Esks-Als rivalry simmers 51 years
Published: Sunday, November 27, 2005
It is a rivalry as nasty as it is one-sided: the Alouettes and Eskimos in the Grey Cup. For Montreal fans whose memories go back to the 1950s, it means years of bitterness leavened with a rare win for the Als.
If the Alouettes are in the Grey Cup, chances are their opponent will be the Edmonton Eskimos. When the two teams meet this afternoon at B.C. Place, it will be Montreal's 14th appearance in the CFL classic - and the 11th time they have faced Edmonton.
The rivalry has been marked by controversial plays, controversial games - and dominance by the Eskimos, who have won seven of the previous meetings between these two teams.
No single game, however, not even the Alouettes' bitter loss in the 1954 classic, stirs memories on both sides like the Staple Game of 1977. Edmonton head coach Danny Maciocia made the first mention of the Staple Game this week: The Italian-born Maciocia grew up in St. Leonard and was one of 60,000 fans who braved a frigid day to trek to the Big O during a transit strike, the largest crowd in the history of the Canadian Football League.
"My father always pointed out the Italian players," Maciocia said.
The Als of that era had some good ones: Wally Buono (now coach of the B.C. Lions, defeated by Maciocia's Eskimos in the West Final this year), Peter Dalla Riva and Gerry Dattilio.
"I hated the Eskimos and the player I hated the most was that linebacker, No. 42." That would be Dan Kepley, the best linebacker of his era in the CFL, now Maciocia's close friend, defensive assistant and linebackers coach.
"I still get on him about that 1977 game," Maciocia said. "He keeps telling me Montreal only won because of the staple. I tell him, 'hey, you lost 41-6. It had to be more than the staples.' "
Was it? Former Alouettes defensive halfback Tony Proudfoot, now a colour commentator for the Alouettes games on CJAD radio, was the player who made a legend of an electrician's staple gun.
"Everybody knew we were going to have a problem with traction on that field," Proudfoot said. "We were trying all kinds of things. We tried broomball shoes and shoes with steel-tipped cleats. Some guys were filing them to a sharp point.
"I even tried driving nails through my shoes from the inside out, just so they would poke through about half an inch. But as soon as I saw those I thought, 'oh-oh, those could be dangerous.' And besides, every time you stepped on them the nail was driven back into your foot."
Proudfoot was on the field with Chuck Zapiec and Dickie Harris when he saw an electrician with a staple gun walk by (crews were always working on the Big O in those days, even the day of the Grey Cup game) and he was struck with an inspiration. "It was one of those big industrial staple guns. I asked if we could borrow it. We went in the locker room and put an 'X' in the bottom of about 10 cleats with those staples.
"Zapiec did it with me. We went out to the part of the field that was the slipperiest and we tried it put out sideways. Normally you'd slip but we could put a foot out and stop."
By game time, 10 or 12 Montreal players had staples in their cleats. As the game went on and other Alouettes realized the staples were the key to traction, the equipment managers worked without pause to fit staples into cleats.
No one can really say whether the staples made the difference. Both sides were also contending with a chemical placed on the field to melt the ice; the ice remained but the chemical made the ball so slippery that both sides lost fumble after fumble. But for a football player, the ability to stop and change direction when his opponent is slipping and sliding can be decisive.
After the lopsided Montreal win there were all kinds of rumours: Someone had sent prostitutes to the rooms of the Edmonton players the night before the game; the Eskimos lost the battle of Crescent St. and partied too much.
The Staple Game gave the Als some small measure of revenge for years of frustration.
John X. Cooper, my friend and host in Vancouver this week, still squirms at the memory of the 1954 Grey Cup: Cooper was newly arrived in Canada that November, having come from Greece by way of England. He got caught up in football fever (he would later play running-back and linebacker for McGill and Queens) and was an excited 10-year-old in front of the flickering black-and-white television set when Sam Etcheverry's Alouettes took on Jackie Parker's Eskimos in Toronto.
The Alouettes were leading 25-20 and appeared ready to put it away when Chuck Hunsinger fumbled at the Eskimo 20-yard line; Parker scooped up the ball and ran 90 yards the other way: Eskimos 26, Alouettes 25. Even Etcheverry is still bitter about that one 51 years later.
That 1954 game was the birth of this great rivalry. In the 1955 Grey Cup in Vancouver, Edmonton beat the Als 34-19. In 1956, back in Toronto, it was Edmonton 50, Montreal 27.
The Alouettes would not return to the Grey Cup until 1970, when, with Etcheverry coaching and Sonny Wade at quarterback, they defeated the Calgary Stampeders in Toronto, 23-10, to win their first Grey Cup since 1949.
Then came the Levy powerhouse of the 1970s: A 20-7 victory over Edmonton in the 1974 Grey Cup, an excruciating 9-8 loss to the Eskimos in 1975 when kicker Don Sweet missed a short field goal that would have won it.
After Levy went to the Kansas City Chiefs following the Staple Game victory, the inept Joe Scanella took over and began the process of dismantling the Alouettes that would end with the franchise going out of business for a decade. The Als lost to the Eskimos again in the Grey Cup in 1978 and 1979 and did not return to the game until 2000, when they lost to the B.C. Lions.
In 2002, head coach Don Matthews - in his first season in Montreal after leaving Edmonton under a cloud - led the Alouettes to a 25-16 win in Edmonton, their first Grey Cup victory since the Staple Game in 1977. In 2003, however, the Eskimos won in Regina, 34-22.
Today's game will be the rubber match of this era, with enough subplots for a Dickens novel: Matthews cordially detests Eskimos president Hugh Campbell. Two of Edmonton's leaders on defence, Steve Charbonneau and Davis Sanchez, once played for the Als.
And Alouette fans young and old all have memories of bitter defeats at the hands of the Eskimos. Today they will either get a measure of revenge - or another frustrating defeat to nurture through the decades.
Â© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005