On November 10th, 2019, the Montreal Alouettes were gearing up for a playoff game for the first time since 2014. Their opponents are a familiar postseason foe for Montreal going back as far as the 1950s; the Edmonton Eskimos (now known and will be referred to as the Edmonton Elks).
Despite being in different divisions and geographically 3,574 kilometres apart, Montreal and Edmonton have been responsible for some of the iconic rivalry games in Canadian Football, and often it has been on its biggest stage, The Grey Cup. An incredible eleven times the sides have met in the championship-deciding game, so before they square off again, let’s take a look at the history of this rivalry.
The roots of both clubs can be traced back to the late 1940s. Firstly, the Montreal Alouettes were founded in 1946, and shortly after, the Edmonton Elks were established in 1949. It wouldn’t take long before both teams started to make their mark in Canadian Football. As early as just three years into their existence, the Alouettes made it to the Grey Cup against Calgary, and won their first championship by a score of 28-15. Meanwhile, in 1949, Edmonton finished the season with a 4-10 record but improved in the 1950s, even making a Grey Cup in 1952. But Edmonton didn’t have to wait long to get another chance at the title. They got back to the championship game in 1954, and their opponent was the Montreal Alouettes.
At a time where Eastern Canadian teams were considered far superior, the Als were favourites going into the 1954 Grey Cup, and after three quarters, it look like the game was following that script. After Joey Pal caught a thirteen-yard touchdown pass from Sam Etcheverry in the fourth quarter, Montreal had a commanding 25-14 lead. The Elks weren’t done though. They responded with a touchdown of their own to make the contest a one-possession game, and what was to follow is one of the most controversial plays in Grey Cup history.
Montreal marched down the field, moving the ball to Edmonton’s ten-yard and with just three minutes remaining, looking set to ice the game. Etcheverry gave the ball to running back Chuck Hunsinger, who was almost immediately met by Edmonton defenders and with no running lanes open. Hunsinger was set to throw the ball away only to be tackled, and as a result, fumble the ball. Elks defensive back Jackie Parker scooped up the loose ball and ran ninety yards for a touchdown, suddenly it was 26-25 in favour of Edmonton.
The controversy came from whether it was indeed a fumble like it was deemed, or if it was actually a forward pass which would’ve resulted in an incomplete pass and Montreal maintaining possession, after all, the ball did go forwards. But the play stood, the underdogs from Edmonton were just minutes away from a first Grey Cup. Montreal couldn’t make their last possession count, and just like that Edmonton were 1954 Grey Cup champions.
Montreal wouldn’t have to wait long to get a chance to revenge. In 1955, they finished first in the old Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU, a precursor to the CFL East division) with a 9-3 record, the best scoring offence in Canadian Football, and had eleven members of their team be named in the IRFU All-Stars team. Their Grey Cup opponents, the Edmonton Elks, were an intimidating foe, however. They finished 14-2 in 1955 and had the best defence in terms of points conceded, giving up on average just slightly over seven points a game in the regular season. Again, Montreal had the better start in the big game. Quarterback Etcheverry passed for two touchdowns to help give the Als a narrow 19-18 lead at the half, and he would go on to set a Grey Cup record of 508 passing yards in the game.
Despite a historic performance from Montreal’s quarterback, Edmonton, who themselves were led by running back Norman Kwong’s 145 yards and two touchdown performance, put up sixteen unanswered points in the second half to win the game and their second Grey Cup by a score of 34-19.
For the third year in a row, both teams won their division, and for the third year in a row, both Montreal and Edmonton made the Grey Cup. It was only the second time in Canadian Football history that two teams had met in three consecutive finals, and ahead of the 1956 Grey Cup, Elks head coach Pop Ivy made a bold decision. Ivy decided to start Don Getty at Quarterback, resulting in Grey Cup-winning quarterback (who also had the 90-yard fumble return touchdown in 1954) Jackie Parker controversially being dropped from QB duties.
With the game tied at 20-20 in the third quarter, it remained to be seen if it was the right decision. But just like the year before, Edmonton pulled away from Montreal. The Elks scored thirty more points before the end of the game to win by a convincing score of 50-27. The key for Edmonton in 1956 was a juggernaut rushing attack that put up 456 rushing yards, a Grey Cup record. Their defence also managed to intercept Etcheverry four times in what was a comprehensive win for Edmonton to make it three successive Grey Cups, the first time a Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) had achieved such a feat.
