tuesday en route to the airport for the flight to Calgary, as a roaring crowd of hometown fans in black and yellow provided them with a heroes' send off.

Tuesday's farewell was a chance for fans to once more celebrate the team's unbeaten season on home turf which culminated in Sunday's 36-16 win over Edmonton in the East Final. Those who won't make it to the big game in person reassured players they would be watching with equal spirits at home.

For some of the fans who turned out, that may require staying up a bit past their bedtime. 

Kindergarten students from Prince of Wales Elementary joined the send off party with homemade signs and hats. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Those spirits ran high when some of the Ticats' biggest stars made their way through the crowd and interacted with fans. Jerseys were signed, high fives and handshakes were exchanged, and cheers of encouragement rang through the air.

"This team, they're a family,"  said Dave Millar, who first became a fan as a four-year-old in 1957.

Pointing to a 1999 Grey Cup patch on his Ticats jersey, Millar says, "this right here, this is what it's all about." That year was the last time the team won the prestigious trophy, and this year fans are hoping that changes.

This year, according to Millar, the Ticats have the same kind of "tough" team as they did in 1999. The combination of young star players, a strong coach and good plays have united them as a "family." 

Dave Millar (right) and John Mitchell celebrate with a traditional "oskee wee wee" chant. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

It's a family affair for fans, too. 

Phyllis Jesperson has been a Ticats fan since she was 15-years-old and she's been "following them ever since." She used to regularly attend games for years with her mother, who recently passed away.

Now Jesperson carries on the tradition with her sister, Joyce Bovaird, who drives in from Guelph for games. She also spearheads a 3,000 person-strong fan group called Tiger Cats 24/7. 

Phyllis Jesperson (right), her sister Joyce Bovaird (centre), and friend Joanne Clark had a front row view of the players leaving town. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Two young fans at the send off were especially keen to spot quarterback Dane Evans and give him an important message — "happy birthday." 

Evans spotted the two on his way to the bus, even though he towered over the kindergarteners. But once he got down to their level and took a good look at their hand-made birthday signs, he thanked them by handing them a signed football.

The girls were ecstatic, to say the least, as they turned to each other and let out screams of awe and joy.

Their teacher, who stood behind them, was also taken aback by the celebrity encounter and joined the girls in their giddy celebration. 

A kindergartener shakes quarterback Dane Evans' hand after showing him a homemade "happy birthday" sign. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

Jennifer Johnson became a fan when she was young, too. Her first job was at the concession stand in the Ticats' home stadium, which meant she ran into players "all the time."

"We've been fans our whole life," Johnson said, standing next to her friend, both wearing black and yellow.

Johnson held a freshly signed jersey in her hands, which she showed off proudly — a few different Ticats players had inked it, but she'd have to hold off on wearing it for about a month.

"My husband got me this jersey for Christmas and I wanted to get it signed before he wraps it," she said. 

Jennifer Johnson (right) holds up her newly-signed Tiger-Cats jersey, an early Christmas present from her husband. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

The drought has been "20 years too long," Johnson admitted, but she's sure this time around the team is "taking" the Grey Cup. 

Not all fans were able to voice their excitement, and nor were they all standing on just two legs. 

That didn't stop them from donning the yellow and black team colours and posing for the camera — with the encouragement of a treat or two. 

Snow in Calgary meant the team's arrival there was delayed.

Ticats fans come in all shapes and sizes, but the team spirit doesn't falter. (Justin Mowat/CBC)

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will face the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the 107th Grey Cup on Sunday. 

The City of Hamilton is hosting a free viewing party at Tim Hortons Field, which kicks off at 5:30 p.m. Fans will be able to enter at Gate 3 and the club level lounge seats will be available, along with sections 104, 105 and 106.

The city has asked supporters to consider bringing non-perishable food items to support Hamilton Food Share, as the holiday season approaches.