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Bon Match! A CFL experience in Montreal

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Bon Match! A CFL experience in Montreal (edge photo by Allen Adams)

MONTREAL I'm not sure just when I decided that my first in-person professional football game experience was going to be a CFL matchup.

Sure, I've been growing increasingly fascinated with the gridiron of the Great White North in recent years I've been offering up Canadian football season and playoff previews for a few years now, doing my best to help draw attention to an undeniably entertaining game but my first love remains the NFL.

Here's the thing, though: the NFL doesn't need me. The National Football League is a multibillion-dollar corporation, one whose television rights fees and licensing agreements have ensured that the individual fan simply doesn't matter that much. Don't get me wrong I'm still going to watch the NFL every Sunday (and most Thursdays and Mondays, too) but I have zero desire to sit outside on a cold December day to see it in person.

But the CFLthe CFL is something else entirely. The CFL is a league built on passion and national pride, a league that celebrates its basic Canadian-ness (half of each roster quarterbacks excepted is required to be of Canadian lineage). With few exceptions, these guys aren't going to be millionaires. They're just football players, playing a game that they love in front of crowds that might be a bit smaller, but that more than make up for their size with vigor and joy.

What sports fan wouldn't want to experience that?

And so, I procured tickets to the July 29 matchup between the Montreal Alouettes and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I was going to see the CFL for myself.

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I wasn't sure exactly what to expect as my traveling companion Mike and I made our way toward Percival Molson Memorial Stadium. The first thing that strikes you about the place is its position on the side of the city's namesake mountain. Seriously, it's a downtown football stadium that is also on the slope of a mountain. It makes for a fantastic view as you come upon it.

The stadium with a capacity of 25,012 first served as the home for the Montreal Alouettes from 1947-1967; the team returned to the stadium in 1998 and it has played its home games there ever since. The stadium is owned by McGill University and also serves as the field for the McGill Redmen college football team.

We arrived at around 5:15 for a 7 p.m. kickoff; unbeknownst to us, the gates weren't scheduled to open until 5:30. Still, that gave us a chance to get the lay of the land. Up at the top of the steps, fluttering proudly above the entrance, were banners signifying the Alouettes' Grey Cup victories in the modern CFL era three wins in the 1970s (1970, 1974, 1977) and three in the 21st century (2002, 2009, 2010). Little did we know, we were going to experience a connection to those latter three wins later in the game but more on that later.

Standing in line, we were immediately chatted up by a pair of hardcore Roughriders fans behind us. These two a husband and wife had made the nearly 1,500-mile trek from Saskatchewan to see their beloved team play. Obviously, I expected fandom, but to encounter this sort of devotion coming from someone who just happened to be standing behind me was surprising. I'd later see plenty of green jerseys in the stadium our queue neighbors were far from the only Roughriders faithful who made the cross-country trek to support their squad.

As we made our way to our seats it turns out we had entered just as far from them as we possibly could we crossed through the area designated the 'Fan Zone,' a collection of vendors who wound up getting their hands on a borderline-embarrassing amount of my money. We continued our loop, walking the track that surrounds the playing field (and incidentally, carves small slivers from the corners of each end zone, making them the CFL's smallest) and finding our spot.

We were in the third row of the bleachers, sitting on the side of the field opposite the benches right around the 40-yard-line. Our vantage point was such that we had a nice close view of warmups, and while there's no question that the NFL's talent level is higher, it's also difficult to dispute the quality of athleticism displayed by CFL players.

And then came kickoff.

Both of these teams came into this game reeling a bit, sporting identical 1-3 records and sitting at the bottom of their respective divisions. Neither squad was producing offensively, so Mike and I settled in for what we expected would be a low-scoring affair.

Unfortunately for the Roughriders, it would indeed be a low-scoring gamebut only for them.

Embattled Alouettes quarterback Kevin Glenn set the tone early, marching Montreal down the field on the opening drive. He went six for six in driving the Als to the first touchdown of the night, a six-yarder to receiver B.J. Cunningham. And from there, the rout was on.

Would it have been nice to experience a nail-biter of a game? Sure. But there's something to be said for a fired-up fanbase that is watching their team get a much-needed win in dominating fashion. We happily joined in as the crowd was encouraged to 'faites du bruit' make some noise and punctuate every move of the chains with a collective first down call to which the written word cannot do justice.

The CFL game is remarkably wide open. The different rules and wider field make throwing the ball far more attractive than the ground game (although if Als running back Tyrell Sutton had been healthy, it might have been a different story). The constant motion makes the action fascinating to watch. The ball was fired around the field with impunity, but only Glenn was effective his Roughriders counterpart Mitchell Gale struggled all evening to produce.

By the end of the first half, the Alouettes had put up 22 points while shutting out the hapless Saskatchewan attack. At halftime, I got to once again experience a personal first a first within a first, if you will.

