The week didn't start well for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats thanks to news that their Ivor Wynne Stadium renovation plans faced a significant funding gap, but the past couple of days have seen positive developments for them on a couple of fronts. On the football side, they were able to agree to a new contract with linebacker Markeith Knowlton (pictured above making a tackle against Montreal Oct. 22), the CFL's reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player. On the off-field side, the Ivor Wynne renovation plan was endorsed 10-6 by Hamilton city council Monday despite significant funding questions remaining, and the provincial government is apparently willing to fill some of that funding gap. All of those developments are likely to prove critical to the Tiger-Cats' success both on and off the field over the coming years.
Only two years after B.C. traded him and kicker Ara Tchobanian for the ninth-overall pick in the 2008 draft, Knowlton turned into a star for the Tiger-Cats alongside other former Lions like Jamall Johnson and Otis Floyd. The trio of ex-B.C. players formed arguably the CFL's best linebacking corps this year, and they were a critical part of Hamilton's defence. With a strong group of linebackers that excelled against both the run and the pass, the Tiger-Cats allowed the second-fewest points (450) in the CFL in 2010.
Even with a strong group around him, Knowlton still found ways to stand out. His season was impressive from a statistical point of view not because he dominated any one category, but rather because he excelled at a broad swathe of tasks; he finished with 71 tackles, two blocked punts, three sacks, three interceptions, and a league-high six fumble recoveries, and took some snaps at both a traditional linebacking spot and at defensive back. It's that versatility that made him so tough to plan for; on any given play, there was a chance he'd be coming after the quarterback or dropping into coverage. The Tiger-Cats appear to have recognized Knowlton's value, locking him up through 2013. According to the CFL's official list, Knowlton wasn't set to become a free agent this off-season, so they wouldn't necessarily have lost him without this new deal. However, extending his deal seems like a good move; Knowlton's only 27, so he should be able to play at a high level for years to come, and now it looks like he'll be doing that in black and gold for at least the next few years (Drew Edwards reports that this deal seems to be adding one year on to the end of his current deal). With highlights like these, that bodes well for the team:
Moreover, they can also give him dual duty as the team's barber:
The news on the stadium front may be less concrete, but it's also critical to the team's future. It's certainly a positive from the team's perspective that Hamilton council backed the Ivor Wynne renovation plans even with a significant remaining funding gap, and it's even more positive that they nixed the idea of a backup plan involving a 5,000 seat soccer stadium at the West Harbour site. With that backup plan in place, the PanAm committee could have opted to give Hamilton the funding for a less-costly, less-ambitious project that wouldn't have done anything for the CFL team; without it there, the committee will likely be forced to choose between the large-scale plan at Ivor Wynne that carries plenty of potential in terms of both professional and amateur sporting legacies, but also has notable financial issues, and a smaller-scale backup plan in a neighbouring community like Mississauga that would be easier to do, but wouldn't have the same long-term impact. Mississauga is preparing a study on their proposed project, but the Games committee has said they want to try and find a solution in Hamilton. With only the Ivor Wynne option remaining on the table locally, that's a good omen for the Tiger-Cats.
Even better news for the team is that the provincial government appears willing to help fill the funding gap. There isn't any word on how much they'll chip in, but it's clear that the city isn't going to add any more. Provincial funding could go a long way towards making this project a reality. It seems likely that the Tiger-Cats or their sponsors will still have to chip in some money of their own to get this done, and that's something they should absolutely do, as it's hard to imagine a better stadium opportunity coming along if the PanAm proposal falls apart. However, additional governmental funding could reduce the amount the team needs to put in, and that's promising for their long-term fiscal stability. There's a lot that still has to be worked out, including the actual stadium size, if the league will allow a smaller stadium to host Grey Cups (critical, as those events provide big revenue opportunities) and what the Tiger-Cats will do during construction (there have been suggestions they could play at McMaster University's stadium, but it would require substantial temporary seating to host CFL games). Things are looking better for the Tiger-Cats than they did just a few days ago, though, and that's good news for Hamilton CFL fans.