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July 4, 2024

For The Hammer

There are many avenues to express civic pride, but over the last 150 years, Hamilton’s preferred path has run directly through sports.

Reflecting that storied history, just a few days from now Tim Hortons Field will host a two-week celebration of community spirit that not only recognizes sport, but transcends it.

It’s a three-pronged jamboree, beginning on Sunday, July 7 with the annual Made In the Hammer game as the B.C Lions arrive to face the Tiger-Cats.

Three days later, the motif switches from football to soccer, when Forge FC hosts Toronto FC in the opening leg of the home-and-away Semi-Finals of the TELUS Canadian Championships. And on Sunday, July 20, the Ticats and Toronto Argonauts will renew their ancient and bitter rivalry, in the first of three head-to-heads this season.

A city is a community of people, and the heart of a city beats not only in its institutions and landmarks, like Forge FC, the Ticats, and Tim Hortons Field, but also in those who support and frequent them.

This will be the third annual Made in the Hammer game, and it’s evolved into also honouring the local heroes who are the heartbeat of the city and aren’t recognized enough: among them nurses, firefighters, teachers and police officers.

The Ticats will wear their Made in the Hammer uniforms, the overriding colour ‘Hamilton Steel Grey,’ with the numbers and name plates contrasting in the traditional blacks and golds that are the base of the team’s two primary game uniforms. The helmets are black, with the Leaping Tiger replaced by a stylized “H” echoing the symbol of the earliest Hamilton Tigers football and hockey teams. The spaces inside the “H” are shaped like, of course, hammers.

When details of the new uniforms were released to the public in 2022 on July 9, the exact date of the city’s incorporation, Hamilton Sports Group President of Business Operations Matt Afinec said, “Part of the authenticity is celebrating the identity of Hamilton as much as celebrating the identity of the Tiger-Cats. You don’t have to be the biggest football fan to celebrate that.

“It’s a chance to celebrate the unique connection between the city and the club that is, frankly, as historically significant as any in pro sport. This is about inciting a heritage that no other city institution can.”

The Made in the Hammer game is followed by visits from two Toronto teams; Toronto FC and the Argonauts.

It is a Tale of Two Cities, without the guillotine.

Toronto and Hamilton, linked by highway and shoreline, connected by a history both interwoven and separate. Hogtown and Steeltown; big and sprawling, mid-sized and manageable; business suits and dirt under the fingernails.

Since they were each incorporated as cities, straddling the middle of the 19th century, Hamilton and Toronto have been rivals and confederates in building the strongest regional economy in the country. In a pigeon-holed, dumbed-down telling; one managed the money, the other made the things that made the money. One collar was white, the other blue. One was the stemware, the other the draft glass.

Those are superficial contrasts, stereotypes that no longer exist, if they ever did. But the oversimplification does have at least some factual grounding and the plotline of story-telling – the tale of these two cities – relies upon that kind of dramatic tension.

It’s a cultural, athletic drama which has survived more than 150 years – Toronto vs. Hamilton – and it will be played out in two acts on the stage otherwise known as Tim Hortons Field. Or, as Forge FC and the Tiger-Cats call it, “Our House.”

The over-arching theme is civic pride, the sense of community, self-identification and collective strength that Hamiltonians, even those who have migrated from Toronto, have always drawn from being a sports’ underdog to a much larger city.

There has always been a healthy cross-pollination along the QEW.

Historically the Tiger-Cats and Argonauts have always had some of the same coaches (like Scott Milanovich and Orlondo Steinauer) and some of the same players (current Cats Jamal Peters, Brandon Barlow and DeWayne Hendrix are among the dozens and dozens).

Forge stars – including the likes of Kyle Bekker, Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Borges and Kwasi Poku – have played for Toronto FC or in its academy, or grew up around the Big Smoke.

Bobby Smyrniotis’ Sigma FC, the nursery of Forge’s philosophy, and so many of its players, is located in Mississauga. Many of The Hammers’ steadfast support group, The Barton Street Battalion, cut their fandom teeth as TFC advocates and still cheer for both, except when they play each other.

The general population has also usually passed fluidly between the two cities. Hundreds of Hamiltonians commute eastward daily to work, or for a night out in a bigger town, and many have moved there for employment. And in recent years there has been a reverse migration as GTAers, taking advantage of expanded GO service, and slightly cheaper housing here, have taken up residence in and around this city. Many Toronto businesses, particularly in the restaurant industry, have set up shop in the Steel City.

And it does not take long for newcomers to be introduced to Tim Hortons Field, primarily through the Tiger-Cats, but increasingly also through Forge.

Like Ivor Wynne Stadium before it, it is the city’s de facto public square. It is where long-rooted Hamiltonians, many with generations and generations of black and gold in their blood, often take newcomers for a nutshell taste of the city and what it really means to live next to a metropolitan behemoth. It is where the insiders and outsiders sit side by side, rooting for the same team, and against the same team, far more viscerally if that team is from 50 kilometers down the turnpike.

The original reasons for exercising Hamilton civic pride through the love-hate of sports may have faded through time and modern interconnections, but their effects remain and have become embedded in local mythology: Goliath and David; haves and haves-not-as-much; slick and grinding. They are clichés, but they run so deep they feel true.

So when Forge takes on TFC on the 10th, Hammers fans will understand the bones of the narrative: the upstart CPL against the more-established MLS; a team that has played more international games in its six-year existence against the team that thinks it has; a payroll of about $1.25 million against one of about $19 million; a team that should have won the delayed 2020 national championship in regulation time against a team that did win it in penalty kicks; a local certainty that the Forge absolutely deserve to have got this far and farther, against a team that might be sneaking a look past them into the final. Forge fans know their team is prohibitive underdogs but embrace it. That is Hamilton, through the prism of sports.

And 10 days after the first leg of the soccer Semi-Final, in come the Toronto Argonauts who really embody and embellish the notion that Hamilton has always has something to prove, and usually proves it. Tiger-Cat Nation believes, and not incorrectly, that the CFL is its best version of itself when the Argos and Ticats are playing each other, especially in Hamilton where it matters and where Toronto tends to struggle. The Argos may be on one of their rare extended runs of beating the Ticats, but every Tiger-Cat fan feels – no, they know – that that cannot last. History is a repeat of itself and refuses to allow it. That might be a character sketch, but it is drawn in indelible local ink.

So there it is: a history of civic pride through sports condensed into – to rework a little Blue Rodeo – “Two Weeks in July.” Or as famous Hamilton boosters Arkells so succinctly put it, “I wanna be under the lights, swept away on summer nights.”