N.B.: There’s a current labour dispute happening between the Canadian Football League and its Players Association that is threatening the start of the 2014 season. In the interest of keeping positive, I am proceeding with this preview as though everything will start on time.
For the second time in as many years, the Montreal Alouettes find themselves starting a new season rife with change. After years of predictable stability with faces that were virtual fixtures of the team year in and year out, the team now embarks on yet another new direction. 2014 will be the first year of a new era for this Montreal team; New coaching staff, new quarterback(s) and a new hope to return to the promised land this coming November.
When we last saw the Alouettes play, it was a heart-breaking overtime loss to the eventual Eastern champion Hamilton Tiger-Cats. But even in that loss, fans started to see where this team and its young nucleus were heading in terms of the future. Here’s a recap of what’s transpired since that windy November day and what you can look forward to this coming Sunday as the Alouettes prepare to open training camp at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke.
Without question, the biggest news of the off-season for the Alouettes was the retirement of Anthony Calvillo this past January. So much has already been written about his outstanding career, so no need to rehash it all over again. There was simply no one like him in this league and I highly doubt there ever will be. On a personal note, it’s going to be very weird going to camp Sunday and not seeing #13 there, tossing the rock around with his receivers or offering tips to his fellow quarterbacks. It was one of those things that had a comforting appeal to it, like an old friend waiting for you to come to his house for a visit. But if anyone has earned a summer off, it’s AC.
At the presser for his retirement, Anthony did state that he had completely recovered from the concussion symptoms that ultimately ended his 20 year career and that physically, he probably could have played on. But in the interest of his family and overall health, Calvillo felt that it was better that he stay put on the sidelines permanently. Quite frankly, I’m thankful that he did as well. As disappointing as it was that his career ended abruptly on a routine hit from a defender, I’d be even more upset if he came back as a mere shell of his former self and risked permanent damage to himself.
Calvillo will always be a member of this Montreal Alouettes organization in some way, shape or form and that’s good enough for me.
Which now begs the question; who will be the next great Alouettes quarterback? After Calvillo went down last August, two unlikely names stepped in and made their case. One a raw talent, looking to forge a future of his own. The other was a Heisman Trophy winner, looking for one last shot of redemption. Ladies and gentlemen, let me re-introduce you to Tanner Marsh and Troy Smith.
This time last year, Marsh was invited to Alouettes training camp as a complete unknown while Smith was attending graduate classes at his alma mater, THE Ohio State University. As per usual since 2000, no really paid mind to who would be backing up Anthony Calvillo so one could be forgiven if they didn’t give young Tanner much of a second thought. But something about this youngster impressed the heck out the coaching staff, as they named him the unofficial back-up QB to Calvillo at the end of camp (However, starting preference was to be given to Josh Neiswander, who spent three years as the Alouettes’ third string QB).
Marsh bided his time on the depth chart and when Calvillo got hurt and the Alouettes desperately needed a win, he came on and stole the show. He helped engineer a major comeback to win an incredible game versus the BC Lions last August that made him a household name. The bloom came off the rose a bit as Marsh made some expected rookie mistakes and a hand injury had also dampened his first season in Canada. To say he went through a trial by fire would be putting it mildly, but Tanner came through. The Alouettes clearly concur with “Marsh Madness”, securing the young gunslinger’s services with a three year contract.
Troy Smith, on the other hand, is used to pressure. But while winning a Heisman trophy is one thing, coming to a new country and learning a new type of football is surely one he never envisioned. Spurned by the NFL, Smith had all but abandoned his dream to be a pro quarterback until Alouettes general manager Jim Popp came calling.
Troy was invited to come up north, watch how this game was played and maybe by 2014 he’d be ready to take the CFL on. That didn’t go quite as planned. Due to the injuries to Calvillo & Marsh coupled with some inconsistent play by Neiswander, Popp had no choice but to throw Troy into the QB mix and hope he could keep the team’s head above water.
And guess what? He actually did! Even with some obvious rust issues, Alouettes fans got to see a quarterback come in, take control and win some crucial football games. Troy Smith looked like he could be that winning quarterback that wowed NCAA fans in Columbus but for whatever reason, never caught on in the NFL.
By the time the Eastern semi-final was played versus the Ti-Cats in Hamilton Guelph, the Alouettes were Smith’s team to lose. And like Marsh, Popp saw more than enough to reward Troy with a three year contract of his own.
So who will be the #1 pivot in this first post-Calvillo era? Camp will tell the final tale, but all signs point to Smith being the man now and Marsh being the man of the future. Once again, like he ALWAYS does, Jim Popp finds diamonds in the roughest of places.
In keeping with the theme of changes, once again the Alouettes face another in who will be calling the plays in 2014. Last year saw the replacing of Marc Trestman with former college coach/ESPN analyst Dan Hawkins, a hire that this team would surely like a do-over on. It only took 5 games for Montreal to send Hawkins back to the TV studio, him having taken a winning formula and flushed it down the toilet.
