There was a time when the Montreal Alouettes just couldn’t get to the Grey Cup.
The team had just been re-born from the ashes of the Baltimore Stallions. Baltimore had been to two straight Grey Cups. Most of those players, including Tracy Ham and Mike Pringle came north to play with the Alouettes.
Ham, whose CFL career started in Edmonton, talked to La Metropole Sports about his experience in Montreal and the rest of his career.
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Ham was one of the few players to have CFL experience and then returned to the US.
“My time in Baltimore was unique,” Ham remembered when comparing it to the rest of his CFL career. “You had a traditional American football experience with tailgating, more like a college atmosphere but in pro ball. You could look out into the parking lot and see smoke from barbeques which you see more in college.”
Ham also noted that the fans in Baltimore were just so hungry for football. This, of course, was between the Colts leaving and the return of the NFL with the Ravens. The fans continued many traditions they had when the Colts were in the city including showing up at practices.
The experience of Baltimore was different from the history and expectations he had when he started in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos.
“Edmonton has such a rich history. There’s a reason they called it the City of Champions,” Ham said.
Ham would always be compared to the greats that came before him in Edmonton. And with good reason. The three quarterbacks who started games right before Ham in Edmonton were Warren Moon, Matt Dunigan and Damon Allen. All future Hall of Famers and among the best quarterbacks to ever play in the league.
“Expectations were sky high especially from a quarterback perspective. You were expected to be winning championships,” Ham said. “You were judged differently in Edmonton.”
Ham won one Grey Cup in his first year with the Eskimos in 1987. He also won the league’s Most Outstanding Player in 1989. He played for the Toronto Argonauts in 1993 before his two years in Baltimore and finally to Montreal.
“I went though transition period when team moved,” Ham said. “I had never experienced a road trip to Montreal. [Note: The Concordes folded just prior to Ham’s rookie 1987 season.] My experience was great.”
Ham noted the great football history and tradition in the city as well as the uniqueness of having French such a major part of the city.
“Our goal was to build a level of excellence and to bring back a Grey Cup,” Ham said. “We fell short of the goal.”
Courtesy Montreal Alouettes
The Alouettes did have great teams, but ran into historic ones. In 1996 and 1997 it was the Doug Flutie years in Toronto and the Hamilton Tiger Cats had the historic combination of Danny McManus and Darren Flutie who won the East final in 1998 and 1999.
In Ham’s four years in Montreal, he would play in four East finals but fell short every time. In three of those four years, the East winner was the eventual Grey Cup champion.
Ham has followed the Alouettes since retiring after the 1999 season, when Anthony Calvillo took over for him as the starting quarterback.
When the team moved from Baltimore to Montreal, the CFL released all the Stallions from their contracts. Fortunately for the Alouettes, Jim Popp, the general manager of the Stallions came North with the team and was able to re-sign the biggest stars on the team.
Popp remains with the team and has earned the respect of his former quarterback.
“Jim Popp left his stamp all over Montreal,” Ham said. “He put Montreal back on the map. It is always disappointing to not reach the Grey Cup but Toronto and Hamilton have come and gone but Montreal has always been there that’s what Jim has brought to this organization.”
Ham is also cited as being one of the reasons for Calvillo’s success to becoming professional football’s all-time leading passer after he struggled early in his CFL career. Ham doesn’t take the credit.
“Jim saw something in Calvillo when he was in Las Vegas,” Ham said. “He was a very good quarterback. He was a great long ball thrower. I never knew what he was going to be.”
When the team retired Calvillo’s jersey, Ham came to Molson Stadium and spoke to the crowd at the half-time ceremony. In it, Ham told the crowd that Calvillo was the greatest quarterback the CFL has ever seen.
I also asked Ham if the perception of the CFL has changed in the United States, where he works as assistant athletic director with Georgia Southern University. He says that the football community always thought highly of the CFL and had a “healthy relationship” with the league.
Ham goes on to cite the examples of Warren Moon, Doug Flutie and five or six members of the Baltimore CFL team that ended up having careers in the CFL before the option-year became a common practice for Americans coming from the NCAA.
More recent examples include Cam Wake, Jerrell Freeman and Andrew Hawkins.
“Sometimes the reality is a player needs more time and opportunity before they get to the NFL,” Ham said.