Montreal Alouettes

The Montreal Alouettes are a Canadian Football League (CFL) franchise located in Montréal, Québec. The team was founded in 1946 and played until 1987 before folding due to financial difficulties (from 1982 to 1986, the team was known as the Montreal Concordes). In 1996, the Baltimore Stallions relocated to Montréal and were renamed the Alouettes, reviving the franchise. The Alouettes play in the East Division and have won seven Grey Cup championships.
Olympic Stadium
Olympic Stadium, Montréal (photo by Thomas Kitchin).

Quick Facts About the Montreal Alouettes
Date Founded: 1946, 1996
Venue: Percival Molson Memorial Stadium
Team Colours: Red, blue, silver and white
Grey Cup Victories: 7

Early History of Football in Montréal

While the Alouettes were originally founded in 1946, the city has a rich history with the sport at the senior level, dating back to 1872, when the Montreal Foot Ball Club became Canada’s first organized football team. They later merged with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (MAAA) to become the MAAA Winged Wheelers. The Wheelers competed in the Big Four (Inter-provincial Rugby Football Union) until 1935. In 1931, they defeated the Regina Roughriders 22–0 to win the Grey Cup.

The Montreal Indians were formed out of the MAAA club following the 1935 season, when the Winged Wheelers lost all nine of their games. The team operated from 1936 to 1941, and again in 1945, under various ownerships and was known by different nicknames over the years: Indians (1936–37), Cubs (1938), Royals (1939), Bulldogs (1940–1944) and Hornets (1945).

Montreal Alouettes: 1946–59

In 1946, three founding members — Eric Cradock, Léo Dandurand and Lew Hayman — established the Montreal Alouettes. Hayman was the football mind and brought expertise gained from his time spent coaching the Toronto Argonauts. Dandurand was the requisite local and francophone connection for the team to succeed. Cradock, who claimed to have been a millionaire at 22 (he was 34 at the time) provided the much-needed infusion of capital. The partnership lasted until 1951, when Cradock sold his share and returned to his native Toronto. Three years later, the team was purchased by Ted Workman.

The Alouettes (or Als, as they are commonly known) won their first Grey Cup in 1949, defeating the Calgary Stampeders 28–15. It was the start of a productive decade for the young franchise. Led by legendary quarterback Sam Etcheverry, receivers Harold “Prince Hal” Patterson and John “Red” O’Quinn and running back Pat Abbruzzi, the Als fielded what was considered the league’s most dangerous offence at the time. Between 1954 and 1956, Montreal produced regular-season records of 11–3, 9–3 and 10–4, reaching the Grey Cup all three years. But the Als didn’t have the defence to match their attack, losing all three games to the Edmonton Eskimos.

The Alouettes played at the Delorimier Stadium from 1946 to 1953 and moved to Percival Molson Memorial Stadium (commonly referred to as Molson Stadium) in 1954.

Montreal Alouettes: 1960–69

The team’s fortunes turned at the end of the 1960 season, when management made an ill-advised decision to trade Sam Etcheverry and Hal Patterson to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for quarterback Bernie Faloney and offensive/defensive lineman Don Paquette. The deal — perhaps the worst in franchise history — was made by team owner Ted Workman without consulting general manager Perry Moss.

Unbeknown to Workman, Etcheverry had recently signed a contract that included a no-trade clause — something that wasn’t common in that era — and made Etcheverry a free agent. The teams reworked the deal, trading Patterson for Paquette. Meanwhile, Etcheverry went to the National Football League (NFL), playing for St. Louis and San Francisco, while Faloney remained in Hamilton, where he and Patterson became one of the CFL’s most potent pass-catching combinations.

For the entire decade, the Als failed to produce one winning season, finishing no better than 7–7 in 1966. The team couldn’t find a competent quarterback and reached the playoffs only five times – none after 1966. Indeed, from 1967 to 1969, Montreal won only seven games and tied four of 42 games under head coach O. Kay Dalton.

