Centennial Cats Roared

Published on July 26, 2017 6:53 PM by dbo.

This following is a guest post by Terry Ott, looking back 50 years at the 1967 Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Canada’s Centennial year.

CENTENNIAL CATS ROARED

Greatest Defence Ever, Were They GOAT Team?

At the conclusion of the 1966 CFL playoffs, the defending Grey Cup champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats were defeated and humbled, appearing to be at the end of an incredible ten season run which included eight Grey Cup berths—including five straight appearances—and three national championships. The Ottawa Rough Riders had demolished and embarrassed the Tiger-Cats by an aggregate score of 72-17 in the two game Eastern Conference total point final played at the Autostade in Montreal due to the refurbishing of Lansdowne Park in preparation for the 1967 Grey Cup.

And at the beginning of the 1967 season many CFL experts picked the Rough Riders to be be playing for the Grey Cup on their home field and avenging their surprising 1966 Grey Cup loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Vancouver.

But the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who celebrated Canada’s 100th birthday by placing the Centennial logo on their helmets, had other ideas about the ‘67 campaign. Notwithstanding their ‘66 playoff debacle, the Hamilton defence had an excellent campaign, yielding a league low 160 points over a 14 game season. Most of the Cats’ defenders of 1966 returned for 1967, including stalwarts John Barrow and Angelo Mosca on a ferocious D-line and Garney Henley anchoring a swift and physical secondary featuring an extremely effective zone coverage. The Tiger-Cats would also add a rock to their already solid linebacking corp in AFL refugee Smokey Stover, who would become the first to play in a Super Bowl—with the Kansas City Chiefs—and a Grey Cup in the same calendar year.

Domination on defence was a tried and true Hamilton prescription for success, defining the team’s dynasty for over two decades and 1967 promised to be more of the same. The Cat defenders were mean, they were nasty, and they were brutally effective.

On offence, quarterback Joe Zuger was entering his fifth season behind centre, tossing to Tommy Joe Coffey and “Prince” Hal Patterson as well as handing off to the hard charging Willie Bethea. Zuger also provided the team with booming, spiral punts, often pinning the opponent deep, or kicking the Cats out of their own end. If the Tiger-Cats could get past their perennial foe Ottawa Rough Riders helmed by the great Russ Jackson, the rest of the CFL Eastern Conference consisting of a rebuilding Toronto Argos and a fading Montreal Alouettes were not in the running.

Head coach Ralph Sazio was commencing his fifth season at the helm of a veteran team that had earlier appeared in three consecutive Grey Cups including wins in 1963 and 1965. Sazio, like the Hamilton defence, was a dominating presence and team discipline was apparent. It was reported that the entire operating budget for the Tiger-Cats in 1967 was one million bangs for your Canuck bucks, or about 7 million today. (The Tiger-Cats management would zealously defend their economic security. In a had-to-be-there-to-believe-it situation, when a CBC outlet in Barrie, Ontario, a channel available on some Hamilton cable systems and large outdoor home antennas and technically outside the 90 mile exclusionary zone began airing Tiger-Cat home games at a time when blackouts were strictly enforced, the team managed to find a way to find Barrie inside the 90 mile radius and hence knock them off air for Cat home games, a decision that did not go over very well for those viewers in Barrie, and parts north.)

Yet the Tiger-Cats were notoriously slow starters and laid an egg in their ‘67 season opener August 12 at Civic Stadium, dropping a 20-14 decision to the Edmonton Eskimos before 22,435 disappointed fans who probably wondered if some sort of hangover from 1966 persisted.

The Cats would then go on a tear, ripping off six straight wins including a hard fought home victory against Jackson and the Ottawa Rough Riders on August 23.

In a humid night in the Hammer, at a time when the steel mills belched a steady stream of smoke adding to the haze that passed for air, Mosca and Barrow et al. harassed the Rider QB relentlessly in a game I witnessed from the south side of Civic, Row 7 around the 20-yard line. In an era when sacks were not recorded as such, Jackson endured a lot of them. Mosca was often accused of “eating bananas”, but I only saw him eat quarterbacks with Jackson being one of his favourite treats.

Three weeks later, in one of the first regular season CFL games broadcast on television in rudimentary colour—the bright sunlight in Ottawa that afternoon left bright trails off the players’ helmets—the Tiger-Cats defeated the Ottawa Rough Riders at Lansdowne Park, 16-14 on a last second field goal to maintain their Eastern Conference first place standing.

Entering the month of October, the Cats were sailing along with a 6-1 record, then came a major reversal. On the first of the month, Jackson and the Riders avenged their previous two defeats by Hamilton, earning a 17-8 victory, before an overflow Civic Stadium crowd, in a game that was not as close as the score indicated and narrowed Hamilton’s lead atop the East division.

The Tiger-Cats then embarked on one of their most disastrous road trips in team history.

In an era when schedules were designed to maximize economy, on Thanksgiving weekend the Tiger-Cats were skedded to engage the Calgary Stampeders at McMahon Stadium on Saturday Oct. 7, 8PM local time, and then head eastward to play the Saskatchewan Roughriders at Taylor Field on Monday Oct. 9 for a 2PM local start. Doing the math, that was two games in 42(!) hours. 54 hours less than what today’s CBA allows. Accordingly, and predictably, it did not go well for Hamilton.

