The ALSternative — 2017 Season Preview Part 1

In six days, everyone who aches for the return of the Canadian Football League will have their needs met. Arguably the world’s most polarizing pro sports league will be back in business for another season starting next Sunday. If you love the CFL, you’ll be thrilled beyond words. If you hate it, you’ll roll your eyes and wonder aloud how anyone could possibly enjoy this league so much. But I digress.

The Montreal Alouettes will open camp once again on the hallowed grounds of Bishop’s University, in the college town of Lennoxville, Quebec. But in many ways, this will not be the Montreal Alouettes team that you are accustomed to seeing. This has been an off-season rife with change, whether the team’s fans wanted it or not.

Over the next few days, we’ll break down not only what’s transpired since the 2016 season ended, but what you can look forward to seeing as the Alouettes prepare for their first regular season game on June 22nd versus the Saskatchewan Roughriders; another team that has gone through several changes in the hopes of returning to glory.

There’s a new sheriff in town

The Alouettes ended their 2016 campaign in what had become a familiar fashion; filled with plenty of hope and a nod to the future, but ultimately coming up short of their goal. There was a time when that sentence meant that Montreal didn’t win the Grey Cup. Then it meant that they didn’t advance in the playoffs. But for the second season in a row, the Alouettes’ lone objective was to simply make it to the Grey Cup playoffs. A goal they failed to achieve yet again.

Which meant that something had to give. After a season of discord, in-fighting and one again being a shell of their former selves, the time for sweeping change had arrived. Alouettes owner Bob Wetenhall had been slowly allowing his son Andrew to make more and more of the football operations decisions in his stead. The younger Wetenhall had seen the disarray that befell this team and decided that the time had come to make a drastic change.

When the team held its annual end of season press conference, it was announced that Jim Popp, the team’s general manager of 20+ years, would not be returning to the organization in 2017. Popp started the 2016 season as both Alouettes’ GM plus head coach but had stepped away from the head coaching duties, allowing receivers coach Jacques Chapdelaine to ascend to interim head coach for the final six games of the season. Popp retained the GM title, but his presence was far removed from this team.

This was initially some very tough news to swallow for a lot of people. While Popp is regarded as one of the finest football men this league has ever known, many of his most recent decisions left people wondering whether Popp was still the savvy architect that had brought the city of Montreal three Grey Cup championships and until recently, a playoff berth every year at the very least.

Questionable personnel moves that seemed to only draw the wrong kind of attention along with rumours swirling around of Montreal’s salary cap being grossly mismanaged, the prevailing thought was that Popp had worn out his welcome in La Belle Province. The elder Wetenhall was fiercely loyal to Jim, expecting him to bail the team out when things went awry. And Popp was loyal to a fault as well, often taking on more than he could handle. As long as Bob Wetenhall was calling the shots, the name Jim Popp was always going to be synonymous with Montreal Alouettes football.

But the younger Wetenhall didn’t seem to share that same sense of loyalty. Thus, the decision was made to part ways with the only GM that this current incarnation of the Alouettes has ever known. As the old saying goes, nothing gold can stay.

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This meant that a new general manager would have to be installed, ideally before the 2017 season started. Certain names started flying about for this vacancy to be filled and there was no shortage of thought-provoking choices being bandied about.

The one name that many people had assumed would be the right move to make was that of Danny Maciocia, the head of football at the Universite de Montreal. His name alone sparked plenty of debate amongst fans and media alike. Danny has done a tremendous job in making the Carabins’ football program a true Vanier Cup contender year in and year out. He’s bilingual, which would certainly appeal to the francophone media and general population of Quebec alike. And he does have experience in the front office, as the former GM of the Edmonton Eskimos.

But Maciocia wasn’t very good the first time around as a CFL general manager. There was also no guarantee that he’d be allowed to make his own decisions or even go along with what the Wetenhall family would have wanted. Not to mention that he’s pretty well set for life with the Carabins, as is often the case in Quebec university football. Try as they might, many media members implied that the hiring of the Quebec-born Maciocia would be a boost to selling tickets to Alouettes games.

I personally don’t understand that thought process myself, as I fail to see ANY example of people attending any sporting events based on who the general manager was. It is important for any professional sports team based in Quebec to be able to address its population in French, that’s not in question. But to suggest that the people of this province are going to buy tickets to Alouettes games solely because the general manager parle en francais is beyond insulting to the ticket-buying public and only stokes a very tired political fire that has little to no place in sports.