In came Jim Popp to add a third tour of duty as head coach along with his other duties. He finished the 2013 campaign, posting another losing record as a head coach but still managing to get the Alouettes into the playoffs. Popp was more than willing to continue on as head coach, but the Wetenhall family decided that it would be better to not spread their great GM any further. So on February 24th, former Edmonton/Calgary head coach Tom Higgins was hired to be the new head coach of the Alouettes, himself just removed as head of officiating for the CFL.
In Higgins, you’ll find more Trestman-like work qualities and less blustery rah-rah Hawkins-isms. Apparently being away from the sidelines has made the heart grow fonder for Higgins, as he was very excited participating in the Alouettes mini-camp and getting to work right away with his new charges.
Even the Alouettes players who worked under Trestman noted the similarities of both coaches and are eager to work with this new coaching staff as well. What will help tremendously is the staff that has been hired has a wealth of CFL coaching experience, so there is no need for acclimating the majority of coaches to a new game and its rules.
Also, no need for a head coach to show his team of professionals “the basics”, as Hawkins once chimed that this Alouettes team needed. So with this hire of Tom Higgins, you can’t help but get the sense that everything old is new again. And speaking of that old adage…..
Back in 2008, the Alouettes launched a program called Environment-ALS, focused primarily on climate change and how they are committed to “make efforts to operate in a sustainable way; the Club actively takes steps to reduce waste, increasing recycling and energy efficiency, and was constantly looking at ways to reduce its environmental footprint.” <– taken from the program’s mission statement.
Never in a million years did I think they would use those principles towards staffing a football roster!
It started with the signing of former Alouette Dave Stala. And then as the winter progressed, other former Alouettes would be returning to the nest. Anyone who longed for the days of Larry Taylor returning kicks for touchdowns will be thrilled to see his return in 2014. Fresh off their Grey Cup win for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, both Jermaine McElveen and Diamond Ferri will return to Montreal where they won Grey Cups in 2009 and 2010.
Truly, it seems like the Alouettes are very proactive in the recycling part of this program!
But the Alouettes had to be as they lost a considerable amount of man-power due to retirements and free agency. Calvillo is by far the biggest off-season loss, but the Alouettes have also lost long-time offensive linemen Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruffe to retirement as well as Michael Ola pursuing NFL opportunities. Filling those gaping holes will be priority one in order to protect their new quarterback(s).
Also leaving was Shea Emry, who bolted for Toronto via free agency. And when the Ottawa Redblacks held their expansion draft, they selected Moton Hopkins, Patrick Lavoie and Jordan Verdone from the Alouettes’ ranks. Josh Neiswander was not offered a contract and Arland Bruce was released shortly after making derogatory comments on his (now-shuttered) Instagram account. All sorts of changes abound for the 2014 Montreal Alouettes.
And oh yeah, they also signed this other guy…..Wide receiver, his name’s kinda familiar….
It all started with a tweet about the BC Lions and their jerseys.
Last year, someone on Twitter asked for Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson’s opinion on the gun-metal alternate jerseys of the BC Lions, to which he heartily approved. Something must have stuck with Chad because when he was asked on Twitter where he would be playing football in 2014, he cheerfully tweeted that he was joining the same Lions team that had the jerseys he so adored.
A tweet sent in jest caught like wildfire along the Twittersphere and even forced Lions GM Wally Buono to consider the possibility of this former NFLer coming up north. Questions about Johnson’s character and previous antics led Buono to believe that Johnson was simply not worth any possible sideshow that would come along with him and didn’t give Johnson a second thought.
Jim Popp, on the other hand, felt much differently.
Having dealt with former NFL head cases in the past (see Phillips, Lawrence) and always willing to invite former NFLers to Alouettes training camp to have at least have a look, Popp decided to add Chad Johnson to the team’s negotiation list. If Johnson was serious about wanting to play in the CFL, his journey would begin in Montreal. Having done this with Troy Smith back in 2005, it seemed to be a no-brainer on Popp’s part. The GM extended to Chad an invite to the team’s mini-camp in Florida and not only did Johnson show up, but he impressed everyone who was there, both players and coaches alike.
Popp called Johnson’s bluff and signed him to a deal. So this Sunday, the man known as Ocho Cinco will hit the field wearing blue, red and silver. I know I didn’t see that one coming. Initially I wrote off the idea of him coming up north as just talk, figuring his analyst job at CBS was better paying and less taxing physically than playing in the CFL.
But if he’s serious about giving this Alouettes team a full effort on the field, then as a fan of this team I will welcome him with open arms and wish him all the best for as long as he’s here.
With Johnson’s arrival, the Alouettes are considerably stacked at the receiver position. Lining up to catch passes are:
And waiting in the wings with some hungry rookies is also Jamel Richardson, who will be close to returning from a major knee injury suffered last year. Be prepared to see some serious touchdown action, folks.