The Stamps smoked the Cats 34-10 in perhaps the worst beat-down suffered by Hamilton during the ‘67 season. The Thanksgiving day tilt in Regina saw the Tiger-Cats fall by a single point, 22-21, in a game that featured a scary Garney Henley collision with a notorious wooden fence that surrounded the end zone at Taylor Field.

Henley, reaching for a Zuger pass in the back of the end zone crashed full speed, head first into the white fence and appeared to be knocked out as the TV coverage went to commercial, leaving legions of Hamilton fans back home fearful that their hero was hospital bound. Fortunately, Henley was not seriously injured and walked offthe field under his own power.

Collective tails between their legs, the Tiger-Cats returned home to find their lead atop the East division badly eroded and the fan base and media questioning if it was all going wrong. In those days, the passion for Tiger-Cat football in Hamilton was all encompassing. Defeat did not rest easy. The fans were loyal, but they could also be ornery. After all, given the team’s last decade, supporters simply expected to win.

But then, came a stretch of Hamilton football that has not been duplicated in 50 years.

The Tiger-Cats proceeded to rip off four staight victories to secure first place in the East with an 10-4 record, one point ahead of Ottawa, while allowing a league low 195 points scored against. They would then meet the Ottawa Rough Riders in the East two-game total point final for the fifth straight season, thrashing the Riders 37-3 on aggregate,

So, the Tiger-Cats were set for a championship centennial year football battle in the nation’s capital.

But Hamilton entered the ‘67 Grey Cup game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders as underdogs with some pundits and “experts” doubting that even the dominant Tiger-Cat defence could contain QB Ron Lancaster and running back George Reed, a tandem that had laid waste to many CFL defences during the regular season and the playoffs.

Prior to the game, Cat coach Ralph Sazio stated that Hamilton had a legitimate chance for victory if Saskatchewan star running back George Reed was held to under 100 yards. As can be seen in this clip, the Hamilton defence played Reed tough.

Sazio would be a soothsayer, as Reed, who graciously visited the Hamilton dressing room after the game to offer congratulations, was indeed held to 92 yards and the Tiger-Cats soundly whipped the defending Cup champ western Riders 24-1 in the Grey Cup final played during a bone chilling, windswept afternoon on frozen tundra in Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park on December 2 before a crowd of 31,358.

Rider quarterback Lancaster managed only 8 completions for 116 yards and was harassed mercilessly throughout the contest and looking at original broadcast footage of the game—it was the second Grey Cup game telecast in colour but due to the cost of colour video tape at the time, surviving footage was archived in black and white only—it is apparent that the Riders were really never in the game from the get-go. Lancaster gave credit to the Hamilton defence and specifically tackle John Barrow, telling the Montreal Gazette that “they were the better team…Barrow called a great game, they took everything away from us.”

And mostly apart from the pre-game media speculation, the Tiger-Cat offence, which had struggled at times during ‘67 season, had a solid Grey Cup performance with QB Zuger named the MVP and rushing for a TD in the 1st quarter and throwing a 71-yard TD strike in the second to flanker Ted Watkins, who would be tragically killed in an encounter with police in California in early 1968.

A year later, Zuger, who suffered a broken nose in the ‘67 Grey Cup during the first quarter, mused that while his reward for winning the MVP was a colour TV, the 1968 Grey Cup MVP was handed the keys to a new car.

But most impressive, the ‘67 Cup victory by the Tiger-Cats capped a stretch of six consecutive regular season and playoff games in which the dynastic Hamilton defence did not allow a single touchdown, surely a feat unlikely to ever be repeated.

In fact, a Saskatchewan offence that had scored 402 points over 16 regular season and 4 playoff games, could manage just a single point from a first quarter quick-kick in the Grey Cup. The Regina Leader-Post said it best in a headline after the game: “Crash, Bang, Crunch Ticats grind out win.” It was that type of game; football at its most basic and primordial. Or as Rider assistant coach Jim Duncan observed also to the Leader-Post, “They just lined us up and ran over us.” Ouch.

The 1967 Grey Cup was the top of the mountain for a Ti-Cat team that tagged itself as lunch bucket, no frills Steeltown tough.

And despite fielding very good defensive units in 1972 and 1986, which were also Grey Cup winning campaigns, the Tiger-Cats never again approached the magic of the ‘67 team, a side that featured eight future Hall of Fame inductees, and that closed an outstanding span of Hamilton football with arguably, the greatest CFL team of all time.

Now, as I can picture fans in Regina and Edmonton (circa 1977-82) and Toronto (circa 1996-97) and even Baltimore (1995) with their hair on fire, all this GOAT stuff is undoubtably subjective to a great degree.

If the criteria for greatness centre around a defined era, it would be hard to argue that the 1967 Hamilton Tiger-Cats, at the end of an incredible run of championship seasons, did not achieve the highest level of excellence in the Canadian Football League.

There have been many great teams in the history of the Canadian Football League. A very strong case could be made for many of them as earning the GOAT designation.

Yet at the conclusion of Canada’s 100th birthday, it would be hard to objectively deny that the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were not the greatest of all time. Or, as some (well lubricated) fans sang after the game: “We don’t give a damn for all the rest of Canada, we won the old Grey Cup.”

–30–

Terry Ott is a Hamilton based freelance journalist who has written on CFL since 1998. He can be reached at tjo55@yahoo.com

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Centennial Cats Roared was published on July 26, 2017 6:53 PM by dbo.

2,046 words.

This article is categorized under Grey Cup and tagged with hamilton-tiger-cats and history.

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