'Opportunity to build': Montreal Alouettes GM one of few returning faces as season kicks off

The Montreal Alouettes are poised to begin a new season this weekend. There is optimism that some of the changes in the off-season will translate into a better showing. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Montreal Alouettes are poised to begin a new season this weekend. There is optimism that some of the changes in the off-season will translate into a better showing. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

With Robert Wetenhall as owner and Anthony Calvillo at quarterback, it wasn't that long ago that the Alouettes franchise was a model of stability — both on and off the field.

From 1996 through 2012, the Als had 15 winning seasons out of 17, eight appearances in the Grey Cup and three championships. The team seemed to have no trouble selling tickets and there was a consistent buzz around the city leading into each new season.

But those days are gone and, as they have several times since Calvillo retired following an injury-shortened 2013 season, the Montreal Alouettes are once again back to Square 1 in 2023.

"We have a different owner, we've got a different president, we've got a different head coach, we've got a different quarterback. I mean we're not even remotely close to what we were last year," said Alouettes general manager Danny Maciocia.

Maciocia built a team in 2022 that won a playoff game — a first since 2014 for the Alouettes — but he is the only significant part of that team's leadership to return in 2023.

"We've got an opportunity to build in a particular way, but I think that you can build it and remain competitive and that, ultimately, is our goal here," Maciocia said.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

New owner brings promise of financial stability

Billionaire and former politician (who advocated for Quebec's separation from Canada) Pierre Karl Péladeau took over as Alouettes owner in March. His arrival came with a wave of optimism that the years of uncertainty for the future of the franchise were finally over.

But sports economist Moshe Lander isn't convinced that new ownership alone will be enough to reignite Montreal's fanbase.

"I think it's absolutely irrelevant," said Lander."The greatest cure all for the Alouettes, first and foremost, is: win."

According to the CFL, the Alouettes did increase their attendance numbers in 2022. Lander says the biggest impact Péladeau can have in keeping that momentum going is to open his chequebook.

"If he's willing to put out cash to attract top talent, if he's willing to invest in building good facilities then, yes, [Péladeau] can be a force for good."

Péladeau has already shown that he's willing to up the ante when it comes to entertainment value for fans by booking rock band Our Lady Peace to play at halftime for the home opener on June 10.

But Lander believes overall, it's becoming increasingly difficult to sell football to new fans in Quebec and Canada.

"Younger Canadians are more interested in 'football' — meaning soccer — and basketball, so the CFL is going to suffer similarly the way that the NHL might find that it's suffering," said Lander. "Attracting older white males is increasingly a demographic that's in decline."

Lander says sports gambling could be the path to profitability for Péladeau and the CFL.

"Football is the perfect sport for gambling because you can gamble play-to-play," said Lander.

"That's the type of thing that can start to draw (new) eyeballs to the screen and if you can bring that gambling in-stadium with a betting window, people will say 'alright, I don't mind going because I can gamble while I'm at the game."

The league "needs to go for that, because the NFL has got that down cold and the CFL needs to borrow a page from their playbook," the sports economist said.

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press
Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press

New faces lead the way on field

Given that the Alouettes ownership question wasn't answered until March, general manager Maciocia faced a challenge building a team for the 2023 season.

It was unclear how much bargaining power he had when CFL free agency opened on Feb. 14. The quarterback who had led Montreal to the Eastern Conference final, Trevor Harris, signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Maciocia ended up inking Cody Fajardo, Saskatchewan's starter in 2022, to a two-year deal.

"In professional sports you don't really get a second opportunity very often and I feel like I got a second opportunity here," said Fajardo.

"I'm rejuvenated, trying to bring a lot more fun and go back to the basics. Sometimes you get so caught up in the wins and losses that you lose sight of this being an actual game," he said.

Montreal also lost two key receivers to free agency: Jake Wieneke signed with the Roughriders and Eugene Lewis signed with the Edmonton Elks.

Montreal's new head coach, Jason Maas, says fans will not be disappointed when they see what the Alouettes have in store for them this season.

Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press
Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

"It's really about giving back to our fans. All the work we put in, we are representing them on that field and that's what I want them to feel," said Maas.

Veteran player Kristian Matte, who is entering into his 12th season with the Als, says he's grateful the off-season uncertainty is in the rearview mirror.

"Honestly, I think coach Maas has done a good job of getting the team really gelled together as a group and when you have a team that's close, it's going to be good down the road," said Matte.

It's often said that anything can happen in the CFL and a roaring success in Year 1 of the Péladeau-era of Alouettes football would go a long way to restoring the franchise into the model of stability that it once was.