Only one question is nipping at the heels of the Calgary Stampeders as they prepare for training camp: Will the team play as well wearing Grey Cup rings?

“The competitiveness and the parity of the football teams is very close and each year it’s anyone’s ball game,” head coach John Hufnagel said yesterday when asked about repeating as champs.

“I’m a lot more comfortable going into camp knowing the program, knowing the core of the team is back. We had a lot of players with an opportunity to move on and, fortunately for us, we only lost one player to the NFL (DL Charleston Hughes). The players who are returning are very happy to be Calgary Stampeders this season.”

The Canadian Football League champs open rookie training sessions today (10 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.) at McMahon Stadium with the full camp set to kick off Sunday (8:45 a.m. and 4 p.m.) There isn’t time to waste as the first pre-season game is set for June 17.

It’s a very different scenario than a year ago when Hufnagel arrived in Calgary after a long stint in the NFL to inherit a team covered in question marks.

This year the most significant battles are along the defensive line, where Mike Labinjo is the only returning starter from the Grey Cup victory.

“It’s going to be one of the key positions in training camp,” Hufnagel said. “I’m more comfortable with the groupings coming into this camp than I was last year … I’m very pleased. We didn’t have a lot of experience last year to start our first regular season game. I don’t think we had one player who was a starter going into last year, so we’re 25 per cent better this year — we have one starter returning.”

Two players also announced retirements this week as R Teyo Johnson and QB Will Proctor have walked away from football.

The other significant loss was the off-season retirement of backup QB Dave Dickenson, who will now serve as an assistant coach.

The Stamps open the regular season July 1 when they host the Montreal Alouettes.

The Grey Cup game is set for McMahon Stadium Nov. 29 and is already 80 per cent sold.

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