Regular-season dominance doesn’t always translate into CFL playoff success

TORONTO — Mike Kiselak fondly remembers the 1996 and ‘97 seasons with the Toronto Argonauts.

Both years, Toronto posted 15-3 records — the best regular-season marks in the franchise’s illustrious 146-year history. Kiselak was named the CFL’s top lineman each year but what really stands out for the all-star centre was the Argos effectively parlaying the immense weight of playoff expectation into Grey Cup championships.

“Those years still would’ve been nice,” Kiselak said. “But winning the Grey Cup is what made them special because as an American player, that’s why you come to Canada, to continue the dream of playing football and win a championship.

“I received rings for being named top lineman but I never wear them, they’re still in the box. The individual stuff, those are nice accolades but that’s not why you’re in it. Whenever I go out, I wear the Grey Cup rings.”

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats find themselves in a similar situation this year. They were the CFL’s best team during the regular season with a league-best 15-3 mark that also was a single-season franchise record.

The challenge now is duplicating that success in the playoffs as the Ticats attempt to end a dubious 20-year Grey Cup drought.

Hamilton begins its Grey Cup quest Sunday hosting Edmonton in the East Division final. The Ticats will be heavy favourites, considering they’re a perfect 9-0 at Tim Hortons Field and swept the season series with the Eskimos, who finished fourth in the West Division with an 8-10 record.

It was a similar scenario for the Argos in 1996 and ‘97. Their roster included Kiselak, quarterback Doug Flutie, running backs Robert Drummond and Mike (Pinball) Clemons, Canadian linebacker Mike O’Shea and defensive tackle Rob Waldrop.

Kiselak, a former centre, said whatever outside pressure there was on the Argos paled in comparison to the expectations the players and coaches had.

“We had so many great players that everyone knew what the expectation was,” he said. “And with our head coach (the late Don Matthews), we had a swagger but not in an over-confident way.

“I remember in 1996 we got our butts kicked in Vancouver (a 35-11 loss to the B.C. Lions in the regular season), I got my butt kicked. But we had guys who could accept coaching so when the coaches got on us it didn’t bother us. I know for me, whenever a coach got on me all it did was make me stronger and want to play harder and better. That was our mentality, not just to be good but strive to be great.”

Kiselak ended his five-year CFL stint in ‘98 when he signed with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Kiselak ended his pro football career in ‘01 with the XFL’s San Francisco Demons.

These days, Kiselak is involved in the construction business in Dallas. The 52-year-old admits he’s never thought about what might’ve been had Toronto lost in either or both Grey Cups.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to play in the 20th game of the season and not come away with the win,” said Kiselak. “I’m so glad I never had to experience that.”

The Eskimos proved in 1989 that regular-season success doesn’t always carry over into the playoffs.

Edmonton, under head coach Joe Faragalli, posted a league-best 16-2 record, the most regular-season victories in CFL history. Like Hamilton, the Eskimos were unbeaten at home and led offensively by Tracy Ham, who’d capture league MVP honours after passing for 4,366 yards and becoming the first CFL quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,005 on 25 carries with 10 TDs).

But Edmonton lost 32-21 in the West Division final to the third-place Saskatchewan Roughriders (9-9). The Riders did hand the Eskimos one of their two regular-season losses, but still dropped the season series 2-1 and went into conference final as a double-digit underdog.

Saskatchewan captured the Grey Cup with a wild 43-40 win over Hamilton in Toronto. Even 30 years later, that West Division final loss sill lingers with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, who was an offensive lineman with the Eskimos.

“It never goes away,” Ambrosie said. “That game has lived in my mind now for many, many years.”

The contest started well for Edmonton, which led 10-3 and appeared poised to add to it while driving to the Saskatchewan 30-yard line. But Riders linebacker Eddie Lowe hit Ham and forced him to fumble.

Dave Albright recovered and returned it 62 yards for the touchdown to make it 10-10. Edmonton went back ahead 20-17 but would be outscored 15-1 the rest of the way

“We lost to Saskatchewan that year so it’s not as though there wasn’t some evidence the Riders couldn’t give us a hard time,” Ambrosie said. “But when you win 16 games, you’re kind of feeling invincible and I think no matter how much Joe Faragalli had tried, it’s kind of hard not to feel like, ‘This is our house and we’re hard to beat.’

“I’m sure there was (playoff pressure on Eskimos) but that fumble was a game-changer and then the pressure mounted. The problem in that moment was you don’t really have much experience from which to draw upon because we’d been pretty dominant.”

It was the second straight year of playoff heartbreak for Ambrosie. The year before, he played for a Toronto team that posted a CFL-best 14-4 record before losing 27-11 to visiting Winnipeg in a soggy East Division final.

The Blue Bombers went on to edge the B.C. Lions 22-21 in the Grey Cup.

“I had 30 regular-season wins in two years and not a Grey Cup ring to show for it,” he said. “So I understood pain and suffering.”

Ambrosie, 56, would finally earn a Grey Cup ring in ‘93 with Edmonton, his final season as a CFL player. But the Winnipeg native said there’s a silver lining to the Eskimos’ heart-breaking ‘89 playoff loss.

“There are stories to tell, reminders to learn from,” he said. “Just because you won a lot of games doesn’t guarantee this one and I think it could be part of the narrative: Don’t take anything for granted.

“Maybe those are the bread crumbs we left.”

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