Quarterbacks Ricky Ray and Henry Burris have become accustomed to sharing the same stage on Labour Day.
As he has many times for the early September game, Burris said he anticipates arriving at the stadium with his head on a swivel, taking in the sights and scents of the tailgaters firing up their grills before the city's most exciting game of the year.
When the game kicks off, Ray knows he may hear rival fans in the especially rowdy stands yelling some of the old cracks he's heard many times about his hairline.
The Battle of Alberta on a long string of Labour Days has featured the two veteran pivots: Ray's Edmonton Eskimos taking on Burris's Calgary Stampeders. But this year, the two are among the many new faces experiencing their first Labour Day contest between the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Ray, Burris and their new head coaches are experiencing the yearly long weekend game at Hamilton's Ivor Wynne Stadium for the first time, yet they're quickly soaking in the intensity that surrounds it.
The Argonauts and Tiger-Cats have met on Labour Day 44 times, dating back to 1948. Hamilton has won the last two Labour Day meetings, in 2009 and 2010. After a one-year-hiatus in 2011, the game returns to Ivor Wynne, which will close at the end of season, making way for a new stadium.
"It's more than just another game, there's a lot riding on this," Burris said Sunday. "I look forward to experiencing new things and I'm excited to be part of a rivalry I've watched for so many years. There is real energy and tradition surrounding the last Labour Day game at Ivor Wynne. That is something I couldn't have experienced in Calgary."
Burris has been told about how venomous it will be on the field – bigger hits, especially vicious trash talking, extra physical play, pushing and fighting among piles of players. The fans in Hamilton are known to greet the Argo players on Labour Day with showers of insults, beer and spit. Ray figures the years in the Alberta game have prepared him for it.
"Everyone makes fun of my hairline, that's why you always see me on the sideline with my helmet half on," Ray said with a laugh. "I have played in Labour Day games like this – big rivalry games – and that experience can help me out in this situation."
New Ticats coach George Cortez was reminded this week about how personally the fans take a rivalry game, how the wins and losses on Labour Day stick out. He recalled speaking to a group of Second World War veterans as an assistant coach of the 1992 Stampeders, who had just won the Grey Cup.
"One gentleman got up and said, 'Coach, I want to congratulate you for a great season and winning the Grey Cup, but you lost to Edmonton on Labour Day,'" Cortez said. "That's a sign of how important these rivalries are to a lot of people."
Argos coach Scott Milanovich is eager to experience his first Labour Day rivalry contest in some time, a duel between 4-4 Toronto and 3-5 Hamilton. As an assistant coach of the Montreal Alouettes, he didn't participate in a yearly Labour Day duel. But he is sensing the energy.
"You don't have to get them motivated this week," Milanovich said. "They're up. The key is to keep them playing within what you've coached them to do – playing with discipline. I don't want them to get so emotionally charged up that they lose control and do something to hurt the team."
Linebacker Kevin Eiben will play his first Labour Day contest as a Ticat after a long career with the Argos. He joked that he won't miss being hit with drinks, insults or the $20 parking fee he was charged when he drove up as an Argo each year.
"I've been coming here for 12 years playing in this Labour Day Classic, all in the Double Blue," Eiben said. "But now I'm in the Black and Gold. I'm ecstatic, I feel like a kid again."