The guy sitting at a desk in the offices at Olympic Stadium isn’t gonna sell out the football games in Montreal. But a team winning football games will, though. Therefore you better make sure you hire the right person to make the right football decisions.

In the end, Maciocia was not hired as this team’s next general manager. Nor were other highly-touted names like former Alouettes scout Brock Sunderland or assistant GM Joey Abrams named the new boss. For Andrew Wetenhall, there was only one man whom he felt could lead this team into this brave new era. And he didn’t have to look very far to find that particular man either.

The Alouettes hired WHO as their GM?!

The Montreal Alouettes’ general manager search was done by interviewing numerous candidates, as they did their due process. When Andrew Wetenhall announced the press conference to officially announce the new leader of this team, the name that was rumoured to be the front-runner drew a lot of question marks because it sounded like such an unusual choice. It almost felt like a practical joke was being played because the circumstances leading to this hire were like nothing that had ever been seen before.

When he was brought into the Alouettes organization in 2015, Kavis Reed was only expected to remedy the sorry state of affairs that had become the Alouettes’ special teams. And true to his nature, he remained the coach that his players would run through a wall for. Reed became a soothsayer of sorts for many on this team, helping relate the message of one Jim Popp to his players in a way that everyone could understand. Kavis became an unofficial leader in the locker room and gained everyone’s trust.

So on December 15, 2016 it was announced that Kavis Reed would indeed become the new general manager of the Montreal Alouettes. In keeping with the theme of major changes, that day also saw the introduction of a new president and CEO, as Mark Weightman and the Alouettes mutually agreed to part ways. Now overseeing the Alouettes’ front office was Patrick Boivin, a former director with Concordia University.

Boivin has running sports teams in his blood, as his father Pierre was the former president of the Montreal Canadiens. Patrick’s job will be to re-establish the Alouettes name in not just the city of Montreal, but the entire province of Quebec. The Montreal Canadiens will always be the top dog of sports in this city, but they have been alienating their fans for some time now. The Montreal Impact have captured many fans in recent years, but a slow start to their 2017 season is leaving Montreal sports fans wanting more. A successful campaign will make it a lot easier for Boivin to make this Alouettes team relevant in this market again.

But perhaps the biggest linchpin to the Kavis Reed hire was the move that Andrew Wetenhall saw as the most crucial; the retention of Jacques Chapdelaine as head coach. The interim tag was removed from his title and for the first time in this team’s history, there is a francophone head coach. Speaking both official languages had never been a pre-requisite before and likely never will but for many, this hire is only a good thing for Montreal going forward.

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Reed wasted little time in making his presence felt. Within days of taking over the GM’s chair, he made his first official move as general manager by removing the name Tim Tebow from the Alouettes’ negotiation list. For all the great moves that Jim Popp made over the years, there were several that drew a lot of side-eye. Including the move to both add Tebow’s name on the neg list and keep it there for many years.

This personnel decision, however small it seemed to many at the time, signified a lot: One, this was no longer Jim Popp’s team and Kavis Reed had been given the chance to run it as he saw fit. Two, the suggested notion that this Alouettes team was only interested in drawing attention to itself by any means necessary was put to rest, effectively ending the so-called circus that became a part of Montreal Alouettes football.

The neg list still isn’t public and Reed is not interesting in making it so. But now it appears that any names the Alouettes add to their list will be done with the betterment of the team in mind, rather than seeming to draw attention with the names of NFL cast-offs.

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Reed also added to his inner circle, naming a pair of assistant general managers:

Catherine Raîche has been a part of the Alouettes organization for the past two years, working behind the scenes in all aspects of the front office. She will now be overseeing contracts, salary cap and talent evaluation. This young lawyer is breaking down barriers and will be a tremendous asset for Kavis in the day-to-day operations.

Joe Mack is a name that has drawn a lot of derision from fans as his previous stint as general manager for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers was less that fruitful, despite a trip to the 2011 Grey Cup. Mack will be overseeing the player personnel aspect of the Alouettes as well as scouting in the United States, where he has extensive knowledge.

Coach ’em up!

