Edmonton Journal

Roaming Boatmen yearn for home

- Chris O’ Leary

FORT MCMURRAY — If there was a team built to play a home game 3,794 kilometres away from home, it would have to be the Toronto Argonauts.

The Argos are the Canadian Football League’s road warriors, a team that has routinely gone on weeks-long odysseys in the last two seasons through a series of unfortunat­e scheduling circumstan­ces.

This year, with the Pan-Am Games thrown into the mix along with the Toronto Blue Jays’ schedule at Rogers Centre, the Argos get the unique experience of playing their season-opening home date in a city that’s a four-hour drive from Edmonton, which just happens to be the road team in Saturday’s 3 p.m. matchup (TSN, 630 CHED) at SMS Equipment Stadium.

But again, these are the road warrior Argos. They’ve been there, done that. Right?

“We haven’t,” Argonauts general manager Jim Barker said on Friday morning. “This is a brand new team and it’s tougher doing it at the beginning of the season. You don’t know exactly … they haven’t learned each other.”

The Argos went 4-0 on a trip through Montreal, Saskatchew­an, Calgary and Edmonton in 2012; they were 1-2 last year rolling through Ottawa, Saskatchew­an and Montreal in succession, then 1-4 while playing at Edmonton, Hamilton, Calgary and B.C. All of those road trips came at least four weeks into the season, which Barker said made a difference.

“We did it in 2013 when (Zack) Collaros came in (for an injured Ricky Ray) and played,” he said. “We’d already establishe­d our team and we haven’t done that (this year). We have a lot of young players.

“For them, the good thing is they don’t know any better and they say, ‘Oh, this is life in the CFL.’ ”

It is when you play for the Argonauts, at least for this season. The stability the organizati­on craved for years was finally delivered in May when Bell and Maple Leaf Sports Entertainm­ent chairman Larry Tanenbaum’s Kilmer Group bought the team. The Argos will move from Rogers Centre to BMO Field next year. Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich were given threeyear contract extensions on Monday.

“We have a vision of what’s to come once next year rolls around when we’re taken over by the Kilmer Group and Bell,” Barker said. “We’ll get to play (at home) every other week. People take that stuff for granted, but football’s a game of routine and our routine right now is we’re travelling. The first five weeks this year, we travel a long way and it’s tough.

“But we can either deal with it or bitch about it and bitching about it doesn’t get you anything but grief.”

From Milanovich down through the roster, that’s the approach being taken. No one wishes this year away to get to the stability that awaits in 2016.

“Certainly I’m not,” said Milanovich. “I’m looking forward to the season as our players are and we have a lot to prove. There’s a lot still out there in front of us. We’re excited about this season.”

“I don’t ever look forward to next year,” said kicker Swayze Waters, who was with the Eskimos for a couple of weeks in 2012.

“I learned that a long time ago. Football’s a day-to-day, week-to-week thing.”

The Argos will work with what’s in front of them for now: an expected “home” crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000 fans on Saturday and four more games away from Toronto before their homeopener on Aug. 8. By then, Ray’s surgically-repaired and still-healing shoulder might be good enough to get him back on the field.

Out there on the horizon that nobody says they’re looking at sits a transforma­tive era for a franchise that’s lost in Toronto’s sports landscape.

“Football is about routine and we’ve been anything but a team with routine,” Barker said. “We had our building (the training facility in Mississaug­a, Ont.) burn down (in December 2011). It was very difficult, we never knew where we were going to practise. Those kinds of things wear on you. I think last year, it kind of hit a head and players finally said that this isn’t right.

“Now we have a facility and, in five years, David Braley has found us a great owner and we have a facility now (Downsview Park).”

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