What a difference a fortnight can make.
When this year started, the Montreal Alouettes were still under the ownership of the Canadian Football League. The team halted its search to fill the vacant general manager position and they jettisoned incumbent president and CEO Patrick Boivin. After a season where the on-field product was brilliant despite all odds, the front office looked to be in shambles yet again and the dreaded circus atmosphere that torpedoed this franchise last decade looked to make a return to the 514.
So annoyed and incensed at this chicanery, I took to this forum to call out league commissioner Randy Ambrosie for overseeing the ham-fisted handling of this organization. The search for new ownership (and subsequent search for the team’s general manager) should have been completed by the end of 2019 at the very latest and yet we were still diddling around. As a supporter of this Alouettes team, I had reached my breaking point of being force-fed this buffoonery.
But alas, ol’ Randy had a plan for this Montreal football team.
On January 6th, we were finally introduced to the new owner(s) of the Montreal Alouettes; S and S Sportsco, a corporate entity owned by Ontario-based steel magnates Sid Spiegel and Gary Stern.
It was Mr. Stern who was present to serve as the voice of this entity and face of the team’s new ownership. And his voice rang loud and clear during that press conference, brashly stating that this consortium bought the Alouettes with a single goal in mind: bring the Grey Cup back to Montreal.
Stern endeared himself to Alouettes fans right away with delightful soundbites such as stating the reason that this company never bothered trying to buy the Toronto Argonauts was because, “The Argos suck”.
He also addressed Hamilton Tiger-Cats caretaker Bob Young‘s presence in a show of support at the presser, asking Young if the Tiger-Cats would be so kind as to return the two first-round draft picks that the Alouettes surrendered in the 2018 trade for failed quarterback Johnny Manziel.
If nothing else, it appears that Gary Stern certainly won’t be a boring interview while he’s here in La Belle Province.
At that same press conference, Stern stated that he expected to have the Alouettes’ next general manager and president in place by week’s end. With such a bold statement and knowing so little about this neophyte ownership group, speculation immediately ran wild.
The vast majority of people were expecting Universite Montreal head coach Danny Maciocia to be named either president or general manager (or both). Maciocia’s name has hung over this team for many years, dating back to the Jim Popp years.
He was even allegedly offered the president position by former lead governor Andrew Wetenhall when the team named Kavis Reed general manager. But Maciocia had stated on numerous occasions that as long as the younger Wetenhall was overseeing this team that he would not accept any position from the team.
With the league purchasing the team from the Wetenhall family last season, that preceding scenario (or opportunity, your mileage may vary) was suddenly created.
When Randy Ambrosie met with certain prospective ownership groups, there was much talk that Maciocia’s name was mentioned frequently by the league’s commissioner, to the point where one had to wonder if the hiring of Maciocia in some capacity was a prerequisite in order to purchase the Montreal Alouettes.
Sure enough, this past Monday saw another press conference called by the Montreal Alouettes. Gary Stern was there front and centre and the topic was making public the possibly the worst-kept secret of the league: Danny Maciocia would be named the third general manager of this current Alouettes’ era.
Joining Maciocia as a new Alouette executive was former Quebec media giant Mario Cecchini, named the team’s new president.
For many in the local media here in Montreal, this was a dream come true; Two bilingual Montreal natives able to speak in French during Alouettes press conferences were now in place.
Unlike the Montreal Canadiens where being able to speak French is crucial (to the point where it limits the organization’s ability to hire individuals), this was never viewed as important to the Alouettes and its staff/supporters in the past.
Many fans from the ROC simply assumed that the ability to speak French was a requirement for the Alouettes’ head coach, general manager and so on based strictly on the Canadiens’ model. But the reality is that there are very few French-speaking Canadian football people in this country. Thus, basing your hiring requirements on what the local media prefers would only allow you to draw from a VERY shallow pool.
When the Alouettes were competitive and appearing in numerous Grey Cups throughout the 2000s, no one cared that the team’s football operations staff were predominantly American, barely able to utter a simple Bonjour or Merci when called upon. So this supposed need to employ French-speaking executives is a non-starter at best and gaslighting at its finest.
I will state that a president within a football team reaching the fanbase and corporate sponsorship is crucial to the team’s ability to thrive. In a market like Montreal, being able to reach everyone in both languages is paramount. This team’s credibility has taken major hits over the years and hasn’t been able to fall back on a Grey Cup win in nearly a decade to prove its relevance.
There were many times where I felt that previous president Patrick Boivin was in over his head and failed to capture the imagination of people here in Quebec. Yes, he did oversee the revamping of the Concordia Stingers athletic program back in the day.
But aside from leading the re-imaging of the Alouettes’ identity with a new logo and uniforms, what moves did he make to strengthen this team’s appeal throughout the province?
The Montreal Alouettes should be on par with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers when it comes to being THE football team for the entire province. Yet the past few years have seen this franchise lose relevance that is only recently starting to come back. However, Montrealers would still rather watch NFL football on TV versus watching the Alouettes live in person.
Providing an entertaining football team does help the cause and the Alouettes winning despite all odds certainly helped restore that feeling last year in some regards. But the work is far from done.
This is where Mario Cecchini better be prepared to roll up his sleeves and get to work immediately. This province is a football hotbed thanks to success at all levels and if the former media mogul can tap into that properly, everyone associated with the Alouettes will benefit greatly. From the office folk to everyone who walks through the turnstiles at Percival Molson Stadium on game day, there’s a lot riding on this particular presidential nomination.
Unlike the president in the United States, at least Cecchini isn’t promising to “Make Alouettes Great Again”. All he has to do is take a good product and make it better.
