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CFL Camp Countdown: Tiger-Cats get aggressive

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Continuing our series of training camp previews, here's a look at the Hamilton Tiger-Cats from Wednesday's conference call. You can find audio of the call here and the full transcript here. Below, some point-form observations on different elements discussed Wednesday with team president Scott Mitchell, general manager Bob O'Billovich and head coach Marcel Bellefeuille:

— The overall theme of the Tiger-Cats' season probably can be described as aggressiveness, a subject reflected in everything from promotions run by the marketing department to the philosophies of the coaching staff to the team's free-agent signings. One of the more unique things along those lines was the team's upcoming Oct. 7 "Your Team, Your Rules" promotion. This event, held during a game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, is going to feature fan input on a wide variety of concepts, including some that could affect the on-field product. Here's what Mitchell had to say on the subject:

"We've got the "Your Team, Your Rules" game, which I think is going to be fantastic on October 7th against (Winnipeg)," he said. "It gives the fans the chance to vote on everything that happens at the game that day including, and Coach Bellefeuille was very receptive to this, having the fans vote on the opening play of the game that Coach Bellefeuille will give them a choice of plays to vote on. That game they'll be selecting everything, from the ticket deals to the player uniforms to the music to the cheerleader routines, concession deals, and the merchandise deals at the stadium that day so just a chance for our fans to engage with us and really dictate their own experience at the game that day."

— Creative promotions are one thing, but having fans vote on plays seems like something that could create significant problems, especially when it's already dictated when the play will be run (first play of the game). If the choice was between two or three plays, or the results were published, that's essentially tipping their hand to Winnipeg. However, Bellefeuille (pictured above during an Oct. 3 game last year) said there's going to be a wide variety of plays available to fans, which should eliminate that concern (it could cause concerns about their playbook leaking out, though).

"We don't want to limit the fans, just like we don't want to limit our players," Bellefeuille said. "I think the list will have to be fairly extensive and somewhat creative to really put a little bit of moxie behind what we're trying to do and not make it just one of those ornamental type of things. We'll give them lots of opportunity and we'll put some creativity in there."

— Aggressiveness was also evident in the way Hamilton lobbied for a new stadium, which even included threats of relocation right up to the last minute. The situation was resolved with a deal to renovate Ivor Wynne Stadium, though, and Mitchell said despite the acrimony during negotiations, the team's relationships with municipal politicians have survived.

"There's not a lot I can say about the stadium," he said. "It's a confidential process. But what I can say that what was a very tough debate for a great deal of time ended off with a good result and what was at times acrimonious, has turned into an incredibly positive and enthusiastic relationship with the city and the mayor, the chief of staff and the city manager."

— Also on that stadium front, the team's expecting to play this season and next season at the existing Ivor Wynne, and start at the new facility in 2014. Plans for 2013 aren't confirmed yet, as different options are still being debated and priced out. Mitchell said the plans for the new facility are looking great, though.

"What I do know is that there's going to be a world-class, absolutely beautiful new stadium, delivered on the old Ivor Wynne site in 2014," he said. "The work that we've seen done and the discussions we've had, as I said, have been incredibly productive and I couldn't be more excited, nor can [owner] Bob [Young], about the new stadium and when it comes."

— Another interesting promotional note came from Mitchell about the Tiger-Cats' partnership with Mark Hominick, who put up one of the most impressive performances at UFC 129 in Toronto in April. I wrote that the deal worked out brilliantly for Hamilton, and Mitchell apparently agrees. "The UFC/Mark Hominick relationship couldn't have turned out any better and Mark is looking forward to being a headliner at our game this summer," he said.

— Moving on to personnel matters, the Tiger-Cats conducted an intriguing front-office shuffle this offseason, giving Drew Allemang the title of director of Canadian scouting. They hadn't had someone specifically focused on only Canadians before, so that's a notable change. I asked O'Billovich why they made that move, and his answer fits in nicely with my repeated statements on the growing importance of the Canadian draft and developing quality Canadian talent. Here's what he had to say:

"I don't think there's any secret to that," O'Billovich said. "Those of us who've been around the league as long as I have, we know that the key to winning in the Canadian Football League is built around your Canadian content. The better those players are, the better the chances you have of developing a solid roster, which will allow you to win football games. Because it's so important, you're looking for someone who can stay right on top of those things as far as following the Canadian content and where the best players are and what has to be done to stay in touch."