In 1968, the Alouettes moved from Molson Stadium to the Autostade, a temporary stadium built for Expo 67. But the facility’s less-than-desirable location, at the foot of the Victoria Bridge, led to dismal attendance figures — including some crowds of less than 10,000 — that put a strain on the organization’s finances. Following a 2–10–2 record in 1969, Workman sold the team to businessman Samuel Berger, a former part owner of the Ottawa Rough Riders.

Montreal Alouettes: 1970–79

New owner Sam Berger made immediate changes and overhauled the Montréal team. One of his first moves was the return of Sam Etcheverry, this time as head coach. While the Als had a modest 7–6–1 record under Etcheverry in 1970 and finished third in their division, they upset Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinal before defeating Hamilton in the two-game, total-point division final. Montreal defeated Calgary 23–10 at the Grey Cup game in Toronto — their first championship since 1949.

But Etcheverry, who coached the team for two more seasons, couldn’t repeat the same success and was replaced by Marv Levy in 1973. Levy’s arrival signalled a change in the team’s fortunes. Between 1974 and 1979, the Als played in five of six Grey Cup championships and won twice (1974 and 1977). The Eskimos again proved to be their arch-enemy, as the Edmonton team defeated Montreal on three occasions, including an agonizing 9–8 setback in 1975.

Attendance improved significantly in the 1970s. In September 1976, the Als vacated the Autostade and moved into Olympic Stadium in the city’s east end, averaging 61,130 spectators for its final four regular-season home games that year. But they ended the season in third place in the Eastern Conference, with a 7–8–1 record.

In 1977, the Als finished first in the Eastern Conference, with an 11–5 record, while averaging 59,525 spectators — a league record that still stands today. Montreal eviscerated Edmonton 41–6 at the Grey Cup at Olympic Stadium in front of 68,205 spectators — a remarkable total considering that there was a transit strike and a snowstorm in the hours leading up to the game. It remains a Grey Cup attendance record to this day.

Struggles, A New Name and Death of the Alouettes: 1980—87

In 1981, owner Sam Berger retired and sold the team to Vancouver businessman Nelson Skalbania. The flamboyant Skalbania decided to sign several prominent, high-priced NFL stars, including quarterback Vince Ferragamo, receivers James Scott and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, running back David Overstreet and defensive lineman Keith Gary. But the team won only three of 16 games while averaging 28,482 spectators. This prompted Skalbania to quickly divest and seek anyone to take over the insolvent franchise.

At first, there were reports that Skalbania would sell the team to Canadian businessman Pat Bowlen, an Alberta oil magnate who would eventually purchase the NFL’s Denver Broncos. Then, former NFL coach George Allen obtained an option to purchase 51 per cent of the club. Allen was caught by surprise when Skalbania arranged the sale of the same controlling stake to Harry Ornest, an Edmonton-born sports entrepreneur who would eventually own the Toronto Argonauts and the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues. But Ornest was reluctant to get involved, given the team’s suffocating debt load, and Allen eventually left the club.

With the Als nearing financial collapse, Berger resurfaced and attempted, though unsuccessfully, to force Skalbania’s hand as payment for unresolved debt. Nonetheless, Skalbania declared bankruptcy and was forced to return the Als to CFL control in May 1982.

One day later, the franchise was purchased by Montréal businessman Charles Bronfman, who had founded Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos in 1969. Bronfman renamed the team the Concordes, but the club continued to lose millions of dollars and proved to be non-competitive on the field. Over the course of four seasons, the team was no better than 8-8 and missed the playoffs twice.

Even in 1986, with the team known again as the Alouettes, Montreal won only four of 18 games, again missing the playoffs and averaging a paltry 10,127 spectators. Indeed, for each of the team’s final three home games, attendance at Olympic Stadium was below 10,000. The club had hit rock bottom. It was failing on and off the field, where it continued to lose millions of dollars on an annual basis.

