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Ticats veteran offensive tackle Van Zeyl still loving the grind of CFL training camp


Veteran offensive tackle Chris Van Zeyl of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats still loves the grind of training camp. 

But at age 37 and preparing for his 14th CFL season, the Font Hill, Ont., native says it won't be his body that tells him when it's time to walk away from football.

"It will be my heart," he said. "When I lose the joy I get from playing football, that's when I will stop.

"Pain and what not, you can squash that — but that desire and love I have for the game, it would take a great deal to squash that. I'm nowhere near that right now. I love this."

Van Zeyl has certainly had the luxury of time to prepare for the '21 season. The CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will kick off a 14-game campaign Aug. 5.

But other than donning a different jersey — Van Zeyl began his CFL career as a defensive lineman with Montreal in 2007 — the former McMaster star said there's little different with this training camp than his first.

"You really have to focus on your world, then control what you can within the team's world," he said. "You really build from day to day, whether it's your first training camp or 14th.

"You're going to make mistakes — it's training camp — especially after the period we've had. But I'm not making excuses for myself. If I mess up I'm expecting them to coach me hard and I will coach myself hard. I prepared myself in the off-season and I'm really excited to be here with this group of guys and have the opportunity to play football with them again."

The 2019 season was bittersweet for the six-foot-six, 312-pound Van Zeyl.

He was abruptly released by the Toronto Argonauts before training camp in an apparent salary-cap move, ending an 11-year association with the club. Later that day, though, he signed with arch-rival Hamilton.

The Ticats won a club-record 15 regular-season games in 2019 and led the CFL in points per game (28.2), offensive TDs (50), net offence (395.8 yards per game) and passing yards (313.3 per game). First-year head coach Orlondo Steinauer was named the CFL's coach of the year and Van Zeyl its top lineman, but Hamilton's stellar campaign ended with a 33-12 Grey Cup loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Hamilton opens the '21 season in Winnipeg, but Van Zeyl said redemption won't be the goal.

"It's in the rear view," Van Zeyl said. "You can leave it in the back of your mind to help if you need that motivation, but we're looking forward and not backward.

"Tomorrow is the next day towards the Grey Cup and we've got to do our best tomorrow."

Hamilton returns a veteran roster and is expected to contend for this year's title. The franchise last won a league championship in 1999 and with this year's Grey Cup slated for Dec. 12 at Tim Hortons Field, there's added incentive to end this year on top.

"We haven't won anything yet," said Van Zeyl, who won two Grey Cups with Toronto. "We're a long way away from being the team we want to be.

"Everybody has to work on his craft day by day and hopefully we get to where we want to be at the end of the season."

Van Zeyl is of one of four returnees on Hamilton's offensive line that started the 2019 Grey Cup game. The lone absentee is American tackle Ryker Mathews, who's now with the B.C. Lions.

Mike Gibson begins his second coaching stint with Hamilton but first leading the offensive line. He was the club's assistant head coach/offensive coordinator in 2009-10.

Gibson has 40 years of coaching experience, including 15 in the CFL. He returns to Hamilton following four seasons in Edmonton (2016-19), where he served as assistant head coach and offensive line coach in 2019 after three years coaching the O-line and co-ordinating the club's run game.

"It doesn't matter how many years you've played football, you're always looking to learn and get better," Van Zeyl said. "Having a coach like him who has the experience and tool box he has, it gives me an opportunity to get better.

"I'm always looking to get better. I'm never satisfied with how I played, especially given the last game was a year and a half ago and it didn't end well for me or the team. It's something I'm looking to build on and put my best foot forward this season."

And with the CFL resuming play this year, Van Zeyl can look forward to playing games with his young son, Colton, looking on.

"I don't know if it makes it more special but it definitely grants you a new sense of perspective," Van Zeyl said. "Having my son, who's 2 1/2, get an opportunity to see me play and put in the hard work it takes to play a football season ... that melts my heart.

"There's no greater joy than having him in the stands and being able to watch me do what I love to do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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