"Drew Allemang is doing a great job in that respect. We've kind of restricted down his responsibilities to that per se, whereby he is concentrated solely on following Canadian talent throughout the league—both in Canada and the United States when we have players that are down there playing for US colleges. He's a very valuable guy to our organization. If I think back years ago when I first came into the league as a young assistant coach, at that time I remember Edmonton was winning five straight Grey Cups, and they were one of the few teams with a US scout and then they had a Canadian scout."

"That's the kind of a role that we're using Drew for and we take care of the rest of it with the positions I mentioned earlier. It's really important, and we know how to deal with it in terms of the experiences of myself and Marcel, and Drew's just learning by leaps and bounds. He's a good young administrator that's going to become a very good football man during his career in the CFL."

— O'Billovich also had some interesting comments to make on the ongoing NFL lockout, which he figures could be a boon for signing undrafted free agents (a class potentially affected significantly by the labour dispute).

"I think that the situation down there, as far as what we're able to gather information-wise, is that it's kind of bleak right as far as whether or not they're going to go to training camp," O'Billovich said. "I kind of get the sense that it's probably going to be some kind of abbreviated training camp, maybe a two week period or something and they'll go right into the regular schedule. I don't even know if they're going to have a training camp."

"Obviously, that's definitely going to affect young players who are trying to figure out what's their best way to have an opportunity to play somewhere and we're starting to realize now, since the NFL draft has happened, that some of these players that were hoping they could maybe get signed as a free agent, if this thing happens the way I just explained it, those free agent players aren't going to have much of an opportunity or much of a look, so they would certainly be welcomed in the CFL where they have a chance to play right away if they're good enough."

"I think it's probably going to create a positive situation for us, as far as finding new talent and new players, but we really won't know for sure until something definite happens down there as far as them solving their problems between the players associations and the league. Right now we're just concentrating on trying to do our jobs and getting the best possible players up here. If there's a few players who are becoming more available than they would have been that's going to be better for the whole league as far as the CFL's concerned."

— On the aggressiveness front, that's a phrase that's particularly been used about new defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin, but Bellefeuille said it also extends to offensive coordinator Khari Jones and special-teams boss Brad Miller.

"I think the other part of it too is as an organization, and not from the defensive side of the football, we all have to be more aggressive and play more aggressively to be more successful and we believe that's one of the things that we have to do to be a better football team this year," he said. "I think Corey is in line with that, but you'll also see that from the special teams and offensive side."

— The overall attitude of aggressiveness also extended to the team's free-agency moves. One notable one was the signing of veteran Montreal running back Avon Cobourne, who Bellefeuille said should help not only on the field, but also in the locker room.

"Leadership comes in a lot of different ways and we have a lot of strong leaders on our team already and players that lead by example," Bellefeuille said. "But, obviously having coached Avon, I know him well and I know his style and I think that is something that is going to help us and is going to contribute to our leadership."

"Players holding each other accountable obviously is the ultimate thing in sport, in terms of being successful, and Avon's one of those players that will hold himself accountable to other players around him, so I think that was part of it. The number one part is his ability to play, but that's something I think that will help us and the other players that have that in them he'll pull it out of them."

— The Tiger-Cats' other free-agent signings reinforced the theme of aggressively trying to win now, and that was palatable in O'Billovich's comments. He said while he's usually optimistic, he's taking that to a new level this season.

"I feel really good about this year, honestly," he said. "There is just some things, there is just some special vibes I think are going on. I think the strength of our football team last year was our front seven, I didn't think that we got as much out of our front seven as we were capable of getting out of them, as far as being better."

"Looking at it this year, with a new defensive coordinator and looking at those guys who've been playing together now for a couple years, and bringing in a guy like Renauld Williams at the middle linebacker spot, that was a tough decision to have to let a guy like Otis Floyd go to make room for this young man, but this guy's a young Otis Floyd who's going to pack a whallop in the middle and he's going to be the kind of guy that you like to see your defence built around."

"If we've addressed the situation in the secondary with some big young players who can do all the things that our new coordinator wants to be done back there, I think that's going to say a lot for our football team getting better on the defensive side. We did some positive things on offence last year, but we didn't do it when it was most important in the playoff game, so I think just the added experience that we've had as a young team growing, I think that is coming to fruition this year."

"I expect us to be a major challenge to the Alouettes because they are the defending Grey Cup champions and our job is to dethrone them."

There's certainly plenty to be positive about in Hamilton, but surviving the improving East Division and dethroning the Alouettes is easier said than done. We'll see how the Tiger-Cats are able to do on that front when the season starts. If confidence and aggressiveness matter, though, they'll definitely have those criteria met.

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