There appeared to be some signs of life when the team was turned over to Norman Kimball, the architect of the powerful Edmonton Eskimos franchise, where he served as general manager. Originally hired as chief operating officer, he was briefly president and owner of the Alouettes. But Kimball was parachuted into the fray, it turned out, only to be the heavy in this scenario. On 24 June 1987 — ironically, St. Jean Baptiste Day, a provincial holiday — the Als folded for a second time, 24 hours before they were scheduled to play their regular-season opening game in Toronto, after the team had conducted training camp and played two exhibition games. It was the darkest day in franchise history. Montreal players were made available to all of the other CFL teams in a dispersal draft. The league operated for the next nine years without a franchise east of Toronto.

A Team Resurrected: 1996–97

The story of professional football in Montréal might have ended there were it not for Larry Smith, a Montréal native who had played for the Als and became the CFL Commissioner in 1992.

With the CFL in financial peril a year later and with the approval of the board of governors, Smith began granting expansion franchises to U.S. cities — Sacramento in 1993 and Las Vegas, Baltimore and Shreveport in 1994 — before eventually forming a South Division in 1995 comprising five American clubs.

Although the experiment eventually failed, it provided the CFL with a much-needed cash infusion. All five teams folded before the 1996 season, but the Baltimore Stallions — the most successful one and the only American team to win a Grey Cup in league history the year before — decided to relocate to Montréal. It was Smith who convinced Jim Speros, one of the Stallions’ owners, to entertain the possibility.

Speros formally requested permission to transfer the franchise to Montréal at a governors’ meeting on 2 February 1996. The request was approved and the Alouettes were incarnated for a third time, this time with Montréal getting the defending Grey Cup champions — an instant marketing tool that the team could use to its advantage.

While all Baltimore players were released from their contracts to become free agents, Jim Popp, general manager of the Stallions, followed the team north and convinced many of them to re-sign. The league also held an expansion draft that provided Montreal with the opportunity to select a number of non-import, or Canadian-born, players.

Despite losing their opening three games, the Alouettes rebounded to finish their first season with a 12–6 record. However, the team was still struggling to attract spectators. While Montreal averaged 20,887 spectators on its return to the CFL, many of these were free tickets. Moreover, Speros was characterized as somewhat of a charlatan, leaving unpaid bills and a list of creditors in his wake.

In 1997, New York investor Robert Wetenhall assumed ownership of the Als. Perhaps not coincidentally, Smith resigned as CFL Commissioner the same year and became team president and chief executive officer.

While the Alouettes continued to enjoy success on the field, the Grey Cup proved elusive. In both 1996 and 1997, Montreal lost the division final to Toronto. In 1998, a last-second field goal in Hamilton proved to be the team’s undoing, while in 1999, despite playing the division final at home, the Als lost by one point to the Tiger-Cats. This time, it was a late Hamilton trick play that quashed Montreal’s hopes.

While the Als were fielding competitive teams, nobody in Montréal appeared to be taking notice. Or, if they were, few decided to venture to Olympic Stadium. In 1997, despite finishing second in their division with a 13–5 record, the team attracted only 86,266 spectators to nine home games — an average of 9,585 per game.

Return to Molson Stadium

With the franchise’s future again in doubt, a twist of fate provided what would become a defining moment in the team’s revitalization. The Als were scheduled to host the BC Lions in a semifinal playoff game on 2 November 1997. However, Olympic Stadium was already booked for a U2 concert, and the Als had no choice but to return to Molson Stadium — the team’s home from 1954 to 1967.

Although it was still used by the McGill University Redmen football team, along with various other intercollegiate squads, the stadium was in a decrepit state. Many of the wooden benches were beginning to rot, and a tree had sprouted through one of the sections in the northeast corner.