Edmonton’s three successive Grey Cup wins were huge in making Eastern Canada recognize the WIFU as being on a level pedestal with the IRFU. In 1958, the two leagues merged to form the Canadian Football League (CFL) which still exists today. After three seasons of the divisions being kept apart, they finally met in the regular season in 1961, in a game that the Elks won by a convincing 33-0. But the Alouettes and Elks would both struggle in the early CFL years.
After their dominance in the mid-fifties, they were overtaken by other teams in their divisions. Namely the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa Rough Riders in the East, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders in the west. From 1957-1969, Montreal and Edmonton combined for just one Grey Cup appearance and no division titles. But with the seventies on the horizon, both teams would have a dramatic change of fortune.
In 1970, Montreal finished the season 7-6-1, enough for just a third-place finish in the East, and was the worst team to make the playoffs in terms of their win percentage. But after an improbable run in the playoffs, the Alouettes made it to their first Grey Cup since 1956 with the Calgary Stampeders set to be their opponent. Led by a Grey Cup Most Outstanding Player performance from quarterback Sonny Wade, the Alouettes won their second Grey Cup by a score of 23-10. After the disappointment of the sixties, Montreal was once again a force in the CFL. Edmonton was also on the rise again, they made a Grey Cup in 1973 and by 1974, the Elks and Alouettes were once again on a collision course. For the fourth time, Montreal and Edmonton met in the Grey Cup in 1974.
The game was played in Vancouver’s Empire Stadium and because of heavy rainfall, a key factor would be what offence could hold onto the ball better in the slick and slippery conditions. Edmonton took an early 7-0 lead from a Tom Wilkinson five-yard pass to Calvin Harrell, but the tide would quickly be swayed. Before the end of the first quarter, Als’ defensive end Junior Ah You sacked Wilkinson, resulting in a shoulder injury and forcing Edmonton into a quarterback change. Montreal also made a change under centre, as starter Jimmy Jones failed to impress and 1970 MOP Wade entered the game.
It would be Montreal’s defence throughout, however, who would make the pivotal plays. Taking advantage of the wet conditions, the Alouettes’ defence forced three turnovers (two fumbles and a pick) and the offence scored thirteen points off the giveaways on the way to a 20-7 Montreal win. For the first time in four attempts, Montreal had beaten Edmonton in a Grey Cup.
Edmonton and Montreal again met at the following year’s Grey Cup in 1975. Played in Calgary, the game-time temperature was -15 Celsius and a 25 KM/PH wind made conditions very difficult for the offences once again. It was a low-scoring affair, as the Elks scored all of their points from the boot of kicker Dave Cutler, who made three Field Goals. Two plays defined this game. On a third and three, Alouettes coach Marv Levy decided to go for it at Edmonton’s ten-yard line. Montreal attempted a running play to get the yardage, but the Elks defence held firm to deny the Alouettes point’s on the drive. Then with the score 9-7 for Edmonton late in the fourth quarter, Wade came off the bench to lead a long drive to set up Alouettes’ kicker Don Sweet with a potential game-winning nineteen-yard field goal. Holder Jimmy Jones however couldn’t get a proper hold of the snap, and Sweet’s effort went wide for a rouge, leaving the score 9-8 Edmonton. The Elks ran out the clock to win their first Grey Cup since 1956, and get revenge for the year before.
By 1977, Montreal and Edmonton were firmly two of the biggest teams in the CFL. Edmonton was to move into Commonwealth Stadium in 1978, the largest outdoor stadium in Canada. But before then, Montreal had moved into its own larger-than-life home, the 66,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, the largest stadium in Canada. Olympic Stadium was awarded the 1977 Grey Cup, and the hometown Alouettes made the big game where they would, of course, play Edmonton. Again, the weather would play a big part in the game. Olympic Stadium’s roof wasn’t complete yet, leaving the playing surface vulnerable to the Montreal weather and on game day, the turf was more or less covered in a sheet of ice, giving the game the nickname, ‘The Ice Bowl’.
