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Naylor: Alouettes make it look easy against Argonauts

David Naylor
11/21/2010 6:22:22 PM
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It's a scene that is oh-so-familiar to those who follow Canadian football.

The Montreal Alouettes, well rested and high-performing, pounding an opponent before a huge crowd at Olympic Stadium en route to booking a trip to the Grey Cup.

They make it look predictable, at times almost easy, so much so that it's tempting to take for granted a team that reaches eight championship games in 11 years.

Of course it isn't easy, a point Anthony Calvillo was making emphatically before Sunday's 48-17 triumph over Toronto in the Eastern Final, a fact he believes many outside of the Montreal locker room don't appreciate.

“Eight out of eleven, that says something,” said Toronto defensive tackle Adriano Belli, a former Alouette. “But what can you say? Anthony Calvillo, I have tried to crush him and play the accordion with his ribs for 10 years but he's such a resilient guy. I can't wish them anything but success.”

If the Alouettes don't get their due from the outside world, some of that may have to do with East Division competition hasn't exactly been stellar during the past decade, with none of Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg or Ottawa (2002-05) rising to the challenge on a consistent basis.

And in an eight-team league where the odds of reaching a championship game are a whole lot better than they are in other major league sports, it's easy to dismiss Montreal's run as something particular to the CFL.

But try telling that to fans in Hamilton who haven't won a playoff game since 2001, those in Winnipeg who haven't celebrated a championship since 1990 or even those in Saskatchewan where Grey Cup appearances have been as rare over the past 50 years as warm Prairie days in January.

In a sport where player turnover happens quicker than in any other (there are just three Alouettes – Scott Flory, Anthony Calvillo and Ben Cahoon – who have been part of all eight Grey Cup berths over the past 11 years), Montreal has never missed the playoffs since returning to the CFL in 2006 and finished a season with more losses than wins just once.

They've had multiple coaches who've each brought their own wrinkles, albeit none more impressive than Mark Trestman whose CFL resume now looks something like this: 42 wins, 17 losses, three East Division first-place finishes, three Grey Cup berths and a combined score of 140-61 in the Division final games that helped them get there.

Against the Argos Sunday, they stifled the run game, forced Cleo Lemon to throw the ball, then brought the heat and watch him and the Argo offence crumble. No turnovers. Few mistakes. A juggernaut unleashed after a two week rest and player preparing for an upcoming weekly routine they know very well by now.

“It all starts with the front office,” said Montreal receiver Kerry Watkins, a seven-year Alouette. “Getting the right guys here, selling the organization and getting guys to buy-in that the expectation is for us to win.”

The only person who's experience everything in Montreal is general manager Jim Popp, whose roots with the franchise date all the way back to that very first season 1994 season as the Baltimore Stallions.

Sixteen years later after he left Saskatchewan to join the upstart Baltimore Stallions, Popp is still turning up players who fit both the CFL and the Alouettes as well. Including the Baltimore years, this will be Popp's 10th Grey Cup game in 19 seasons as general manager. (Given that, it's still a little hard to figure what caused the hold-up that left Popp in limbo until the early part of this season without a contract for next year.)

“It doesn't get old,” said Popp, surrounded by his players on the field after the game. “I can tell you it feels different and great every time.”

It's often hard to appreciate a golden age of something when you're in the midst of it, perhaps its time to recognize just how special this Alouette is.

Some day it's not going to be this way and Montreal's great reborn love-in with Canadian football will be tested by the kinds of mediocre teams that inevitably are part of the cycle in pro sports.

But that's a matter for another day, or at least another season.

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