Montreal·Analysis

Alouettes' new co-owner Gary Stern shoots straight, but can he deliver?

Six weeks ago, Toronto-based businessman Gary Stern was watching the Grey Cup in his basement when a friend mentioned the Montreal Alouettes were for sale. Now he and his father-in-law, Sid Spiegel, own the team.

Toronto-based businessman learned CFL team was for sale during Grey Cup

New Alouettes co-owner Gary Stern, pictured here, spelled out his allegiance to the CFL team in no uncertain terms Monday when asked why he didn't buy the Toronto Argonauts instead. 'The Argos suck,' he said. (Ivanoh Demers)

In his first news conference as the new co-owner of the Montreal Alouettes, Gary Stern warned that speaking publicly wasn't his forté.

Yet, during that question-and-answer period with the Montreal media Monday, it became clear that nerves aside, speaking frankly and shooting straight is something the Toronto-based businessman is good at.

After a year of speculation about the future of the Alouettes, Stern answered many burning questions.

The Canadian Football League team's bills are paid, he said, and the Als are going to be well-funded moving forward. Upgrading facilities, specifically, the team's practice facility, is a priority.

This is big.

A proper, centralized football practice venue is something the Alouettes have needed for a long time.

GM, team president hirings expected by week's end

Right now, they work out of offices spread out between the Olympic Stadium and downtown Montreal, and the players train on a soccer field where they must wheel in goalposts to practise kicking.

As far as a new stadium, at least in the short term, fans can forget it. Despite the shortcomings of Percival Molson Stadium, the Alouettes won't be leaving anytime soon.

On the football operations side, Stern was up front. He said the team should have a new general manager and president in place by the end of the week, and he and co-owner Sid Spiegel are going to take a hands-off approach, allowing the football experts to do their jobs.

This represents a shift from how the Alouettes' previous owners handled things in recent years, a period in which the team was not very good on the field.

And for those worried about public relations, yes: the new president will be bilingual, Stern said.

This level of clarity is a welcome change after months of carefully worded statements and non-answers from CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie on the future of Montreal's professional football team.

A long, drawn-out saga

It was nearly a year ago when the rumblings started that the team's long-time owner, Bob Wetenhall, wanted out.

After years of witnessing the Alouettes hemorrhage money off the field and dismal results on the field, the American businessman wanted to sell. When an appropriate buyer didn't emerge right away, the CFL itself took over the team in May 2019.

In the intervening months, the names of several potential owners surfaced, including a group headed by former star player Éric Lapointe, Montreal entrepreneur Clifford Starke, and Hollywood producer Peter Lenkov and his attorney brother Jeff, who grew up in Montreal.

All appeared at different points to have the inside track to owning the team, yet none was able to close the deal.

Uncertainty hung over the team like a dark cloud, even as the Als enjoyed a winning season on the field, and fan support surged.

In the end, it took a pair that wasn't on anyone's radar to step up and close the deal: Gary Stern, the CEO of Toronto-based Crawford Steel, and his father-in-law, the company's founder and chairman of the board, Sid Spiegel.

Montreal Alouettes quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., right, hands off to Jeremiah Johnson in the second half of the game against the Toronto Argonauts in Montreal last Oct. 18. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Inspired by the Grey Cup

Stern said it all happened pretty quickly. He was watching the Grey Cup in his basement on Nov. 24 when a friend at the party, Dale Lastman, who was about to be named CFL chairman, mentioned the Alouettes were for sale.

Days later, Stern was sitting down with the league's commissioner, and today he and Spiegel own the team.

Their privately held company has a footprint in Quebec, with plants in Longueuil and Rouyn-Noranda, and they say they're committed to the Quebec market.

Stern may have endeared himself to Als fans when he responded to a question from Radio-Canada reporter Jean St-Onge. St-Onge asked him why, since he was from Ontario, he didn't consider buying the Toronto Argonauts when they were for sale recently.

"The Argos suck," Stern replied.

That's something a traditional manager would never say, but a fan would.

For Stern to spell out his allegiance with a line like that is a perfect way to win the local fans on Day 1.

Now he and Spiegel have the tough job of keeping that momentum going, by picking the right people to put together a winning team.

If there is anything we've learned in the last decade of Alouettes football, it's that what the fans care about above all is seeing an exciting and champion-quality team on the field.

There is a lot of work to be done in order to make that happen in the 2020 season, and CFL free agency opens Feb. 15.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Douglas Gelevan is a national award-winning journalist who has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. In addition to his role as host of CBC Montreal Weekend News, Doug also covers community sports and sports news.

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