Montreal Alouettes executives Cecchini, Maciocia both expecting CFL to play in 2021

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Montreal Alouettes president Mario Cecchini and general manager Danny Maciocia expect the CFL team to be playing games in 2021.

Both Cecchini and Maciocia were brimming with optimism Tuesday during Montreal's state-of-the-franchise videoconference. It was part of Grey Cup Unite, the league's virtual program to celebrate a traditional Grey Cup week after the CFL cancelled its 2020 campaign in August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision came after the CFL couldn't secure financial assistance from the federal government to play a shortened campaign in Winnipeg.

Cecchini said his optimism for a '21 season was based solely upon science. On Monday Moderna was touting positive trial results for a potential COVID-19 vaccine after Pfizer Inc. suggested last week its vaccine appeared to be similarly effective.

Cecchini said medical people he's spoken with are hopeful a vaccine could be available as early as March.

"To me, that's all encouraging news," Cecchini told reporters. "That's really the news that counts, which gives me that sense of optimism I'm feeling right now."

Maciocia was more definitive.

"To me, it's very simple we're playing," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind . . . or else I'd be a fool to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and get on the phone to talk to our scouts and have the multiple numbers of Zoom calls that we have. 

"If there was one shred of a doubt, one per cent of a doubt in my mind that we wouldn't be playing then I wouldn't be doing it. There's no question in my mind that we're going to field a competitive team and no question in my mind that we're going to play at McGill."

With no football and minimal revenues in 2020, the CFL could again approach Ottawa for financial assistance to kick off a '21 season. In April, it presented the federal government with a three-tiered request that began with $30 million initially, more in the event of a shortened season and up to $150 million for a cancelled campaign.

In July, the CFL modified that request to $44 million before asking Ottawa for a $30-million, interest-free loan on Aug. 3. However, the two sides couldn’t agree on a deal.

"There is a sense right now that we have more than one scenario," Cecchini said regarding the CFL's '21 plans. "I sincerely believe we'll see where all that leads but I don't think it is going to be required."

There certainly was a sense of optimism in Montreal this year. The franchise was under new ownership — Ontario businessmen Gary Stern and Sid Spiegel purchased the Alouettes from the CFL in January — after finishing second in the East Division with a 10-8 record under first-year head coach Khari Jones.

Once the franchise was sold, Cecchini and Maciocia were hired to lead Montreal into its new era. It seems a majority of Alouettes season-ticket holders share the optimism expressed by the two executives.

"Close to 86 per cent of them kept their money with us for the 2021 season," Cecchini said. "We're extremely appreciative of that, which shows their confidence in us.

"Our internal surveys are telling us most fans, a great majority of fans are looking forward to coming back to the stadium to watch games."

But the harsh reality these days is the only certainty is uncertainty. No one knows what the COVID-19 numbers might be come next summer or when a vaccine will be widely available. 

And then there's the matter of whether fans will be allowed into CFL stadiums in 2021, and if so, how many?

Cecchini, for one, didn't want to discuss whether the CFL could survive a second straight year without games.

"I don't even want to put it out there," he said. "I don't think this will happen . . . there's no reason for it to happen.

"We're in the process of playing and as we're preparing to play we'll have some announcements in the coming weeks as far as the team is concerned . . . hopefully we'll have scenarios to narrow that down to one. To me it's playing with fans in our own stadiums, that's absolutely very important to us."

Maciocia, too, is dealing with plenty of uncertainty.

With no tackle football being played in Canada, evaluating U Sports players eligible for the 2021 CFL draft will be much more difficult. Compounding matters, too, is also trying to determine which draft-eligible players might defer to the 2022 draft.

Then there's trying to deal with CFL free agency unsure if the league's salary cap will be $5.35 million, as per the collective bargaining agreement with the CFL Players' Association.

"As far as we're concerned we're going to have another year on the CBA so until further notice we're going to function as if that's going to be enforced, and be the status quo moving forward," Maciocia said. "It will be, without a doubt, some of the longest days we're going to spend here as a football operations staff.

"I can see us going around the clock seven days a week for a few months, probably 14-16 hours a day trying to figure out this puzzle. But that's just our reality and it's not like we're living it alone. We're all collectively going to experience it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press