The organization provided a quick and makeshift facelift, given the time constraints and game day proved to be unseasonably mild. With the game being played outdoors in a centrally located facility just north of the downtown core, interest soared and all 16,257 tickets were sold.

The Alouettes defeated the Lions and, although their journey to reach the Grey Cup a week later fell short, the organization had turned a corner in its quest to renew fan interest. Management decided to relocate permanently to the smaller, quaint venue for the following season. The Als would enjoy a string of 105 consecutive sellouts at home games from 1999 to 2010, a streak than only ended with their opening game in 2011. This despite expansion projects that had increased capacity from 19,461 in 1999 to 25,012 in 2010.

Meanwhile, the organization fielded strong teams for the most part, as general manager Jim Popp had a succession plan for his aging stars. With quarterback Tracy Ham near the end of his career in 1998, Popp signed Anthony Calvillo as a free agent following his release by Hamilton. Montreal selected receiver Ben Cahoon in the first round of the CFL Draft that year and the Als already had Mike Pringle, who would retire years later as the league’s rushing leader (16,425 yards) in the backfield.

Montreal Alouettes: 2000–Present

Between 2000 and 2010, the Alouettes reached the Grey Cup an incredible eight times and won three titles. The team reached the Grey Cup in 2000, but despite a 12–6 record, lost to a BC squad that had won only eight of 18 games. The Lions prevailed 28–26, but the game wasn’t without controversy. A two-point conversion attempt to Montreal’s Thomas Haskins near the end of the match proved unsuccessful, though it appeared that Haskins had been interfered with in the end zone.

Nonetheless, the decade would prove fruitful for Montreal. The Als hired the legendary Don Matthews to coach the team in 2002, and it paid immediate dividends. The club finished first in the division with a 13–5 record, advanced to the Grey Cup and won its first championship since 1977, defeating the Eskimos at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. The fact that the Eskimos — the Als’ old rival — had fired Matthews a year earlier was the cherry on the sundae.

The following year, though, the Alouettes lost to the Eskimos by a score of 34–22. In 2004, Montreal finished first in its division with a 14–4 record, and the team only had to defeat Toronto (10–7–1) at home in the final to advance to its third straight Grey Cup appearance. But Anthony Calvillo suffered an injury during the game and was replaced by the inexperienced Ted White. The Argonauts won 26–18. In 2005, the Als lost a thrilling double-overtime Grey Cup finale to Edmonton with a score of 38–35.

Matthews resigned for health reasons late in the 2006 season and was replaced by general manager Popp. The Als reached the Grey Cup again but lost to the BC Lions this time.

Popp returned as head coach in 2007, but the Als went 8–10 — their first losing season since the team returned to Montréal in 1996. Calvillo left the team late in the season to be with his ailing wife, who was battling cancer.

Calvillo returned the following season, which began a five-year run with Marc Trestman as the team’s head coach. Although Trestman, for years an assistant coach in the NFL, had no Canadian professional football experience and had never been a head coach, he immediately led them to the 2008 Grey Cup final at Olympic Stadium, although they lost to Calgary. This was followed by back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, Montreal becoming the first CFL team since Toronto in 1996–97 to lay claim to that honour.

Following the 2012 season, Trestman left to become head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. His departure contributed to a decline in Montreal’s fortunes, as did the retirement of quarterback Calvillo, who never played again after suffering a concussion in an August 2013 game in Regina. Calvillo retired as professional football’s career passing leader, having thrown for 79,816 yards. (On 23 March 2017, it was announced that he was being inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.)

Dan Hawkins, an American college coach, was hired to replace Trestman, only to be fired five games into the season with Montreal at 2–3. He was replaced by general manager Popp. The Als completed the season with an 8–10 record yet still made the playoffs for an 18th consecutive year.

Tom Higgins was hired as head coach in 2014. A six-game losing streak left the team at 1–7, but the Als rebounded with eight victories in their final 10 games, only to lose to Hamilton in the division final. That game also ended the team’s playoff streak at 19 consecutive years.

