Montreal Royal spearheads the rise of ultimate in Quebec
Quebec federation says participation in the sport has doubled over last 5 years
Christophe Tremblay-Joncas played football, water polo and soccer — but it wasn't until he picked up a disc for the first time that he said he found his game.
He was a student at College Laval when a teacher introduced him to the sport. Tremblay-Joncas loved that, in ultimate, nearly every play involved crossing the field and leaping to make a catch.
It was quite a contrast to football, which he enjoyed, but felt limited as a player because the ball is only thrown deep a few times per game.
"Also there's the spirit of the game, which is a big thing," he said. "What really gets me into it is that everyone is super friendly."
Tremblay-Joncas is now six years into playing ultimate, and has earned a spot on the Montreal Royal — the city's professional team that plays in the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) — for a third consecutive season.
"It's a really friendly team. I really love it. I love them, I guess," he said.
Players getting younger
Tremblay-Joncas's path to the sport — finding it in high school or university — is not uncommon. Traditionally, most players get introduced to ultimate in their late teens or early 20s in university.
But the Fédération québécoise d'ultimate, which helps promote, develop and support the sport in the province, says that is starting to change.
Federation president Guillaume Goulet says their membership has doubled to 9,000 over the last five years. He attributes the increase to the growth of youth programs in the province that are getting kids into the sport at a much younger age.
The Montreal Royal also factors into the increase. The Royal joined the 21-team AUDL in 2014 and it has given fans in Quebec not only a professional team to cheer for, but also somewhere they can aspire to play for.
"Montreal is a very special community," said Royal team president Jean-Lévy Champagne.
"We've got a loud and very fantastic crowd. They're here to cheer for the team. Between 1,500 to 2,000 come to the home opener every year."
Champagne, 38, says the team is skewing younger in recent years, too. Three years ago, the average age on their roster was 33, but this season they average 25 years old.
To those close to the sport, this is an indication that ultimate is transitioning from a game people pick up later in their lives to a sport that is an athlete's primary passion from day one.
International recruits strengthen Royal roster
As the AUDL evolves and the sport grows, Champagne says he also has to step up his recruiting efforts to keep the Royal competitive.
In recent years, he has turned to Europe, in particular France, where he scouted athletes, invited them to tryouts and signed the top players to contracts with the Royal.
This season, he has six French nationals on the roster.
"They're the best in France. We got them in Montreal. We're very proud of that," Champagne said.
French player Quentin Bonnaud is one of his prize recruits. He is a standout player for the Royal, catching a team-best eight goals in a recent game against Toronto.
"He's mostly flying on the field. He's catching every disc in the sky against the biggest guys on the other team. Number 44 is the player to watch," Champagne said.
Playing for the love of the game
Despite the growth seen in recent years, ultimate is still not at the point where players can make a living from the sport.
Tremblay-Joncas, 23, is a physical education teacher and is only able to play for the Royal because their games and practices fit around his work schedule.
The Royal does, however, pay for all the players' equipment and travel expenses, which is substantial because the season includes road games to Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.
"Every player here has another job because you're not making enough money to live on it. But what's really fun is you can play ultimate for free, basically," Tremblay-Joncas said.
"It takes a lot of passion."
Champagne said they raise money from ticket and concession sales at their six home games each season, sponsorship deals and subscriptions that gives fans access to game broadcasts online.
Every game counts
The AUDL season is only 12 games long, so each one is critical if the Royal hopes to advance to the playoffs.
They play in a division with Toronto, Ottawa, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. Three teams make the playoffs, and only one will eventually advance to represent the division in the four-team grand final.
Over Montreal's five seasons in the league, they've reached the playoffs twice. The last time was in 2017, and they're already in a hole this season starting with losses on the road in New York and Toronto.
Winning home games, like this weekend's opener against the D.C. Breeze (2-2) is key if the Royal intends to get back into the postseason.
"We're going to probably be in a playoff run with [D.C.]. So we need this win this weekend," Champange said.
The Royal plays home games at Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard on May 19, June 22, June 29, July 4 and July 14. They also play one home game in Quebec City at Cégep Garneau on June 15.