- Free Agency
MONTREAL — The Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Alouettes go all-in on Sunday afternoon, as they meet at Olympic Stadium for a chance to appear in the 100th Grey Cup.
Both teams have seen this story before. They’ve met six times in the Eastern Final since 2002, with five of those contests being held in the very same building they’re about to return to this weekend.
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The result for one team, though, has mostly been the same. Claiming victory in just one of those games over the span of 10 years, any current Toronto Argonaut who’s experienced a disappointing exit from La Belle Province knows what lies ahead.
For most of the year, Olympic Stadium sits quiet. That changes for one Sunday afternoon each November — or has for most of the last decade anyway.
“You get chills all over your body going in there,” running back Jeff Johnson said, wide-eyed.
More often than Johnson likely cares to remember, Toronto players have left the stadium quietly, their ears ringing from the sound of the crowd serenading them: “Olé, olé-olé-olé …”
“I can’t stand that,” Johnson said, grimacing. “When I hear it, and I’m anywhere else, I get angry. And my wife is like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s that song, that chant I’ve heard in Montreal.’ ”
This weekend, the Argos are working against a decade of precedence.
All week in practice the team piped noise into the Rogers Centre in an attempt to acclimatize to the chaos that awaits this weekend, with more than 42,000 tickets already having been sold.
“It’s absolutely an advantage, especially if they can get it rolling, and start getting hot,” said first-year Argos head coach Scott Milanovich, who spent five seasons as an assistant with the Alouettes. “But if the other team’s able to come in and get off to a lead, then it’s not as much of a factor.”
The trouble for Toronto, historically, has been getting that lead, and holding onto it.
“There’s a couple of them that were heart-breakers,” said Johnson, who has been with the Argos for every single one of those trips.
In 2002, the Argos were in the playoffs for the first time in three years. They advanced to the East final in Montreal as a blizzard tore through town. The Alouettes tore through the Argos, knocking quarterback Reggie Slack out of the game en route to a 35-18 win.
Toronto was back the following year, and better, too. The Argos pushed the Alouettes to the end of the fourth quarter, when quarterback Anthony Calvillo called his own number on an improbable 35-yard touchdown run to seal a 30-26 win.
The following year, under a new ownership group, the Argos finally won. Calvillo was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury in the third quarter, while backup Ted White was picked apart by the Argos’ ruthless defence. It was the first time the Argos had won a division final against Montreal in Montreal since 1946.
Toronto was blown out in the East final two years ago in Montreal, losing 48-17.
The Argos do not have many players left from the early years — Johnson, safety Jordan Younger and kicker Noel Prefontaine are among the longest-serving on the roster — but they do still have an institutional memory among the coaching staff.
“You can communicate out there,” said Argos defensive backs coach Orlando Steinauer, a long-time safety. “It’s not like it’s the loudest thing you’ve ever heard in your life. And I’m not trying to downplay it, but I don’t want them to believe that there’s no form of communication.”
All that is at stake this time is a trip to the Grey Cup, where the Argos have the chance to play for the 100th anniversary title at home, with their own fans making noise, using their own noise-makers. It could be just like what they will face this weekend, in Montreal.
“The goal is to make that place silent,” Johnson said with a smile. “Sixty-thousand silent thundersticks.”
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One difference for the Argos going into this one might be under centre. In six tries against the Als, the Argos have had three different starters – Reggie Slack, Damon Allen, and Cleo Lemon.
Ricky Ray will be the fourth, and possiblly the best, and with 10 touchdowns to just one interception over his last three starts, he appears to be the hottest quarterback in the league.
Unlike in previous meetings, stopping the Argos’ offence might be Montreal’s biggest challenge heading into Sunday’s contest.
That means for Jeff Reinebold’s defence, which averaged more than 27 points against all season, there’s a chance to make a major statement.
“I don’t know that our defence will be better than Toronto’s offence. What is has to be is good enough for us to win,” Reinebold said. “Good enough for us to be playing next week. But I can’t tell you we’re going to be better than them on Sunday.”
The unit had a rocky start to the season, but strengthened significantly as the season progressed. Either way, it was enough to lead the team back to top spot in the division after a one-year absence.
Nonetheless, given the early-season learning curve, combined with the 42 points the Argonauts scored in last Sunday’s division semifinal, against Edmonton, it has led some to question Montreal’s defence.
“I can understand why everyone’s jumping on the Toronto bandwagon,” Reinebold said. “They’re playing their best football right now. The pundits can say what they choose. Ultimately, the game comes down to stacking enough good plays on one another. You need to have more good plays than the opponent. How you get them is less relevant than getting them.”
“The fact that we’re still on the journey with four other teams sitting at home says we’ve been good enough to be here,” Reinebold added. “Will we be good enough as a team to win and go one more step along the journey? I hope so.”
It is, of course, all relative. The Argos, you should know, also allowed an average of slightly more than 27 points per game, yet are still playing. Saskatchewan, with an average of 22.7 points per game, is not.
Reinebold is also well aware, though, that Ray is likely the best quarterback the Als have yet faced in a Division Final.
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“Next to our guy, they’ve got as good a quarterback as there is in the league,” Reinebold said. “He’s a winner. Ray’s an unselfish, smart guy. They spread the ball around and it’s hard to key on one guy.”
Although the Als lost their season finale at Winnipeg, ending a three-game winning streak, they held the Blue Bombers to 19 points and 357 yards of offence.
And in late-season victories against Saskatchewan and Edmonton, Montreal’s defence was sound for three quarters before relaxing due to big leads. So, perhaps the defence is growing and making progress.
But there’s no better time than now to make a statement and silence critics.
Defensive back Billy Parker believes the Als are “primed for our best game” this season, because they’ve had a full year to learn the scheme and played with energy when it mattered.
Parker, who played on Montreal’s championship teams in 2009 and 2010, said those defensive players had trust in each other. That feeling has returned this season, he believes.
“This is a great defence,” cornerback Dwight Anderson boasted. “Turn the tape on and see that speed. We have some fast guys in unusual positions. We’ve got fast linebackers who come downhill and play the run. We’ve got defensive backs that can cover and run … big DBs that can hit hard.
“We’ve got the total package. I like where we’re at right now.”
The Alouettes took the season series with the Boatman, taking a 2-1 edge thanks to two straight wins – including a 24-12 victory over the Argos at the Rogers Centre on Oct. 14.
But the win came without Ray in the lineup, meaning Ray and Calvillo project to meet for the first full game since they went the distance on July 27.
With two hot quarterbacks set to duel in the ideal indoor conditions of Olympic Stadium, Sunday’s contest could be one for the ages.
– With files from Postmedia