November 18, 2023

O’Leary: Als find stability in run to Grey Cup game

Kevin Soua/

There are certain figures in the CFL that your mind will always assign to one team, no matter where their career takes them. Danny Maciocia is certainly one of them.

Now in his fourth year as the Montreal Alouettes’ general manager, Maciocia got his start with his hometown franchise in 1996 as an unpaid quality control coach. He climbed his way to the Als’ offensive coordinator position before taking those skills to Edmonton in 2002. In 2005 he was named the team’s head coach and in 2008 became the team’s GM. As Edmonton and Montreal engaged in a years-long Grey Cup back-and-forth, that red and blue team continued to wrap itself around Maciocia’s burgeoning career.

“This is my fifth trip to the Grey Cup,” Maciocia said this week, “and the Alouettes have always been in the picture. I’ve been with them twice…and the other three times when I was in Edmonton, we faced off against the Als. It seems like I can’t shake them,” he said, laughing. “So you might as well join them.”

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When Maciocia’s time in Edmonton came to an end in 2010, it was a full decade before he’d work in the CFL again. He ran the Montreal Carabins program from 2011-2019, keeping him nearby the Als as they transitioned from a CFL powerhouse in the tail end of Anthony Calvillo’s career, through what turned out to be a very tumultuous stretch.

Between 2015 and 2018, the Als went a combined 21-51 and endured a four-year playoff drought. Attendance bottomed out as the team went through eight head coaches from the time that Marc Trestman left the team for the 2013 season and Maciocia taking over for Khari Jones in 2022. The team went through two ownership changes between 2020 and 2023, with the league taking temporary ownership in between each move.

Seeing the tough times, first as a U SPORTS coach in the city weighed heavily on Maciocia.

“It seemed like they weren’t aligned, I guess, is a word that would come to mind,” he said.

“There wasn’t much stability there. I don’t know how many quarterbacks they went through. I don’t know how many coaches they went through. I don’t know how many coordinators they went through. That wasn’t really typical of who they were previous to that because there was stability and there was alignment. It just got lost there during those years.”

Pierre Karl Péladeau’s purchase of the team in early March, coupled with the Alouettes’ tremendous playoff run that saw them take down the 16-2 Toronto Argonauts to make it to the 110th Grey Cup game has given the franchise the best outlook it’s had perhaps since Calvillo was playing and Grey Cup trips were the standard in Montreal.

For a select few that are with the team now that have ties to those trying years, this season and this week in particular have been a breath of fresh air that’s replaced what some worried might be a last gasp for the franchise.

Offensive lineman Kristian Matte was a rookie with the Als in 2010 when the team won its last Grey Cup. He saw a shift with the team in 2019 when it ended its playoff drought and the arrival of Maciocia as GM.

“Mr. Péladeau has done everything for this team and we’re very grateful to him because without him, who knows where the Alouettes would be right now?” he said. “It’s a special feeling. Montreal is a special city. When you’re winning, when you’re getting into the playoffs, everything becomes a little more special. We’re looking forward to giving a good show this week.”

Als’ running backs coach Tyrell Sutton suited up for the team for five-and-a-half seasons, from 2013-2018. A CFL All-Star in 2015, he tried in vain to snap the team’s playoff drought. He’s soaked up every moment in Hamilton this week, watching head coach Jason Maas’ joyful team put its game plan together.

“It was just trying to find redemption,” Sutton said of his time playing as an Alouette. Everyone wanted to successfully transition from the days of Trestman and Calvillo, but the pieces never seemed to line up.

“Just me alone from ’13 to ’17, ’18 it was a change of a head coach every two, three years. Position coaches, management staff. The 2010s was not the decade of the Alouettes, to say the least. But the new decade is here and they’ve been doing absolutely phenomenal.”

The Als have been a joy to watch in this Grey Cup week. They seem to have tried to get the most out of every day and every event of the week. Their practices start with offensive linemen trickling out onto the field early to throw a frisbee. Spontaneous dance parties break out amongst position group under blaring music at practices. It’s incredible, what stability can bring.

While Sutton didn’t find that team success as an Alouette, Montreal gave him a life he never anticipated when he first put his name to paper to come play in Canada. He met his wife through the team. Their children are growing up bilingual and as a result, Sutton is learning the language. As the Als defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern Semi-Final two weeks ago, Sutton stood on the sidelines at Molson Stadium and took in the energy from a crowd that Sutton the player rarely got to experience.

“I’d never seen it that packed and that loud with all those fans,” he said. “I can only thank them for sticking with us through that entire decade.”

Through those lean years full of change with owners, GMs, coaches, quarterbacks and everything in between, Matte never questioned leaving his hometown team. Bookending his career with these Grey Cup appearances, he’s been rewarded for an undying loyalty.

“The Alouettes were my dream team,” Matte said.

“I grew up watching the Alouettes and wanting to play for the Alouettes. Then I got the chance to play with some of those guys that I watched, so that was very special in and of itself.

“They drafted me, they gave me a chance. They believed in me, so I was patient. Then when it was time, I believed in them. Loyalty is huge. I’ve got the Alouettes tattooed on my heart forever, it’s never going to change. That’s what it is, loyalty. They believed in me and I believe in this organization. Even through the tough years, that’s what builds character. You’ve got to build character out of those moments. Things are starting to look up now and we want to keep this going for a while.”

After taking the job in 2020, only to have the pandemic throw a wrench at the league, then suffering through two ownership changes, Maciocia is for the first time ready to embrace an off-season with stability.

“When you look back at the beginning of the year to see where we’re at and to see where we’re at right now,” Maciocia said, trailing off. “This is going to make for a pleasant off-season; something that we haven’t experienced here in the last three years. This is exactly where we want to be. Yes, we want to be at this big game but we also want that stability and an off-season where you can focus on the tasks at hand.”

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