So as a fan of this team, what can you expect to see beside a new QB, new coaches and new (old) players? Well, prepare yourself for a fan experience like no other to be held at Molson Stadium.
The West end zone seats have been removed and the area will serve as a common meeting ground where fans can meet up with their friends to eat, drink and socialize before kickoff. The good times will keep going throughout the game so if you have people who aren’t interested in the game itself, they can still enjoy the stadium experience in that new fan area.
After years of Molson sponsorship, Labatt has taken over and will be offering fans a better selection of beer. No more Molson Ex cans only, fans can now choose from a much wider selection of alcoholic libations. New food items will be available as well and getting to Percival Molson Stadium will be even easier as STM will be introducing a new route for their free shuttle service. More parking will also be available as well if you choose to drive to the stadium.
And mark two VERY important dates on your calendar, as the Alouettes will be paying tribute to a number of their legends!
On September 21st vs. Calgary, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame will induct several people; most notably Uzooma Okeke, Wally Buono and or particular interest to many fans, Ben Cahoon! The Alouettes will be honouring these former Alouettes legends at this game. Nothing has been made official yet, but don’t be surprised if a certain #86 is suddenly added to the team’s list of retired numbers.
And on October 13th versus the Roughriders, the legendary Anthony Calvillo will be honoured by the club as well. You couldn’t ask for a more fitting day than the 13th to honour this man, as our own #13 had his two last Grey Cup wins versus Saskatchewan and its infamous “13th man”. I don’t expect to see many dry eyes amongst the Alouettes fans on either of these two special game days.
There’s so much more than is planned and it’s all with you the fans in mind, so be sure to check back here for more info as the season progresses.
As this blog hits the Interweb, both the league and its players’ union are attempting to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement, which expired at midnight yesterday. Now it appears that the players could walk out of training camp next week and the start of the regular season is in jeopardy.
Due to Alberta labour laws, players cannot officially strike until 72 hours after the current CBA expires. So as of right now, all camps will open on Sunday and players will report. Many of the players have incentives in their own contract to collect for reporting, thus they will. But more than likely, by this time next week the players will be going on strike unless a new deal with the league can be reached.
The league itself is in an interesting position. Last November during Grey Cup week, Commissioner Mark Cohon was proudly trumpeting the league’s success with new stadia being built around the league while welcoming the return of football to Ottawa. Along with a new multi-year TV deal with TSN, one would surmise that the league is doing better than ever financially.
Yet when the players’ association suggested that this financial success should be tied to the league’s salary cap, all of a sudden the league is not so financially stable and the commish starts referring to going back to the “dark ages of the CFL” and evoking memories of telethons to save the Saskatchewan Roughriders. So which is it? It would appear on the surface that the commissioner is talking out of both sides of his mouth.
Players too are frustrated as they feel, and rightly so, they are not paid as much as their counterparts in not only the NFL, but other sports as well. It’s been a major bone of contention that many fans can smugly point to a good number of the CFL players on the field and say, “I make more in a year than he does!” As much as this wants to be a blue-collar working class league, these players still are at the same risk for injury as any other professional athlete and their salary should reflect that.
As a fan, it’s easy to lean toward one side or the other based on your beliefs regarding revenue sharing. Many owners do lose money and prop up the team with their own funds. Players love playing here and enjoy a considerably nice way of life. As a whole, this entire sport of Canadian football has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and everyone is entitled to share in any success, as both owners and players together have built this league up.
This hasn’t been the best month for the league and its players. But a fair deal is there to be had and even if a small number of games are lost, we Canadians are a very forgiving bunch. As long as the owners and players remember who they are really working for: Us the fans.
It’s we who will fill these stadiums and buy the souvenirs and plan our vacations around these football games. And we fans can very easily find other ways to entertain ourselves in the summer months. So it really does behoove both sides to work something out and focus on the most important thing: playing football.
Provided this season gets underway without any major hitch, there is a lot to be excited about. First and foremost is the return of the CFL to Ottawa. Hamilton will also be opening a refurbished Ivor Wynne Stadium, now known as Tim Hortons Field. A lot of teams have revamped their coaching staff and players. And after winning the Grey Cup at in front of their hometown fans, the Roughriders will be looking to defend that championship against all comers.
Once again, yours truly will be there every step of the way, documenting it all for you. It all begins this Sunday with training camp in Sherbrooke and hopefully will end in late November with a trip to the 102nd Grey Cup in Vancouver.
This year’s Alouettes rallying cry is “Strength in Numbers”. This team will bring its strength and we fans will bring the numbers! Be sure to follow me on twitter and keep this site bookmarked as the season gets underway. I’ll see you all at training camp!
For the first time this season but certainly not the last,
GO ALS GO!!!
About the Author
Written by Clifford Pine
Montreal born & bred, lover of sports. Passionate about the Montreal Alouettes. Also a great cook & not too bad a dancer.