Football up north has a French flair

In a small park in the heart of downtown Montreal, in the shadow of the towering Chateau Champlain Hotel, an encampment of tents sits quivering in the winds of late November. It's an impromptu village, set up for partying fans. There's a sign at one corner: dans 5 jours. In five days, la Coupe Grey, the 89th championship game of the Canadian Football League (CFL), is coming to town.

For Canadians, the Grey Cup is not just a time-honored institution, it's a national occasion to party. Grey Cup Week features a slate of orchestrated events, coupled with a sense that almost anything could happen. When the Calgary Stampeders kick off against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Montreal's Olympic Stadium Sunday evening (6:00 p.m. EST), the locals will keep a close eye on the Calgarians from the plains of Alberta. In years past, they've been known to haul horses in by rail and gallop up and down the streets of staid Eastern cities. (The Canadian Broadcasting Company [CBC] will carry the game, as will America One and some Fox Sports Network cable channels in the United States.)

But Montreal is anything but staid, and the Grey Cup is a perfect match for the bon vivants of French Canada. That le match ultime is being hosted here says a good deal about the current mood of Quebecers. While this is the seventh Grey Cup to be held in Montreal, it's the first since 1985. Only two years later, one week before the 1987 season, the CFL's Montreal franchise folded.

The 1980s were down-years for the CFL in many parts of Canada, as fans with cable television tuned in to broadcasts of National Football League games from the US. But the fortunes of Canadian football fell even faster in Quebec. It was an era filled with calls to separate the French-speaking province from the rest of Canada. Graham Neil, a professor of sports psychology at McGill University in Montreal, remembers separatism as an English-speaking Canadian in Quebec.

"It was as if we didn't belong here," he remembers. "For a period of 10 or 15 years, you would be hard put to get service in English in restaurants and stores."

Today, a sense of rapprochement seems to have arrived. Ray Chartrand, a French-Canadian manufacturers' representative who grew up in Montreal, has seen the changes. "Don't worry about separation," he says. "Just give us our language."

Serge Savard, a legendary defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens professional hockey team, dismisses the notion that separatism had much to do with the failure of the CFL franchise.

The real problem, he says, was the same one that has befallen the soon-to-be-abolished Montreal Expos: Ownership put a bad baseball team on the field.

Savard went on to become CEO of the Canadiens. He's also co-chairman of the 2001 Grey Cup, along with Larry Smith, the former CFL commissioner who is president and CEO of the new Montreal Alouettes. This is the fifth year Montreal has been back in the CFL, and today it is among its strongest franchises.

Smith was a standout college running back in Quebec who went on to play for the Alouettes from 1972 to 1982. The Alouettes were a powerhouse then, importing top players from the US. One of Smith's teammates was Johnny Rodgers, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Nebraska. Smith played in two Grey Cups, including a 1977 game played on a frozen field in Montreal that drew a record crowd of 68,205. But it's remembered most for an incident at halftime, when someone with the Alouettes found a staple gun and the players shot staples through the soles of their shoes to provide traction. Not surprisingly, Montreal won the game, 41-6, over the Edmonton Eskimos.

Football has a deep roots in Canada. In 1874, a group of students from McGill University traveled to Cambridge, Mass., for a rugby match with Harvard. The McGill players had been experimenting with a modification of rugby rules, using pre-established plays. Harvard's players liked the new version so well they continued to develop it, too. And football evolved along parallel, if slightly different, lines in the two countries.

CFL football is played with only three downs, so it features more go-for-broke passes. The field is larger, and there are 12 players on a side. All five backs can go in motion prior to the snap and, with three feet separating opposing lines, there's less emphasis on brute force and more on agility and speed. The end zones are deeper, and the kicking game is more prominent. By tackling a punt returner before he can cross his opponent's goal line, a team can score one point, a rouge.

With only 20 seconds between plays, quarterbacks call their own games and no time outs are allowed until the final three minutes of each half. All in all, there's a sense of constant motion about the Canadian game. And the close confines of McGill University's 20,000 seat Molson Field have created a sense of intimacy that French-Canadian fans are said to love.

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