Alouettes go from being hunter to hunted as training camp begins

“Our room doesn’t need any external motivation,” head coach Jason Maas says. “Everyone understands the target’s on … the defending Grey Cup champions’ backs.”

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ST-JÉRÔME — At age 38, Kristian Matte could have ridden off into the sunset and retired on the heels of a Grey Cup championship.

Instead, the veteran Alouettes guard, and the oldest player on the team, decided to return for his 15th season with the team. And, following the opening day of training camp at the Claude Beaulieu Multisport Centre, Matte knows there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

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“It’s exciting to get back on the field, to see the guys,” he said following Sunday’s afternoon practice. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years now, playing football. Just to be on the field, I feel blessed. I’m happy to be here and ready to work hard.

“It’s always a great storyline when you can finish on top,” added the former first-round (seventh overall) draft choice in 2010 out of Concordia University. “After the (Grey Cup) game, within an hour, I was telling myself this is a great feeling. It would be great to be able to live this again, if I’m still able and willing. Being in the locker room with the guys, having that family feeling, being passionate about a sport and, if your body’s able to do it, why not do it while you can, because it’s not something that will last for a very long time. Take advantage of it when you can.”

As the Alouettes embark on the start of another camp scenario, the dynamics and optics have changed considerably from a year ago, when nothing much was expected from this team. Even in mid-September, in the midst of a four-game losing streak that dropped Montreal’s record to 6-7, the season might have gone off the rails. Instead, the club was galvanized and never lost again, winning its final eight contests, culminating it its come-from-behind 28-24 victory over Winnipeg at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton.

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Although the CFL consists of only nine teams, no club has captured consecutive titles since the Blue Bombers in 2019 and ’21 (the league was cancelled in 2020 because of COVID). Montreal, in 2009-10, are the last to win Cup championships in successive seasons. It’s obviously not as easy as it might appear on the surface, and Montreal now goes from being the hunter to the hunted.

It will be paramount the core group of veterans, not to mention head coach Jason Maas, don’t allow complacency to set in. Maas made it clear last Friday, when the players were presented with their championship rings, there no longer would be mention of past history. But the culture and standards expected from the players, Maas stressed, won’t ever change.

“It’s a new season,” Maas said on Sunday. “We’re going to write our own story and it’s going to start with connection. We’ve got a lot of new guys in that room, and a lot of guys that were here last year. We want to connect the groups together. That’s what we’re about in this camp and that’s really what defines us. It’s just about how we’re going to go about doing that during this camp. And try to do it as fast as possible.

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“If being hunted motivates you, great. Our room doesn’t need any external motivation. Everyone understands the target’s on. Generally speaking, the target’s on the defending Grey Cup champions’ backs. But we’re not looking at it that way. I couldn’t care less what everyone else thinks about us, to be honest.”

One year ago, quarterback Cody Fajardo had been kicked to the curb by Saskatchewan, replaced as the Roughriders’ starting quarterback late in 2022 and signed by the Alouettes as a free agent. If Fajardo had things to prove to his critics while attempting to resurrect his career, he enters this camp as the unchallenged starter with his position and legacy defined.

“It’s the mentality I’ve had my whole career,” Fajardo said. “You come in and want to earn it. You don’t want to show any complacency. The biggest thing is consistency; that’s been my goal. After you win a Cup, if you want to be talked about with the legends of the league, you have to go out and do it again … prove you can do it again. To have a bit of a taste of it, it makes you want it a little bit more. That’s the motivation, knowing what it felt like winning the last game of the season.”

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Safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy, now entering his fourth season with Montreal, said the key is not changing the organization’s mentality. And, considering the philosophy of general manager Danny Maciocia, Maas and his assistants, that’s unlikely to occur, he added.

“There’s a difference between what’s being said (inside the dressing room) and outside,” said Dequoy, the East Division nominee as outstanding Canadian last season. “We’re remembering last year, but we’re not talking about it. It’s a new team. We know what we’ve got to do to win. If you’re the type that sits on success, it’s easy to happen. But you can see with the leadership that’s in place, it’s not those types of people.

“The biggest message vocally is by (your) actions,” he added. “Are we on the sideline messing around? We set an example, as veterans. We never give up. That mentality the new people will see. And they’ll know that’s what it takes to be an Alouette.”

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