To combat this, Montreal players put staples through their shoes to give them a grip that the Edmonton players didn’t have, giving them a considerable advantage. In front of a Grey Cup record crowd of 68,318, Wade threw for three touchdowns and was once again MOP in a dominant 41-6 win for Montreal, the largest margin of victory ever between the two in a Grey Cup final. Montreal’s two-time Grey Cup-winning head coach Marv Levy left after 1977, but it didn’t slow Montreal down as they again made the final in 1978. Meeting them in the final was Hugh Campbell’s Elks.
In a much closer affair than 1977, Edmonton was able to stop a final drive comeback attempt from Montreal to win the contest 20-13. The 1970s would end with yet another Grey Cup game between the two, the fifth Grey Cup final between the two in six seasons. A crowd of 65,113 attended the game at Olympic stadium, but the home town Alouettes kept getting in their own way. They were penalized a record sixteen times for a whopping 145 yards. Edmonton’s Quarterback tandem of Warren Moon and Tom Wilkinson both threw for a touchdown each, as the Elks closed out the decade with a 17-9 win. The two teams dominated the 1970s, finishing with three Grey Cups each.
But as the ’80s went on, a clear gap between the two was opening up. In 1980, Edmonton won their third consecutive Grey Cup against Hamilton, their first win against a team other than Montreal in the Grey Cup. The head coach and quarterback tandem of Campbell and Moon would win two more titles in 1981 and 1982, becoming the most dominant dynasty in CFL history with five successive championships. Unlike in the 1950s and 1970s, Montreal was not able to keep up with Edmonton. Financial issues off the field were taking their toll, and by 1982, the same time the Elks won their fifth consecutive title, Alouettes ownership declared bankruptcy.
The Alouettes were saved by new ownership, but it would only be short-term relief. In 1987, Edmonton won the Grey Cup again, their sixth title in ten years. Montreal didn’t even make it to the beginning of the season. Financial troubles were too much to overcome this time, the franchise folded after the 1987 preseason, bringing an end to Canadian football in Montreal. It wouldn’t be until the Baltimore Stallions of the CFL American expansion era relocated to Montreal in 1996 that Canadian football was returned to Montreal, reviving the Montreal Alouettes’ name and history in the process. At that same time as Montreal was out of the league, Edmonton won another Grey Cup in 1993.
In 1998, Montreal acquired quarterback Anthony Calvillo, and it was a match with immediate success. In 2000, they reached their first Grey Cup since 1979, but came up short 28-26 against the BC Lions. Undeterred, Calvillo and the Als made it back to the Grey Cup in 2002, against the old enemy, the Edmonton Elks. The Elks had their own star quarterback Ricky Ray, and with the game being played in front of 62,531 fans at Commonwealth Stadium, the Elks would’ve been eager to win their first Grey Cup played on their home soil.
It was a tight game in the four quarter, and it was Montreal who had an 18-10 lead heading into the final minute. Ray found Ed Hervey in the endzone to make it 18-16 with less than thirty seconds left on the clock, but crucially, they failed to convert the two-point conversion. From the ensuing onside kick attempt, Montreal’s Jeremaine Copeland ran the ball back 47 yards to make the final score 26-16, securing Montreal’s first Grey Cup in 25 years.
Calvillo and Ray combined for 584 passing yards and four touchdowns, but Calvillo was the one on top and was awarded the MOP. Ray and Calvillo would cross championship paths again the following year. For the first time since the late 1970s, the two teams met in back-to-back Grey Cups in 2003. Again, the two quarterbacks shined, and Calvillo threw for 371 yards and two touchdowns. But it was Ray, with 301 passing yards and three touchdowns (one rushing TD), who would come out on top. Spurred on by a 132-yard and two touchdown effort from MOP wide receiver Jason Tucker, Edmonton won the Grey Cup 34-22, their first championship since 1993.
So after a win each in 2000s Grey Cup games between Montreal and Edmonton, perhaps a third game between the two was simply inevitable. That would be the case in 2005, as Vancouver’s BC Place hosted the 11th Grey Cup match-up between Edmonton and Montreal. In the second quarter, Ray completed a nine-yard pass to Hervey that made the score 11-1 Elks going into halftime. Montreal came roaring back in the third quarter with two touchdowns from Éric Lapointe and a field goal from Damon Duval turned the game on its head as the Alouettes now held an 18-13 lead with just over a minute left in the quarter. Edmonton needed to respond, and on the ensuing kickoff, Tony Tompkins took ran the ball 96 yards to return the kick for a touchdown. Suddenly, after looking almost certain to go into the final quarter with a lead, Montreal now had to respond to being 20-18 down.
