General manager Danny Maciocia’s fingerprints are all over the Montreal Alouettes’ unlikely Grey Cup run.
The franchise’s uncertain future not only cost it quarterback Trevor Harris and receiver Eugene Lewis but resulted in Maciocia getting a late start on building his team. But Maciocia’s hiring of head coach Jason Maas and adding such veterans as quarterback Cody Fajardo, defensive lineman Shawn Lemon and linebacker Darnell Sankey have all contributed to Montreal making its first championship appearance since 2010.
“You want to be around this gang,” Maciocia said. “As much as we’re going to play this Grey Cup game, these guys are going home next week and I’ll miss that terribly not having that day-to-day interaction with this group will be difficult.
“It’s been rewarding, it’s been fun, it’s been a challenge but the good thing is every situation, every challenge we’ve stuck together and seen it through together. For me, that’s probably been the most gratifying.”
Maciocia, 56, of Montreal, raised eyebrows last December when he hired Maas. The coach had been fired as the Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive co-ordinator after they lost their final seven regular-season games to miss the CFL playoffs.
But that didn’t deter Maciocia, who has a very strong bond with Maas that dates back over 20 years. From 2002-08, Maciocia served as Edmonton’s offensive co-ordinator or head coach/GM, while Maas was a quarterback there from 2000-05.
“I told Jason, ‘One of the reasons I hired you is what you went through last year because you’re battle-tested now,’” Maciocia said. “I said, ‘You’re not going to get worse than what you experienced last year with me and in Montreal, trust me.’
“I knew [in Edmonton] this wasn’t your ordinary guy, he wasn’t an ordinary player. He’s smart, he’s bright, he’s passionate, he’s a leader of men and that’s never left me.”
The CFL assumed operation of the Alouettes on Feb. 14, hours before the start of free agency. Maciocia could only watch as Harris (Saskatchewan), Lewis (Edmonton) and linebacker Adarius Pickett (Toronto) were among 10 Montreal players to move on.
Maciocia did extend receiver Kaion Julien-Grant, returner/receiver Chandler Worthy, linebacker Tyrice Beverette and defensive-back Wesley Sutton. He also signed Fajardo to a two-year deal in free agency after Saskatchewan moved on from Fajardo following three seasons.
“I knew in my mind Cody still had some good years left in him and Jason also felt very good about Cody,” Maciocia said. “I just told Cody, ‘Look I feel so strongly about this, it’s no different than the guy I just hired as head coach.
“‘What you went through last year won’t define you as a person and who you are as a quarterback. These are just certain experiences you’re going to go through in life and I feel good about trying to get you here and trying to build something unique and special,’ and he was game.”
The Alouettes’ future was solidified in March when Montreal billionaire businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau purchased the franchise. The move has brought much-needed stability to the entire organization.
“‘Peace, calm,” Maciocia said. “When you have peace of mind you’d be surprised how more productive you can be and I hadn’t had peace of mind for the longest time and on a personal note, you’re not going to get sick doing this.
“I don’t know if I was getting sick but I wasn’t feeling good and I didn’t know where it was leading. I was thinking there was going to be a point in time here where you’re going to have to make a decision because I wasn’t going to get sick over it.”
Still, Maciocia went to camp anxious to see exactly what he had on the field.
“I felt good about [Fajardo], what I didn’t know was were we going to be able to help him,” Maciocia said. “We didn’t want to put it all on his shoulders where he’d have throw 40, 50 times just to win football games.
“As I watched practice I said to myself, ‘There may be something here.’ To honestly look you in the eye and say, ‘We’re going to go to the Grey Cup,’ I’d be lying to you. But I knew we’d be able to compete.”
Maciocia added Lemon, a 12-year CFL veteran, in July and the 35-year-old has registered nine sacks, 25 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 13 regular-season contests. Then on Sept. 11, Maciocia signed Sankey – who’d led the CFL in tackles the previous two seasons with Calgary and Saskatchewan.
Montreal lost 23-20 to Toronto on Sept. 15 in Sankey’s first game but hasn’t since. The Alouettes (11-7) will face Winnipeg on Sunday having won seven straight games.
Sankey has been especially impressive of late, registering 14 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in Montreal’s two playoff wins.
“They’ve been lights out,” Maciocia said. “They’ve given us a different attitude and identity on defence that our young guys have benefited from in terms of their leadership and presence day in and day out.
“To sit here and say, ‘I’m going to bring these two guys in and we’re going to go to a Grey Cup and have many defensive touchdowns,’ would be misleading. But I knew they’d bring value.”