See, this night was also the night in which the Alouettes would retire the number 86 jersey of longtime star slotback Ben Cahoon. So who is he? That was a question to which I myself didn't have an answer until just a few days before the game. But it turns out that in the CFL and in Montreal in particular Ben Cahoon is a VERY big deal.

His career began in 1998 and ended in 2010; every CFL down he played was for Montreal. He was named the CFL's Most Outstanding Canadian twice (in 2002 and 2003) and was an All-Star 10 times. At the time of his retirement, he was the CFL's all-time leader in career receptions with 1,017 and in the top-10 all-time in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He was also a key component in the teams that brought the Grey Cup back to Montreal after nearly three decades.

This is a beloved all-time great player and we had the opportunity to watch his city thank him for all he had done. It was really a lovely moment, with swarms of fans invited onto the field to be a little closer, surrounding the lectern that had been erected at midfield for the ceremony. There were tributes from former teammates and coaches (along with moments of unintentional humor whenever anyone attempted to bust out some rusty French) and a really sincere outpouring of gratitude and affection. And when the tarp concealing Cahoon's name and number on the faade dropped away, I found myself swept up in the emotion of the moment, carried away by these thousands of fans saying merci beaucoup for his performance over the years.

I felt lucky to be there.

After the emotional outpouring during halftime, it's no surprise that the Roughriders were unable to claw their way back into contention. The Alouettes continued riding the wave of success that carried them to a big lead, one that became nigh-unassailable by late in the third quarter.

Again, while watching a barn-burner might have provided a bit more excitement to the evening, the truth is that the lopsided score presented other opportunities for fun. The biggest, of course, was getting the chance to take a selfie with Touche, the Alouettes' skylark mascot. I've never been one for the ubiquitous self-portraits, but you better believe I was going to get one with Touche.

Ultimately, the score wound up at 41-3 in favor of Montreal. It was a much-needed win for the Alouettes, though even with the victory, they continue to languish in the cellar of the CFL's East Divison. Glenn finished with just shy of 300 yards passing with a pair of touchdowns. Receiver Duron Carter (son of NFL Hall of Famer Cris) made eight catches for 115 yards and a TD. The Als D was quietly effective. It was a complete team effort one that I was privileged to enjoy firsthand.

The CFL certainly doesn't operate on the same scale as its gridiron neighbor to the south, but that's perfectly OK. Sure, the NFL might be bigger and bolder, but there's no denying that the CFL revels in dancing to the beat of its own drummer. It is a league steeped in tradition this year's Grey Cup will mark the 104th time the CFL championship has been contested and while it will never supplant hockey as the national game, there are plenty of Canadians who love their teams with just as much die-hard passion as any NFL fan.

In truth, any football-lover would be well-served by taking in a game somewhere north of the border. Bon match, Montreal. Bon matchet bonne chance.

-

A CFL versus NFL primer

Some readers may not be aware of the differences between the game played in the CFL and that of the NFL. These differences some minute, others more significant add up to make the Canadian game one that is distinct from its American counterpart while still remaining easily recognizable.

Here's a quick breakdown of some of the major distinctions:

- The field of play is significantly bigger in the CFL. While the standard NFL field is 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide, the CFL field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide. In addition, CFL end zones are 20 yards deep as opposed to 10 in the NFL. Also, the CFL's goal posts are placed on the goal line while the NFL's are located on the end line.

- NFL teams play with 11 men to a side. The CFL plays with 12. Since both games have the same number of players required at the line of scrimmage, the additional player plays in the backfield.

- CFL teams get three downs in which to advance the ball 10 yards for a first down instead of the four allotted NFL teams.

- Players line up at different distances from the line of scrimmage. In the NFL, offensive and defensive players are the length of the ball (11 inches) apart. In the CFL, there's a full yard between the offensive and defensive players.

- In the NFL, only one player may be in motion during a given play, and he can't be moving toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. In the CFL, any player in the offensive backfield other than the quarterback can be in motion at any time and in any direction.

- There is no such thing as a fair catch in the CFL. Also, the ball may be kicked at any time, includingduring a play. This is known as an open-field kick.

- A kicked ball that goes through the back of the end zone in the CFL (except on kickoffs and balls that hit the goal post) results in a single point, a play known as a rouge. This includes punts and missed field goals.

- The NFL play clock is 40 seconds, while the CFL clock is 20. NFL teams get three time-outs per half, while CFL teams get only one. The CFL features a three-minute warning as opposed to the NFL's two-minute warning. Additionally, after the three-minute warning, the clock stops after every play.

There are other differences as well, but these are most of the major ones. The CFL game is certainly recognizable as the sport of football, but decades of divergent evolution have resulted in something that is undeniably unique.

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