August 1, 2019

Rivalry Games

Seems Colton Hunchak has already, quietly, politely been read the riot act at home.

“My family’s been in my ear a little bit about how we have to win this weekend,’’ confesses the Calgary Stampeders’ freshman receiver.

“Edmonton is my dad’s ninth-favourite team.

“He’s always saying that.

“Crazy thing is, he was actually born in Edmonton but he moved down here and has been a Stamps’ fan his whole life.

“So whenever anybody mentions the Eskimos he says, almost without fail: ‘Edmonton? They’re my ninth-favourite team.’

“So, naturally he’s always told me a lot of stories about the rivalry.”

For the raw, first-year Stampeder recruits such as Hunchak, Saturday represents a first, in-your-face, intoxicating taste of the long-standing Battle of Alberta, professional grid version, a delectable table-setting precursor to the early September Labour Day home-and-away twin-bill.

Raheem Wilson is keen to see what it’s all about.

“Oh, I’ve heard a lot about the rivalry,’’ says the rookie DB. “About the (Labour Day) week, the back-to-backs. Just not this week. No more of that talk. This week is solely about getting ready.

“I had a big rival in both high-school and college. In high school, it was Cedar Hill High School. Josh Bell can tell you. We at Desoto High just weren’t big fans of theirs. They were right down the street. We hated them.

“In college, at South East Oklahoma State, East Central University was the one. Every year, as bad as the year was going or as good as the year was going, we had to – I mean, had to – win that last game against East Central.”

And Wilson’s success rate in those larger-than-life tilts?

“I went undefeated against both of ‘em,’’ he reports proudly. “Whenever we won, I remember, we’d go crazy. As soon as the clock hits zeroes. Crazy. Then in the locker room or on the bus ride back, too, just from the excitement and joy of beating your biggest rivals.”

Andres Salgado can certainly relate.

“When I was playing for the Condors, the rivalry game was against Mayas,’’ recalls the Mexico City-born wide receiver. “A lot of their players were from the college I went against every single year.

“The players from that college went to Mayas and from my college to Condors. I remember back in 2017, my senior year, we played them in front of 45,000 fans at Stadio Olympico. Pretty cool. That’s the biggest football game in Mexico, at any level.

“So the rivalry just carried over from college to when I joined the Condors.

“You felt you had to beat those guys whenever we played. But off the field, we had good friendships.”

Attending Kent State and playing for the Golden Flashes, linebacker Nate Holley’s historic rival was the wonderfully named University of Akron Zips, 20 or so minutes down the road.

But …

“I’ve never actually bought into the whole rivalry thing,’’ Holley confesses. “My take on it has always been: Never hype up one game more than another.

“To me every game is equally important. To me your biggest rival is yourself. If you don’t get ramped up every week, why are you playing this game?

“So to me the is a little skewed.

“I grew up in Michigan, on the Michigan-Ohio border, so the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry was the biggest thing I’d be exposed to. Makng bets within the family. I have a twin brother who was an Ohio State fan. I was a Michigan fan. So there was a little rivalry inside the rivalry.

“I don’t get crazy into rivalries but I’m definitely more into them as a fan than as a participant, as a player, ‘cause, as I said, I take the same approach each week.”

Growing up, local boy Hunchak, Notre Dame HS-trained, spent a few summer-to-late-autumn holiday Mondays/various evenings ether perched in front of the TV or seated in the stands at McMahon Stadium, catching earlier incarnations of the Battle.

“I don’t remember what year, or if it was Labour Day or not, but there was one game against them that has stuck with me,’’ he recalls. “Something like 13 seconds left on the clock, Henry (Burris) threw a bomb up into the sky to try and kill the time. On third down. And the ball actually went into the stands with one second left. So Edmonton got the ball back for a play and Ricky (Ray) threw a Hail Mary into the end zone and they almost pulled it out.

“Just a wild finish.

“That’s one very vivid memory I have from the Calgary-Edmonton rivalry.”

These sorts of games are, naturally, where memories are forged in the imagination.

“Rivalry games, wherever you are, at whatever level, are always great environments,’’ says Wilson. “Everybody takes a side, right? Everybody has an emotional investment in the outcome.

“Home town, home team, everybody comes together for a common goal. To win.”

Colton Hunchak’s dad, Todd, can elaborate, of course, on the importance of taking the two invaluable points off his ninth-favourite team.

“I’m looking forward to this game,’’ acknowledges Andres Salgado. “All you hear is Edmonton, Edmonton.

“It’s the big rivalry game, right? Emotions flow. The atmosphere in the stadium is great. The intensity of the game rises.

“Should be fun.”