HAMILTON, ONT. — It started in Winnipeg, sort of, or at least, it grew there.
It grew at the old Gordon Downtowner hotel, in musty rooms clad in sticky wallpaper with mirrors above the bed. It grew when Jason Allan and his friends had to step over dozing bodies in hallways to get to their rooms, but found something in that grit they knew and kind of liked.
It was 1998. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats were about to lose a squeaker to the Calgary Stampeders at the 86th Grey Cup. Allan and his crew had made the trek from their home in Hamilton. It was their first visit to the CFL’s title game, and though the Ticats didn’t win, the friends took away something much bigger and so much more lasting.
"So we’re in Winnipeg, we’re staying at the Downtowner, and we started to go these festivities and we thought, holy s—-, this is amazing," Allan says, chatting at a downtown Hamilton pub Friday afternoon. "People don’t realize how different, but yet how lucky we are as a league, as a country, to have something special like that."
His voice catches in his throat. He shakes his head, and laughs.
"I’m actually getting emotional about it. So anyway, when we came back (from Winnipeg), we said: ‘This is our thing.’"
Since then, the Box J Boys, as they’re now known, have become one of the CFL’s most famous fan contingents. You can’t miss them, not in their flying yellow kilts and black boots and work helmets festooned with stickers. On Friday night, they were set to host what CFL fans here have been buzzing will be the stand-out party of this Grey Cup week.
"This is what we’ve been waiting for, for 25 years," says Box J Boy Mario Cintino, as he sips a beer at the Corktown Pub a few hours before the late-night bacchanal kicks off. "We’ve been waiting to host this thing for so long, and now our beloved Cats are in it… This is like Christmas. It’s an indescribable feeling. If I died on Monday…"
He trails off, eyes losing focus somewhere in the middle distance, and grins.
There are about 20 Box J Boys. The youngest are in their 30s; the oldest is 82, and still often "the last one standing" at their events, Allan says.
"People don’t realize how different, but yet how lucky we are as a league, as a country, to have something special like that." –Jason Allan
They don’t recruit members: if you want to join, first you just got to hang around the Boys, for years. You got to buy some rounds, and show you’re a good person, and maybe someday you’ll move from honourary to official.
To understand the Boys, you have to understand how they formed.
The original group were, for the most part, childhood friends. Like most born-and-raised Hamiltonians, they’d grown up learning the "Oskee Wee Wee" chant as toddlers; when they were old enough, they started working at Ticats games, selling programs at old Ivor Wynne Stadium.
"We did everything we could do to actually get into the game," says Allan, who turned 55 Thursday. "In those times, you could buy (a ticket) for a buck, but who the hell had a buck? I had 10 cents to get on the bus. That’s how the black and gold melted into our blood."
By the late 1990s, the Ticats were in dire financial straits. When the team almost folded, the Boys decided they had to do something to revive the fan spirit. So they moved from the cheap seats to Box J, close behind the benches; now, their group had an obvious name. Soon, they had T-shirts, and then they became sensations.
"It was never anything planned," Allan says. "There was no marketing strategy behind it. It was just a bunch of dudes doing the thing they liked to do to keep their friendship going year after year after year."
After that 1998 Grey Cup in Winnipeg, the Boys became fixtures on the CFL fan circuit. They brought in the kilts, and started going to Grey Cups all over the nation. When the Ticats, now stabilized under the ownership of Bob Young, started calling Tim Hortons Field home in 2014, they named the Boys’ section the Honourary Box J, in appreciation.
Now, the Boys are about to host the game that’s kept them so tight, ever since that first trek to Winnipeg.
It feels right, knowing all this, that these should be the two teams to meet here Sunday.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats are so different, in so many ways. They’re not alike in weather — it reached 7 C in Hamilton on Friday — or in geography, where Hamilton splays out picturesque around and above the undulating escarpment locals call "the mountain."
Yet, the cities share a sort of kinship. Both blue-collar cities that took a rough tumble through the 20th century; both have a faltering downtown mall; both are made up of ragged streets and old buildings and an identity they’ve had to carve out and protect.
Outside the pub, a man who gives his name simply as Murphy, smokes a cigarette and gestures at the pretty red brick houses across the street. Those, too, he says, show part of a story Winnipeg knows in its own bones.
"If we didn’t have something to grab onto, we just might as well be Toronto." –Jason Allan
"If you go through the city and look at the architecture, it tells you the story of every rise and fall," he says. "And there have been a lot."
Murphy is originally from Alberta, but he is full of Hamilton trivia. It has the best music scene in the world, that nobody knows about, he says. Unlike neighbouring Toronto, red-hot bands play dive bar gigs attended by some of Canada’s most influential musicians and nobody cares too much.
"The joke is that nobody in Hamilton gives a f—-," he says.
About fame, right? And grasping for it?
"About anything," he replies, and hearing this, a Winnipegger can’t help but feel at home.
Above all, both cities have a CFL team they’ve clung to through bleak times. For so many years, Winnipeg held the longest Grey Cup drought in the league; when the Bombers finally snapped that by beating the Ticats in 2019, the dubious title fell to Hamilton.
Yet, even through those droughts, both cities loved their teams fiercely, sometimes naively, sometimes even beyond reason.
"It’s our identity," Allan says. "That’s it. It’s who we are. I couldn’t ever imagine Hamilton without the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. There’s just no discussion. It’s really about the toughness of the Cats, and when you walk downtown…"
He trails off for a moment, lost in thought, and then his attention snaps back.
"If we didn’t have something to grab onto, we just might as well be Toronto."
That, too, is something Winnipeggers will understand.
Unlike Hamilton, our city stands an urban island on the prairie; it doesn’t sit in the shadow thrown by the glitz of a far larger, wealthier city. But Winnipeg, too, knows what it’s like to claim a place in a country that often forgets it.
It’s right that, two years after the Bombers beat Hamilton to win the 2019 Grey Cup, the teams should meet for a rematch here, in the heart of an old steel town that, beneath the surface, feels so much like home. Not the same, but in so many of the ways that matter, sharing a story that sounds a little like an echo of the other.
Kinda gritty, kinda real. No fame in it, really, but plenty of heart.
As Hamilton gets ready to will its team to what it hopes will be its first Grey Cup title since 1999, the loudest and most visible part of that passion traces its roots to those musty old Winnipeg hotel rooms, and to the spirit of a league that thrives best in its humblest places.
Upstairs at the pub, as his Free Press interview wraps up, Allan looks over at a reporter, and a spark lights up his eyes.
"We’re going to kick the Bombers’ ass on Sunday," he says, and grins.
"You come into our town, we’re going to give it to ya," Allan says. "You’re gonna hear it. It was like that in Winnipeg, too, whenever we went. That’s part of the fun of it.
"After, we’ll go have a few beers, have a drink together. We’ll talk about our love of the game, the country, the CFL."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.