Jack Todd: Football reigned supreme on Montreal sports scene in 2023

The Alouettes’ surprising Grey Cup victory and the Carabins’ Vanier Cup triumph gave this city pigskin bragging rights for the year.

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Face it, 2023 was well on its way to the Dustbin of Forgotten Years in local lore. “Y’all remember 2023? That was the year when, when … well now, I don’t recall a doggone thing.”

It was destined to be that kind of year in Montreal. The Canadiens were in the throes of a long rebuild that seemed to be going the right way but, for this year, was memorable mostly for the injuries.

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CF Montréal had predictably melted away after losing the best coach they’ve ever had.

Then the Alouettes, coming out of a long period of ownership dysfunction and expected to fall somewhere between awful and mediocre, decided it was their time to roar.

On back-to-back weeks, playing on the road without benefit of a bye week and with the oddsmakers saying they had no chance against the two best teams in the league, the Alouettes carved out a legend.

First, the underdog Als, led by an overwhelming defence, demolished the heavily favoured Argonauts in Toronto to win the East final, 38-17. That set the stage for a Grey Cup showdown against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, with the Als so lightly regarded that the TSN channel guide had the Bombers playing the Argos for the championship.

In one of the most dramatic stretches of play you will ever see, underrated quarterback Cody Fajardo led a seven-play, two-minute drive, capped by a 19-yard touchdown pass to Tyson Philpot with 13 seconds left to play: Alouettes 28, Bombers 24.

The victory was the culmination of a series of brilliant in-season moves by GM Danny Maciocia and some finely calibrated coaching on the part of Jason Maas. I doubted Maciocia almost to the bitter end and I was very, very wrong. He and his team are deserving champions.

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A week later, the Université de Montréal Carabins held off the UBC Thunderbirds to win their second Vanier Cup, handing this city a rare Grey Cup/Vanier Cup double and national bragging rights in football.

Members of the Université de Montréal Carabins pose with the Vanier Cup trophy.
Members of the Université de Montréal Carabins celebrate with the Vanier Cup on Nov. 25 in Kingston, Ont., after beating the UBC Thunderbirds 16-9 to win the Canadian University Football Championship. Photo by Adrian Wyld /The Canadian Press

For the Canadiens, who have dominated the sports scene in Montreal without effort since the Expos left in 2004, it was a relatively quiet year. Injuries crippled any possible thought of contending in the 2022-2023 season and the current season was barely past puck-drop when key forward Kirby Dach went down with a knee injury in the second game of the season.

Executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton, general manager Kent Hughes and head coach Martin St. Louis are still enjoying what passes for a honeymoon in Montreal, with no more than a third of the fan base wanting them all fired yesterday.

That didn’t prevent one of the most savagely ugly episodes in the history of the franchise following the NHL draft in Nashville last June, when fans were angered by the club’s decision to draft Austrian defenceman David Reinbacher with the fifth overall pick over Russian forward Matvei Michkov and his gaudy highlight reel.

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Canadiens' David Reinbacher slams Maple Leafs' Josiah Slavin into the boards during pre-season action at the Bell Centre in September.
Canadiens’ David Reinbacher slams Maple Leafs’ Josiah Slavin into the boards during pre-season action at the Bell Centre in September. Photo by Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press

The fans first exploded on social media. Then they went after the 18-year-old Reinbacher himself. The knuckleheads were soon shouted down by kindly young fans assuring the young man that he is wanted and welcome here, but the loudmouths had already done their team and their city a lot of damage.

On the ice at year’s end, even with scoring forwards Dach, Alex Newhook and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard on Team Clinic, the Canadiens were stubbornly eking out wins and clinging to the outer fringes of the playoff race going into a four-game road stretch to conclude the often fatal holiday road trip.

Most significant, perhaps, was the play of No. 1 pick Juraj Slafkovsky, who is beginning to pick up points to go with his vastly improved play in his second season in the league. The big Slovak is starting to throw his weight around and to show his deft touch around the net.

Slafkovsky’s play and the emergence of defenceman Jayden Struble have been the most positive indications for this team going forward, while veterans Mike Matheson, Sean Monahan and the surprising David Savard are key cogs for the present and Nick Suzuki is proving to be a captain on a par with any leader this side of Le Gros Bill.

