Vanier Cup dominance shows how big football is in la belle province: Russell

A native of Montreal, Danny Macioca is more than geared up for this weekend's Vanier Cup.

"Everybody wants to talk football," the head coach of the Universite de Montreal Carabins said from his office just before a mid-week practice as his team prepared to meet the University of Calgary Dinos in the national championship on Saturday in Quebec City. 

"There's such a strong interest for the game. Both Laval and our school have caused a stir over football in recent years. People know you in the streets. People know who you are."

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Indeed the Vanier Cup, named after the late Georges Vanier, the first French speaking Governor General of Canada, has been dominated by French language institutions over the last two decades.

Laval, which didn't even have a football program until 1996, has won 11 championships since 1999 and Montreal, which revived its long dormant team in 2002, has claimed another. In all these two teams from the Quebec conference, have appeared in the championship game 15 times in the last 20 years. That's more than the west, Ontario, or the Maritimes.

It's a striking record considering only one team from the province had won the Vanier Cup prior to Laval's string of success at the turn of the 21st century. The English language school, McGill University, lifted the cup at Varsity Stadium in Toronto in 1987 by defeating the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds 47-11 and the MVP was a talented running back named Michael Soles who went on to star for the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL.

WATCH | Stars of the Vanier Cup:

A football renaissance

Since the inception of the Canadian university football championship in 1965 and until 2003, the Vanier Cup game was always contested in Toronto. It was first hosted at Laval, in Quebec City, in 2009 and it has been held in the province of Quebec seven times since.

The power base of Canadian university football has quite clearly been shifting to French-language schools over the course of this generation.  

Macioca, who coached in the CFL with Edmonton and Montreal, credits three things with the renaissance of the collegiate game in Quebec.

Firstly, the successful return of the CFL's Alouettes in 1996 after a decade long absence and secondly the emergence of Quebec businessman Jacques Tanguay who attracted major corporate support and built the Laval Rouge et Or from scratch.

"Laval became the reference and the model for how it should be done," Macioca figured. "You have to choose between participating and competing and Laval chose to compete. Our institution followed suit."

Macioca pointed to the fact that the professionalized program at Laval boasts an annual budget in excess of $2-million, major corporate backing, a six or seven member full-time coaching staff, and spring training camps in Florida. The Carabins have tried to build their program using the Laval playbook.

"The business model that Laval has in place means there is a professional approach to collegiate football," Macioca added.  "People look at it and are very thankful. Whenever the two teams play the TV ratings are off the charts and there's an appetite to see the rivalry develop."

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Macioca suggests the other reason for the huge spike in interest in the university game in Quebec may lie with the French speaking players who have been produced in the last 20 years.  The forerunner is Eric Lapointe, a two-time winner of the Hec Crighton trophy as Canadian university player of the year with Mount Allison in Sackville, N.B.

"He had a great career at Mount A, and even when he was away people knew how successful he was," Maciocia reflected. "He had a big influence on so many young French speaking kids who were considering football in this province." 

A prolific rusher, Lapointe went on to win a Grey Cup with the Hamilton Tigers Cats and played a pivotal role in the Montreal Alouettes dramatic overtime loss in the championship game to Edmonton in 2005.

Also in 2005, in a poll of Canadian university football fans, Lapointe was voted to be the greatest collegiate player in the country's history. He was subsequently inducted to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame based on his career at Mount Allison.

"There was no option for me when I chose my university," Lapointe laughed form his office in Montreal where he now operates a financial services business.  

"Mount Allison was the place for the 'Frenchies' but I have no regrets about going there. It gave me the chance to learn English and it gave me another vision of the country. It gave me a chance to grow."

A new football world

Lapointe marvels at the blossoming of what he calls "our beautiful game" in French Canada. As evidence, he points to the proliferation of high school and community college teams across the vast geography of Quebec as well as the existence of a traditionally strong junior football program.

"It's a completely new football world in Quebec and now it seems everybody's playing the game," Lapointe enthused. "We should all be proud of the growth of football in this province."

Lapointe admires the powerhouse stature that Laval and Montreal have fashioned on the scholastic grid iron but warns there might soon be an unequal playing field to consider country-wide.

"Laval and Montreal have gone in with much bigger budgets and you wonder if they've created a new kind of monster," he mused.

"It's very hard for some of the smaller schools, particularly in the Maritimes, to compete."

Still, one thing that Lapointe can agree completely with Danny Maciocia on is the increased lustre of football in French speaking Canada as a result of the Laval-Montreal dominance.

"We love the rivalry for sure and it gives Montreal and Quebec City a chance to hate each other for at least two games a year."

'It's all about the team'

Lapointe also reinforced that the Vanier Cup remains paramount for many football players from the province, just as it was in his day playing for Mount Allison. It was the big game that he never got to play in.

"I remember crying like a baby at the end of my fourth year knowing that I wasn't going to win the Vanier Cup in my career," he recalled.

"I would trade my Grey Cup win for the experience of winning the Vanier Cup for sure. It's all about the team. There's no money involved, it's all about the team. Every university player wishes they could go to that huge stadium and run onto the field in front of all those fans and have a chance to win the big game."

That's the thing about the Vanier Cup. In spite of the fact that it's becoming a more professional endeavour in Quebec, it's still a game contested by student-athletes.

And for most of them, regardless of language, it's the biggest football game they'll ever play.

You can watch live coverage of the Vanier Cup final between the Calgary Dinos and the Carabins de Montreal beginning on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on CBC TV and CBCSports.ca

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