Higgins was fired the following season, with the Alouettes at 3–5. General manager Popp filled in as head coach again and Montreal finished last in the East Division with a record of 6–12. Nonetheless, Popp returned as head coach in 2016 to maintain “stability and harmony,” according to president Mark Weightman. There would be neither during the 2016 season. Popp was replaced as head coach on an interim basis by Jacques Chapdelaine in September, with the Als at 3–9. Chapdelaine became the first francophone head coach in franchise history. Although he guided Montreal to a 4–2 record down the stretch, the team failed to reach the playoffs once again.

Shortly after the 2016 season ended, Weightman announced that Popp would be leaving the team — Popp had been general manager since 1996, when the team returned to the CFL. One month later, the Alouettes announced that Kavis Reed, Montreal’s special teams co-ordinator, had been hired as the new general manager and that president Weightman himself had been replaced by Patrick Boivin as president. Chapdelaine remained as head coach.

Montreal Alouettes in the Grey Cup

Won Lost Host City
1949 Montreal Alouettes 28 Calgary Stampeders 15 Toronto
1954 Edmonton Eskimos 26 Montreal Alouettes 25 Toronto
1955 Edmonton Eskimos 34 Montreal Alouettes 19 Vancouver
1956 Edmonton Eskimos 50 Montreal Alouettes 27 Toronto
1970 Montreal Alouettes 23 Calgary Stampeders 10 Toronto
1974 Montreal Alouettes 20 Edmonton Eskimos 7 Vancouver
1975 Edmonton Eskimos 9 Montreal Alouettes 8 Calgary
1977 Montreal Alouettes 41 Edmonton Eskimos 6 Montréal
1978 Edmonton Eskimos 20 Montreal Alouettes 13 Toronto
1979 Edmonton Eskimos 17 Montreal Alouettes 9 Montréal
2000 BC Lions 28 Montreal Alouettes 26 Calgary
2002 Montreal Alouettes 25 Edmonton Eskimos 16 Edmonton
2003 Edmonton Eskimos 34 Montreal Alouettes 22 Regina
2005 Edmonton Eskimos 38 Montreal Alouettes 35 Vancouver
2006 BC Lions 25 Montreal Alouettes 14 Winnipeg
2008 Calgary Stampeders 22 Montreal Alouettes 14 Montréal
2009 Montreal Alouettes 28 Saskatchewan Roughriders 27 Calgary
2010 Montreal Alouettes 21 Saskatchewan Roughriders 18 Edmonton

Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame

Position Year Inducted
Samuel Berger owner/president 1993
Wally Buono linebacker (inducted as builder) 2014
Ben Cahoon receiver 2014
Anthony Calvillo quarterback 2017
Bruce Coulter builder 1997
George Dixon running back 1974
Sam Etcheverry quarterback 1969
Terry Evanshen wide receiver 1984
Gene Gaines defensive back 1994
Ed George offensive lineman 2005
Miles Gorrell offensive lineman 2013
Tracy Ham quarterback 2010
Dickie Harris defensive back 1999
Lew Hayman coach/general manager 1975
Marv Luster defensive back/offensive end 1990
Don Matthews coach 2011
Cal Murphy assistant coach 2004
Uzooma Okeke offensive tackle 2014
John “Red” O’Quinn end 1981
Tony Pajaczkowski guard/defensive end 1988
Harold “Prince Hal” Patterson offensive end/defensive back 1971
Elfrid Payton defensive end 2010
Mike Pringle running back 2008
Peter Dalla Riva tight end/receiver 1993
Herb Trawick offensive lineman/guard 1975
Pierre Vercheval offensive lineman 2007
Virgil Wagner halfback 1980
Glen Weir defensive tackle 2009
Bob Wetenhall owner 2015
Dan Yochum offensive lineman 2004
Junior Ah You defensive end 1993

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