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Lots of empty seats for a game between the Alouettes and the Ottawa Redblacks at McGill’s Percival Molson Stadium in July 2018.
Larry Smith, now a senator, was president of the Alouettes from 1997 to 2001 and again from 2004 to 2010.
Montreal Alouettes team president Andrew Wetenhall in Montreal on June 11, 2018.
“Joe, who own da Chiefs?”
That’s one of the many memorable lines from the classic 1977 hockey movie Slap Shot when Denis Lemieux, a goalie with the Charlestown Chiefs, asks Joe McGrath, the team’s manager, who owns the minor-league team.
“Ownsss … ownsss,” McGrath responds.
“Ownsss … ownsss,” Lemieux repeats.
“I don’t know,” McGrath says.
“Tanks,” Lemieux says in his French accent before closing the door and leaving the manager’s office.
I’ve been thinking about that scene recently, but using the line: “Who owns the Alouettes?”
The CFL has steadfastly maintained Robert Wetenhall continues to own and operate the Alouettes, but there have been reports the league has taken over the franchise and is looking for a new owner.
An email request I sent to the Alouettes asking for an interview about the ownership situation received this response: “We won’t be giving any interviews on that subject at this stage. We are still owned by the Wetenhall family, nothing has changed. For everyone in the organization, it’s business as usual. We all remain focused on preparing for the upcoming season, and a potential change of ownership doesn’t have any direct impact on our day-to-day jobs.”
The CFL and commissioner Randy Ambrosie aren’t talking, either.
Training camp is scheduled to open on May 19 — if the CFL and its players can work out a new collective agreement — and it looks like the question “who owns the Alouettes?” could hang over the team this season, which is not a good situation.
Since the Alouettes and the CFL aren’t talking, I figured the next best thing would be to reach out to Larry Smith, the former Alouettes player, president and CFL commissioner, to get his take. Smith is leader of the opposition in the Senate of Canada, which he has been part of since 2011.
“If it’s clear the Wetenhalls have run out of time and patience and are moving on, it’s important we find the proper ownership so we can get that club back on its feet,” Smith said. “They’ve had some rough times over the last five or six years.”
The Alouettes have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons. Long gone are the days when they had 105 consecutive sellouts at Molson Stadium while advancing to the Grey Cup eight times in 11 years — starting in 2000 — while winning three championships, including back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. Smith resigned as Alouettes president on Dec. 31, 2010. Since then, the Alouettes have had Ray Lalonde, Mark Weightman and Patrick Boivin as president. Andrew Wetenhall, the owner’s son, is the team’s director and lead governor.
“We had talked between the two of us and I knew as time went on (Robert Wetenhall) started to consolidate his assets,” Smith said about his decision to leave the team. “He was aging and he wanted to make sure that he solidified his base in terms of his own personal situation. Part of that was to get Andrew involved in the club. So I knew that as time came on and as some of the opportunities came up for me in politics, everything kind of fell into place, to be honest with you.
“So there was a transition that he wanted to have and I understand that. It’s a father to a son. It was something that was part of his plan and he was gracious enough to share that with me, so I knew something was coming down. The problem, of course, is we had a very successful formula working together and I guess that formula just never could be replicated once he went his way and I went my way.”
As president, Smith managed to expand Molson Stadium by 5,000 seats and add a giant screen with the federal and provincial governments paying $19.3 million of the $29.3-million tab, the city kicking in $4 million and the club spending $6 million. This season, the Alouettes will close 5,000 seats, bringing capacity down to 20,025. Last season, the Alouettes averaged 17,332 fans while finishing with a 5-13-0 record.
“It’s very sad to see the performance on the field and some of the issues that the club has faced,” Smith said. “Obviously, in Montreal you’ve got to win and that’s what we did for many years. Whether it’s hockey, soccer, football, whatever it is, you’ve got to win in Montreal because it’s a very demanding public. To see the Alouettes having the problems … has been tough to take.”
What advice would Smith have for a new owner?
“The most important is you’ve got to compete and you have to build continuity,” he said. “You also have to make sure you have a sense of relationship with the community. You have to make sure you get all of the communities — especially the francophone community, which we spent time on.
“We had a base that stretched far outside of just the Montreal core area,” Smith added. “This is something that would have to be rebuilt in part of the process.”
But the question still remains: Who owns the Alouettes?
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019