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Juraj Slafkovsky is seen bending over with his stick on his thighs waiting for play to resume.
Juraj Slafkovsky is beginning to pick up points to go with his vastly improved play in his second season in the NHL. Photo by Michael Reaves /Getty Images

While the Alouettes triumphed and the Canadiens rebuilt with steady hands in charge, CF Montréal tripped over owner Joey Saputo’s ego after superb coach Wilfried Nancy was driven into the arms of the Columbus Crew. Under his replacement, Hernán Losada, CF Montreal finished 10th in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs with 41 points and a mere 36 goals scored on the season — both marks well below the 65 points and 63 goals put up under Nancy’s leadership in 2022, when the team finished second in the east.

Nancy delivered the ultimate comeuppance on Dec. 13, when his Columbus Crew defeated the Los Angeles Football Club, 2-1, to win the MLS Cup, making Nancy the first Black manager to win the title.

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Saputo has been at this a long while and he’s done admirable service in building a stadium and winning a franchise in MLS for Montreal. But unlike Geoff Molson, who has grown into the job over the years, Saputo has never been able to overcome a tendency to run the team as an extension of his own nervous system.

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Now Losada has been fired after a single unsuccessful season and CF Montréal has to hit reset for the umpteenth time, when it could have been so simple: Sign Wilfried Nancy to a long-term contract and sit back and watch the team win.

On the international scene, meanwhile, the Women’s World Cup was easily the event of the year. Without the diving, posturing and referee-swarming of men’s soccer, the women were unleashed and they came through in spectacular fashion, even if Team Canada’s effort was a prolonged slip on a banana peel followed by a face plant. You can thank Soccer Canada and former boss Nick Bontis for that mess.

Canada’s failure aside, the absolute dominance of a half-dozen teams (with the U.S. always the likely winner) was shattered, with upstarts like Colombia and Morocco showing they can play on an equal footing with anyone. Spain, the ultimate victor, ran rings around everyone else as the event garnered staggering ratings everywhere from the U.K. to China, where 53.9 million people watched China lose to England, 6-1.

Minutes after Spain’s 1-0 triumph over England in the final, the tournament became an international incident after Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales pulled star player Jenni Hermoso into an unwanted victory kiss with the world watching. It took weeks to play out but Rubiales was ultimately forced to step down and handed a three-year ban from FIFA, another step in the long, wearying battle for equality in the world of sports.

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At the opposite end of the event spectrum was the rugby World Cup, which has become a painful anachronism — brutal, tedious and often incomprehensible. I’ve always admired the civil way players and referees interact in rugby, but with the constant intrusion of VAR into the mix, matches have become more like a sustained negotiation than a sport — unwatchable.

That did not apply to the FIBA basketball World Cup and a thoroughly admirable performance from Team Canada en route to a bronze-medal triumph over the team from the U.S.

Canada's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives to the basket past Bobby Portis of the U.S. during the third-place game at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Manila, Philippines.
Canada’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives to the basket past Bobby Portis of the U.S. during the third-place game at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Manila, Philippines. Photo by Yong Teck Lim /Getty Images

Canada was full value for the medal. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder is now a bona fide upper echelon NBA player and his muscular NBA running mate, Montrealer Luguentz Dort, is one of the toughest defenders in the league.

Team Canada was driven, surprisingly, by NBA bad boy Dillon Brooks, who put aside the posturing, cheap fouls and showboating to lead Canada to the bronze at both ends of the court.

Any review of the year in sports in Canada would be remiss without any mention of Toronto swimmer Summer McIntosh. She dominated, setting two world records before her 17th birthday. McIntosh will probably be the Canadian face of the Paris Olympics.

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Another triumph drew more attention, however. That was Canada’s victory at the Billie Jean King Cup in Seville, Spain, with doubles specialist Gaby Dabrowski, 19-year-old Marina Stakusic and Montreal’s Leylah Fernandez leading the way.

As the year wound down, the overhyped, overblown world junior hockey tournament blared from TV sets from Newfoundland to Nanaimo, begging the question: Just how excited can Gord Miller get over yet another Canadian goal in a blowout 10-0 victory over Latvia?

As always, the world juniors are an occasion for Canadians to unleash our latent American in the noisiest fashion — while from Hockey Canada, the National Hockey League and the London Police Department there was nothing but the sound of silence.

The year ended without the promised reports on the 2018 sexual assault scandal that saw the alleged victim paid off by Hockey Canada to buy her silence. While the tournament churns on, Hockey Canada, the NHL and the London police remained mum. Hear no evil, see no evil, report no evil.

It’s almost as if they’re trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

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