CFL Pass

Stu Cowan: Sad state of franchise disheartens Als great Peter Dalla Riva

When the Alouettes kick off their CFL season Friday against the Eskimos in Edmonton (9 p.m., TSN1, TSN5, RDS, TSN 690 Radio), Peter Dalla Riva will be watching on TV from his West Island home with a heavy heart, wondering about the future of the franchise he loves so much.

So will a lot of Alouettes fans.

Dalla Riva, 73, played 14 seasons as a tight end for the Alouettes, winning three Grey Cups during the 1970s, saw his No. 74 retired by the team and is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. His family moved from Italy to Hamilton, Ont., when he was 8 and he didn’t speak a word of English. Dalla Riva only started playing football at the junior level with the Burlington Braves, while working in a Hamilton steel mill. He joined the Alouettes for the 1968 season, signing a $6,000 contract — $1,000 more than he had been earning at the Stelco mill.

Dalla Riva remained in Montreal after retiring from football and still does work for BGL Custom Brokers. It hurts him to see what’s happening to the Alouettes as the CFL tries to find a new owner for the club that has missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Dalla Riva said Thursday. “I’m just frustrated right now and disappointed. Nothing is straightened out and the season’s starting. The timing couldn’t be worse and it’s going to be tough for everybody — the players, the front office. Nobody can do anything … everyone’s in limbo. It’s too bad. Hopefully something can happen quick and help everybody. I hate to see what’s happening. It’s sad.”

Dalla Riva still feels the effects of his CFL career. He has an artificial right knee and a staple holding in place a ligament in his left knee that came off the bone during a game in 1971. He played the rest of his career with his left knee heavily taped. There were also mangled fingers, a dislocated elbow and ankle sprains, but Dalla Riva has no complaints.

“I don’t worry about that,” he said. “As long as I could play, I played. I thought I was too tough to get hurt, but when I came back and played (after the knee surgery), boy, I saw the whole field. It wakes you up. But you play the game, that’s all part of the game. You just go with it and make the best of it and do the best that you can. You can only play this game for so long and when it’s over, it’s over. When you’re there and you’re on the field, you give it your best shot and go 100 per cent.”

Dalla Riva still remembers when the Alouettes folded on the eve of the 1987 season. He drove his car to the team office and discovered they were throwing just about everything out. So he packed up the trunk of his car with programs, photos, etc., and took them home. He still has some of that memorabilia, having given other stuff away over the years. The Alouettes were reborn in 1996 and purchased by Robert Wetenhall the next year. Wetenhall and his son, Andrew, officially gave up the franchise to the CFL last month after losing a reported $50 million over the years, including $25 million during the last three seasons.

Dalla Riva worries about the possibility of the franchise folding again.

“For sure, you obviously think about that because it’s happened before,” he said. “It’s in the back of your mind.”

Montreal businessman Clifford Starke presented a new offer to CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie this week to purchase the team. Starke, 35, played on Montreal’s Lower Canada College football team in high school when Dalla Riva and former Alouettes teammate Larry Smith helped out the coaching staff and they won a city championship. Smith’s son, Brad, was also on the team.

It is believed Starke’s offer to purchase the Alouettes would include having Larry Smith — also a former team president and CFL commissioner — play a key role in a new administration. Dalla Riva thinks that would be a good idea.

“Larry played 10 years, I believe, and he’s been through it all,” Dalla Riva said about Smith, 68, who is leader of the opposition in the Senate of Canada. “He’s been commissioner, he knows the league, he’s been president of the Alouettes. He’s been involved (in the CFL) pretty much his whole life. He more or less has a handle on everything. He’d just have to get up to date on what’s going on now. But his experience … the one thing you can’t coach is experience.”

Dalla Riva said he’d be willing to help out a new Alouettes owner any way he could.

“Playing for the Alouettes is the best thing that ever happened for me,” he said. “It got me out of the mill. It gave me everything. Now we just need to sit and wait and hope that everything works out.”