Reed did state in his initial presser that Head Coach Jacques Chapdelaine would be permitted to make his own coaching hires. Chaps has been in this league for a long time and has seen a lot over his numerous stays in other organizations. Like Reed, he is eager to show that he belongs in the discussion and that his hire wasn’t an accident.

With that in mind, the following moves were made:

Noel Thorpe will stay on as Defensive Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach. Without question, Montreal’s identity in recent years has been that of a defensive powerhouse and retaining Thorpe equals much-needed stability in the coaching ranks. Thorpe’s contract expires after this season and he may be looking to move on in search of a head coaching opportunity elsewhere. Another strong campaign for the Alouettes’ D will only solidify the stellar resume for this coaching wizard.

Thorpe’s coaching assistants will be Jason Hogan, Greg Quick and Billy Parker, who hung up his cleats but will stay in the organization. Their roles have not yet been defined but Quick was Linebackers coach last season and Parker was one of the premier defensive backs during his Alouettes career, so he’d be a natural fit coaching those players. In which case Hogan will likely replace the departed Anwar Stewart as Defensive Line coach for the Alouettes.

With Reed moving to the front office, a new special teams coach would be needed for Montreal. The era of Alouettes general managers taking on additional coaching duties is surely over for good. The man replacing Kavis on the field is Bruce Read, who has several years of coaching under his belt in both the NFL and NCAA. While I would have preferred to see someone with CFL experience in this role, Read has gotten a lot out of his players at the collegiate level and will expect the same from his players in Montreal.

On offense, Kris Sweet has left the organization and now Paul Charbonneau will be the Offensive Line Coach. Andre Bolduc ended 2016 coaching the receivers for Jacques Chapdelaine and is now tasked with overseeing this team’s running backs. The man in charge of the Alouettes’ receivers is Justin Chapdelaine, son of Jacques.

Lest you think that nepotism is the reason Justin has this gig, bear in mind that he has a wealth of coaching experience at the USports level. The junior Chapdelaine was also part of Saskatchewan’s coaching staff in 2015, where their offensive output kept the Riders in many close games.

But perhaps the most important change for this coaching staff is at the offensive coordinator level. Last year, Alouettes legend Anthony Calvillo was named the full-time OC and it was clear that this second year coach was nowhere close to ready for this monumental assignment. So now AC will focus solely on coaching this team’s quarterbacks and Jacques Chapdelaine will handle the offensive play-calling by himself.

With this move, it gives Calvillo the chance to properly learn how to be an effective coach plus impart his wisdom on the younger QBs on the roster. Most notably Vernon Adams Jr., who showed flashes of brilliance towards the end of last season in starting and winning Montreal’s final three games.

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It’s incredible to think of it like this, but somehow both the Montreal Alouettes’ front office and coaching staff have a new-look feel to it despite retaining a lot of the same names. There are a lot of deck chairs being rearranged here; perhaps it simply came down to finding the best fit for all.

Everything now comes back to this team’s lead governor and likely the future czar of this team, Andrew Wetenhall. The entire Wetenhall family has stated on numerous occasions that they are committed to maintaining and growing this team in Montreal for years to come. For the sake of the younger Wetenhall, I hope the calculated gamble to rid this team of its storied past will pay off in the long run.

More to come!

Over the next few days, I will be taking a look at the moves that the Montreal Alouettes made during the off-season as well as how they will factor into the 2017 version of this team.

The one prevailing theme is that this new regime is looking to rid itself of the Jim Popp era in order to make a concerted effort to begin anew. A lot of Alouettes fans were very upset as that meant that a lot of fan favourites were either shown the door or be allowed to walk away. Change does takes time to get used to, I won’t argue that.

But what worked 7 years ago when this team last celebrated a Grey Cup victory isn’t working any more. For all the admiration and respect that I still do have for Jim Popp, perhaps it truly was time for this Alouettes franchise to make serious wholesale changes. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced this major move was perhaps for the best. Only time will tell whether the dismissal of the old guard for this new-look front office was truly the right call to make.

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I’ll be back tomorrow to start breaking down this Montreal Alouettes team, piece by piece. Be sure to follow along on Twitter for more info leading up to camp. Until then and officially for the first time this 2017 Canadian Football League season,

GO ALS GO!!!

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