As a youngster growing up on Montreal’s West Island, the Canadiens’ Mike Matheson played hockey and football.
In 2005, at age 11, as a running back he was named the offensive MVP of the mosquito Triple-A Lakeshore Cougars. Matheson was also a big Alouettes fan, attending games at Molson Stadium, and his favourite players were quarterback Anthony Calvillo and receiver Ben Cahoon.
Matheson was 16 and playing hockey for the midget Triple-A Lac St. Louis Lions when the Alouettes won the Grey Cup in 2010. The Alouettes hadn’t won another CFL championship until Sunday, when they upset the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 28-24 in Hamilton. It was the eighth straight win for the Alouettes — including three playoff victories — after starting the season 6-7.
“It was exciting,” Matheson said after practice Monday in Brossard when asked about the Grey Cup game. “Such a great underdog story.”
As a bilingual Montrealer who went to a French elementary school — École Marguerite-Bourgeoys — and an English high school — John Rennie — Matheson could relate to the passionate interview Alouettes safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy did with RDS after the Grey Cup victory. Dequoy was upset at the lack of respect he felt the Alouettes and the province of Quebec received before the game, which included a lack of French signage at Tim Hortons Field.
“They never believed in us, man,” the perfectly bilingual Dequoy said in French. “You look everywhere it’s written in English. You checked TSN (listings two days before the Grey Cup game) it was written Toronto vs. Winnipeg. You come here and they only speak English. They never believed in us. But you know what, man. Keep your English because we’re taking the Cup. We’re going to bring it to Montreal. Back to Quebec. And we’re going to lift it at home because we’re the f—– champions.”
After the Alouettes arrived back in Montreal on Monday, Dequoy provided more context to his postgame interview.
“The CFL is bilingual,” Dequoy told reporters who met the Alouettes after their plane landed. “The CFL is French and English as Canada the country is, and we just felt that the French Canadian was not respected, the French language was not respected.
“I just felt disrespected for me and for my province and for my heritage, and just when the emotion is so high after the game, what I actually meant was not (against) the anglophone people, it was just ’you can keep the sign in English.’ That’s what I meant.”
Some English people both inside and outside of Quebec will no doubt bring up the province’s laws against English signage — like Ye Olde Orchard Pub having to change its name to Maison publique Orchard — and the new financial penalties on university students from out of province wanting to attend McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s. But Dequoy and Matheson — who are both 29 — are great representatives of how the two solitudes can come together through sports.
Matheson saw Dequoy’s postgame interview and wondered what it would feel like for him as a bilingual Montrealer to win the Stanley Cup.
“I’m really happy for him,” Matheson said about the Université de Montréal graduate who grew up on Île-Bizard. “Such a great story to see him have that success as a guy who understands what it’s like to be an athlete in Montreal. Hoping I get to experience that one day. I was just thinking of what it would feel like for myself to win as a member of a Montreal team.”
Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis congratulated the Alouettes on their victory Monday.
“Whatever is said, what the paper says on what your chances are, it doesn’t matter once the game starts,” St. Louis said. “That’s why we play the game. I guess the message or the lesson is everything’s possible if everybody’s pulling in the same direction and you have the right mindset and you compete — and they did that.”
Alouettes head coach Jason Maas made it a point this season to stress to his players the importance of immersing themselves in Montreal and Quebec culture, which included having the English players learn to say their numbers in French, along with some simple phrases in French.
“We represent the Montreal Alouettes organization, the city of Montreal, Quebec as a province, the Québécois way of thinking,” Maas said during a TV interview in May. “We know it’s different. We want people to feel that difference when they come onto our team and be a part of our culture.”
Maas also told his players about the Royal Canadian Air Force 425 Squadron after which the Alouettes were named. The first francophone squadron in the Air Force, which started with 100 French-speaking fighter pilots in 1942 during the Second World War, called themselves the Alouettes.
“I think that’s really cool,” Matheson said about the Alouettes embracing Montreal and Quebec culture. “That’s definitely something that we’re trying to do, too. Being a guy from Montreal, I’m super-proud of the city of Montreal and realize what especially the Montreal Canadiens mean to the city. I’d say the amount the team means to the city on a deeper level than just their favourite hockey team is the most in the entire league. I think there’s a responsibility in that and I feel privileged to be able to experience it as a hockey player.”