The Alouettes would indeed strike next. From the one-yard line, Calvillo ran the ball home to give the Alouettes a 25-20 lead. In their two previous playoff games, Elks head coach Danny Maciocia had pulled Ray for backup Jason Maas, but Maciocia kept his faith in his quarterback. With just over a minute left, Ray ran the ball in from the one-yard line for the go-ahead touchdown, making it 25-26 and just like in 2002, there was a two-point conversion attempt. But unlike in 2002, the Elks were successful and gave themselves a three-point cushion.
This was crucial as Calvillo responded immediately, getting Montreal into field goal range and as time expired, Damon Duval‘s field goal sent the game into overtime with the score tied 28-28, the first Grey Cup overtime game since 1961. Both Calvillo and Ray rose to the occasion on their opening overtime drives, as they both threw for touchdowns making the score 35-35. Edmonton would only manage a field goal on their next drive, meaning that if Montreal responded with a touchdown, they would win the Grey Cup.
Their ensuing drive got off to the worst possible start. Calvillo dropped back to pass and his throw was batted down by Elks defensive end Joe Montford. Calvillo then caught the ball before it hit the ground and threw it towards the end zone where Kerry Watkins dropped a certain touchdown pass. But because Calvillo had technically caught a forward pass, him throwing a second forward pass resulted in a ten-yard penalty. Things would get even worse thanks to a thirteen-yard sack from Charles Alston, and the game now rested on a third and thirty-three.
Thanks to pressure applied by the Elks defence, Calvillo had no choice but to desperately punt the ball upfield, but A. J. Gass took possession of the loose ball and won the game for Edmonton 38-35. Once again, Calvillo and Ray both played admirably, combining for 720 yards in the 2005 Grey Cup. But it was ultimately Ray who had the last laugh between the two in the big game, with his Edmonton side besting Calvillo’s Montreal in two of their three Grey Cup meetings.
In the years following the 2005 epic, Montreal was more consistent than Edmonton, making four more Grey Cups between 2006-2010. They even beat Edmonton (cross-over team) in the 2008 East Final 36-26 in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It was the last time Calvillo and Ray would face off against each other for a Montreal against Edmonton playoff game, with both quarterbacks recording two wins each. Montreal won the 2009 Grey Cup against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, their first Grey Cup won against a team other than Edmonton since 1970. They followed it up with another win against the Riders in 2010.
The 2010s saw a rise of teams such as Hamilton and Ottawa in the East, and Calgary in the West and by 2013, Calvillo and Ray were no longer under centre for the Als and Elks. After making the playoffs in every season since their 1996 revival, Montreal failed to make the playoffs from 2015-2018. At the same time, Edmonton’s streak of thirty-five consecutive playoff appearances was broken in 2006, and they would fail to make the playoffs four times in the next eight seasons. They would return to championship form though in 2015 when Edmonton won their eleventh Grey Cup against Ottawa, the most Grey Cups won by any team in the CFL era.
At the time of the 2019 East Semi-Final, it had been eleven years since the two had met in the postseason. Although it’s exciting to see these two teams in the postseason again, the strength of this rivalry is truly built on the big stage occasion. Eleven Grey Cup games between the two shows a level of competitiveness almost un-matched in North American sports. The two sides have given us many iconic moments, and many iconic CFL players like Sam Etcheverry, Norman Kwong, Sonny Wade, Warren Moon, Anthony Calvillo and Ricky Ray.
The two sides have combined for a total of twenty-one Grey Cups and both teams have played on the biggest of stages. All of the top twenty-four highest attended games in CFL history have been held at either Olympic Stadium or Commonwealth Stadium. In their eleven Grey Cup games, Edmonton has come out on top eight times to Montreal’s three, but more often than not, the matches between the two are closely contested affairs that could go either way. Edmonton went on to win the 2019 East Semi-Final playoff game 37-29, and if history has taught us anything, these two teams are never too far away from their next titanic title-deciding clash.
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