As far as Danny Maciocia goes, there’s definitely reason to be concerned. Yes, he did bring prominence to the Carabins program and made them a pivotal player in USports. But there is a major difference between running a program with young boys who are working to be professionals versus grown-ass men who have families to feed and need professional football jobs in order to do so.
Maciocia was general manager of the Edmonton Eskimos from 2007-2010 and that tenure was forgettable, to say the least. Or at least most of the Eskimos fans that have contacted me in the past two weeks would like to be able to forget that time period.
During Maciocia’s reign in Alberta’s capital, the Eskimos had one winning season, never placed higher than 3rd place in the Western division and only qualified for the playoffs once due to the crossover rule. Maciocia’s first year as general manager saw the Eskimos fail to qualify for the Grey Cup playoffs in consecutive years, the first time in 30+ years.
He also failed to draft and develop a winning team around Hall of Famer Ricky Ray, slowly leading to Ray’s eventual departure to the Toronto Argonauts. Maciocia was terminated after the Eskimos started the 2010 season with a 1-4 record. He resurfaced with the Carabins and led them to three Vanier Cup appearances in his tenure, winning the championship in 2014 over McMaster.
No one doubts his experience in football but to herald Maciocia as some football savant that will immediately excel is a tad premature, based on the examples presented above. I do see him as Canada’s version of Nick Saban; a brilliant football mind at the collegiate level who simply wasn’t able to translate that success to the professional level.
As I said earlier, there is a major difference in leading young men eager for a future in football versus leading adult men who rely on the game of football as a means to provide for their families. Perhaps Maciocia has realized this now, especially since no other CFL teams have made any serious considerations in hiring him since 2010.
Nearly a decade out of the league and one would have to wonder just how dialed in Danny truly is to the CFL’s inner workings. I’m also just a tad skeptical to just how much of a difference his hire makes to any potential free agents in the CFL.
I can appreciate any concerns signing with the Alouettes when there was no established owner of the team. But I don’t think your average CFL free agent is looking at the hire of Maciocia as any great reason to sign with the Alouettes. Kavis Reed was able to overcome any concerns and shortcomings like that by throwing lots of money at free agents.
This year, one has to look at the retention of Khari Jones as head coach and the rising stardom of Vernon Adams Jr. as reasons to join the Alouettes far more than the hire of Maciocia as general manager. But it will be Maciocia who will be making these deals and signing players when free agency hits on February 13th.
My hope is that his time away has helped gain perspective, especially now that he has landed his “dream job” as GM of the Montreal Alouettes. This is a hire that the new ownership group could not afford a misstep on.
The next few months will tell the particular tale of whether this move was a win or not.
My personal opinion on the hiring of these men?
After years of the Wetenhall family’s steady presence at the helm, it will be interesting to see new blood in place. As I said earlier, it sure sounds like Gary Stern wants to be a player in this league and isn’t afraid to be that boisterous voice that this team didn’t have before. He’s got deep pockets and as a fan of the league, appears to want to be a part of something special.
Stern stated that he will install football people smarter than him in place and the hire of Cecchini and Maciocia speaks to that. We’ll never truly know if my theory of whether the league foisted these men upon Stern as a condition of the sale of the team to him, but what’s done is done. The pressure is on for this team to continue the unexpected success of last year and should neither of these native Quebecers deliver the goods, the ramifications will be felt league-wide.
I do like the hire of Cecchini as president; nearly everything he has touched in the business world has turned to gold. During his introduction to the media this past Monday, he again underlined his passion for football and has vowed to augment the game day experience for Alouettes fans.
There is a renewed sense of excitement and hope with these Alouettes and Mario has stated that he wants to get everyone who’s still on the fence to believe in this franchise again. If he is able to reach the corporate world in Quebec and get them to buy into these Alouettes and make them THE premier team in this province, then this hire will be looked upon as a masterstroke.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter or read this blog has known my feelings in the past on the idea of hiring Danny Maciocia. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that it will equate instant success for all the reasons that people have listed in the past.
That said, I obviously don’t want him to fail. But he doesn’t get an instant pass, just like Kavis Reed didn’t get an instant pass from me. Danny has a lot of work ahead of him in order to maintain a standard that has been set.
He walks into to a job that many should see as a slam dunk; just keep adding winning pieces to the mix and ensure that the players that were here last year are still in place and are still able to flourish.
Danny did mention that he already feels like he is “behind the eight ball” as far as talent evaluation goes before free agency begins. But he knows where Montreal needs to focus when that period starts: the defensive line.
There’s no guarantee that the legendary John Bowman comes back and he was the brightest star of that line, despite being in the home stretch of his 30’s. There are good pieces in place, but the pass rush of this team needs a bonafide superstar or two.
I expect Maciocia to lean heavily on Director of Football Operations Eric Deslauriers, who has worked hard to unearth some real talent for this football team. Deslauriers and Director of National Scouting Miles Gorrell have done a solid job in finding great National and International talent.
If Maciocia can give them the support they need, then there’s definitely reason to be excited by this hire despite history suggesting otherwise. I want to believe that people can grow and evolve; that even the hard times can make people learn from past mistakes.
That’s what I want to happen for Danny Maciocia more than anything else; this is the job he’s been waiting 18 years for, apparently. So you certainly don’t expect him to purposely fail at this opportunity.
Most importantly, this team has been lacking stability for the longest time. For the Alouettes to finally have questions answered when it comes to proper leadership is crucial beyond measure. Only time will tell if the moves made these past two weeks are the right ones.
Nothing is guaranteed in the Canadian Football League. But when it comes to this Alouettes franchise being a relevant member of the sports landscape in Montreal and Quebec, the steps towards that lofty goal have been taken.
Here’s hoping they are the right ones. As always, thanks for reading.