Montreal Alouettes co-owner Andrew Wetenhall says he is just as determined as his father Bob to keep the club afloat and to make them winners again.
It won’t be an easy task with the club out of the CFL playoffs the last three years and attendance in decline at Percival Molson Stadium, but Wetenhall is convinced that the process has begun and that the turnaround on the field can start this season.
“We’re not so delusional to believe that we’re going to win all our games and lose none,” Wetenhall said Monday at the team’s downtown office. “But we expect to see progress and we expect to see a competitive team on the field right away, this year.
“And I’m hopeful that over five years, we go from foundation building to really challenging for the Eastern Conference championship and the Grey Cup. And that’s a reasonable position.”
Bob Wetenhall bought the club in 1997 from Jim Speros, who had moved it to Montreal the year before from Baltimore when the CFL’s experiment with U.S. franchises ended. Without the senior Wetenhall’s enthusiasm, and his apparent willingness to absorb losses, the team may not have survived.
But a move from Olympic Stadium, where they struggled to attract 10,000 fans per game, to their current cosy home on the downtown McGill University campus, saw the Alouettes sell out nearly every game as they dominated the East through the late 1990s and the 2000s.
Now the team is in trouble again, having missed the playoffs three years in a row and losing a franchise record 15 games last season. Average attendance tumbled below the 20,000 mark last season and many games it looked like there were far fewer in the seats.
‘We really want this to be a success’
But Wetenhall said his family is not ready to give up on the club.
“We really want this to be a success,” he said. “It will be an immense amount of effort to turn it around.”
“That’s why we’re putting our sweat, blood and, more importantly, investment in it. We wouldn’t do that if we weren’t committed. We’re in the middle of our generational transfer, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the franchise and the business, or our passion for it at all.”
Bob Wetenhall, who has had health issues in recent years, is still very much in the picture even if Andrew, a New York-based investment banker, has taken over as the team’s lead governor. He still consults his father on big decisions.
“He had a real tough fall with his health and he’s 100 per cent well,” said Wetenhall.
Under Andrew Wetenhall, much has changed. Last season, they parted ways with Jim Popp, the architect of three Grey Cup winners in the 2000s who had been general manager in Montreal since 1996.
Wetenhall has full confidence in his replacement Kavis Reed, who was charged with not only building a winning team, but fixing problems that were harming attempts to sign top free agents. For one, Reed got their old practice field back next to their locker room at Olympic Stadium, eliminating bus rides to a public park.
“We weren’t able to secure players a couple of years ago because they didn’t want to get on a bus,” he said. “One of Kavis’s first things he fixed, he got rid of the bus and found us a field a five-minute walk from our locker room.
“That’s a massive accomplishment. I don’t know if we could have signed the players we did in this off-season without the ground work Kavis put in place.”
He also liked that Reed stays in the city, while Popp commuted from his home in North Carolina, and is willing to take part in activities in the community.
Reed also brought in former Green Bay Packers boss Mike Sherman to lead a revamped coaching staff.
‘We’re building our team back’
The biggest challenge is finding a starting quarterback. The Alouettes have gone through more than a dozen since CFL all-time passing leader Anthony Calvillo retired after the 2013 season.
Wetenhall is convinced that Drew Willy, who joined them midway through last season, can be the answer, even if the veteran has struggled in recent years.
“Drew Willy is a great football player,” he said.
Wetenhall, who hired Patrick Boivin as team president last year, has a three-part plan to improve the team — build a winning squad, improve the in-game experience for fans and keep the team active in the community.
“We’re building our team back,” he said.
“It’s a building process and we have to kind of build our way out to start winning games and proving to people that we’re a quality football team.”