REGINA - No one has come further to the 101st Grey Cup than Hamilton punter Josh Bartel.
And the six-foot-three 200-pound Australian arrives at the CFL championship party with a deep bag of tricks. Thanks to his Aussie Rules Football background, the 27-year-old Bartel can kick on the run and boot the ball in an eye-popping variety of ways.
"He can kick the hell out of that ball," said Hamilton centre Marwan Hage.
"It's beyond unbelievable," added long snapper Kevin Scott. "The way he can bend the ball, almost like 'Bend it Like Beckham.' He can be on the goal-line (in practice) and he'll banana the ball around into the uprights, which is absolutely unbelievable."
A second-year CFL pro who was an Eastern all-star this season, Bartel showed his skills in the Eastern final against Toronto when he set off on a fake kick, only to see an Argo coming at him. He kept going but kicked the ball at the last moment before contact to optimize distance.
"I didn't really want to kick it," Bartel said. "I started running and thought touchdown but the bloke must have caught me out of the corner of his eye. He came and got me.
"I'll save it for this game."
Bartel's ability to kick on the run and place the ball has given Hamilton options that Paul Osbaldiston, a former kicker who is the team's assistant special teams and kicking coach, says the Tiger-Cats are still exploring.
"We're working and trying to develop a couple of new kicks that we can pull in at the right situations as well," Osbaldiston said. "He's really good at doing things different."
There is a brotherhood of Australian kickers, with Scott Crough (Calgary) and Tim Hutchinson (Winnipeg) both getting CFL tryouts. The Aussies can kick and are doubly attractive because, according to league bylaws and the collective bargaining agreement, they qualify as non-imports.
Back home, Bartel played Australian Rules Football with the Wodonga Bulldogs, Kiewa-Sandy Creek and Murray Bushrangers.
"I was probably a level below pro, a couple of levels below. It just didn't work out. I found another way."
He opened the door via the Internet, looking up Nathan Chapman, who spent eight years in the AFL with Brisbane and Hawthorn before signing with the Green Bay Packers in 2004. Now he helps other Australians try their hand at American/Canadian football via his company ProKick Australia.
"I rang him up, went down and had a workout with him," Bartel said. "He said I had what it takes. That was two and a half years ago so yeah it's been a journey for sure."
It has taken him from a dairy farm in Kiewa, northeast of Melbourne, all the way to the CFL championship game.
"It's a pretty crazy thing to come and be the first Australian that's going to be in the Grey Cup. Hopefully we're going to win, which would be even nicer," he said.
"I love this league," he added. "I get to travel around Canada and meets lots of good people. I couldn't wish for anything better."
While Aussie Rules Football offers plenty of contact, Bartel has a healthy respect for the hitting in the CFL.
"It's the hardest I've seen people get hit and they bounce back up and keep going."
The frigid weather in Regina has also got Bartel's attention. He jokingly told his teammates he plans to spend a lot of time complaining and huddling next to the heaters Sunday.
Friends and family haven't helped, telling him that the temperature hit 32 degrees back home recently.
"It didn't go down too well," he said.
Bartel will have his girlfriend, little brother and cousin cheering him on Sunday.
"I sort of have to win the Grey Cup to break even, I think," he said, calculating the cost of tickets and accommodations.