2019 CFL preview: Football a welcomed distraction for Montreal Alouettes

After an unsettled off-season, the Montreal Alouettes can look forward to the welcomed distraction of actually playing football.

The once-proud franchise is now being run by the CFL, which took over ownership May 31 from American businessman Bob Wetenhall and his son, Andrew.

The league heads into the season opener on Thursday owning one of its nine franchises amidst seemingly endless speculation regarding who'd be the club's new owner — a group represented by former player Eric Lapointe, businessman Clifford Starke and entrepreneur Anthony Guzzo have been three of the reported candidates. However, a league source said Monday that Montreal natives Peter and Jeffrey Lenkov head up a partnership that's currently doing its due diligence on the club.

Peter Lenkov, 55, is a producer in Hollywood while Jeff Lenkov, 53, is a lawyer practising in California. The source was granted anonymity because he's not authorized to speak on the deal.

But not all of the off-season drama has come from the boardroom. Last Saturday — less than a week before their season opener in Edmonton on Friday — the Alouettes parted way with head coach Mike Sherman with offensive co-ordinator Khari Jones assuming the top job on an interim basis.

The CFL season kicks off Thursday night with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats hosting the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Montreal will play its first two games on the road (Friday night in Edmonton, then June 28 in Hamilton) before facing the Ticats at Molson Stadium on July 4 in its home opener.

The opening week will conclude Saturday with a pair of games — the Ottawa Redblacks visit the defending champion Calgary Stampeders in a Grey Cup rematch while the B.C. Lions host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Whoever takes over the Alouettes faces an uphill battle. The franchise has reportedly lost $50 million since Bob Wetenhall bought it in 1997, including $25 million the past three years and $12.5 million in 2018.

Montreal last won the Grey Cup in 2010 and hasn't made the playoffs since going 9-9 in 2014.

The CFL has steadfastly refused to discuss specifics regarding any proposed sale of the Alouettes. Commissioner Randy Ambrosie has said there's no definite timetable regarding a deal for the Alouettes, adding it's more important the best agreement be reached and not the fastest.

Here are some other key storylines heading into the season:

DEFENDING CHAMPIONS

It's said the only constant in pro sports is change, and that certainly applies to the Grey Cup-champion Stampeders and East Division-winning Redblacks.

Calgary's biggest off-season move was retaining quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the CFL's outstanding player last season. Following numerous NFL workouts and being courted by the Toronto Argonauts in free agency, Mitchell signed a four-year deal with the Stampeders reportedly worth $2.8 million.

Calgary also re-signed the likes of offensive lineman Shane Bergman, receivers Eric Rogers, Kamar Jorden and Juwan Brescacin, defensive back Brandon Smith, linebacker Cory Greenwood and defensive lineman Cordarro Law. But the Stampeders will shoot for a fourth straight Grey Cup appearance minus a host of familiar faces, including defensive co-ordinator DeVone Claybrooks (head coach, B.C.), safety Tunde Adeleke and defensive lineman Ja'Gared Davis (both to Hamilton as free agents), receiver DaVaris Daniels (Edmonton, free agent), offensive lineman Spencer Wilson (Montreal, free agent), receiver Lemar Durant (B.C., free agent), defensive back Ciante Evans (Montreal, free agent), defensive lineman Micah Johnson (Saskatchewan, free agent) and linebacker Alex Singleton (Philadelphia, NFL).

As for Ottawa, the defending East Division champions saw quarterback Trevor Harris (Edmonton), running back William Powell (Saskatchewan), receiver Greg Ellingson (Edmonton), defensive lineman AC Leonard (Saskatchewan), defensive back Rico Murray (Hamilton) and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers (Edmonton) all depart via free agency. And on April 1, offensive co-ordinator Jaime Elizondo resigned to reportedly join the XFL's Tampa Bay franchise.

Since posting a 2-16 record in its inaugural '14 season, Ottawa has been to the CFL playoffs four straight years. It has finished atop the East Division three times and appeared in three Grey Cup games, winning in 2016.

NEW FACES

Four teams will sport new starting quarterback this season. Mike Reilly returned to B.C. this off-season, signing a four-year, $2.9-million deal in free agency following six years with Edmonton. Reilly began his CFL career with the Lions in 2011.

Edmonton responded by signing Harris through 2020 to a reported average salary of $525,000 in free agency.

Reilly's return to B.C. spelled the end of Jonathon Jennings' time with the Lions. He signed as a free agent with Ottawa, where he'll start the season backing up Dominique Davis.

James Franklin opens as Toronto's starter after veteran Ricky Ray, who missed most of last season with a neck injury, retired to end his illustrious CFL career. And in Montreal, Antonio Pipkin has secured the No. 1 job following the off-season departure of Johnny Manziel.

Claybrooks is one of four new CFL head coaches as he replaces the legendary Wally Buono, who retired after the '18 season to cap a 46-year tenure as a player, coach and executive.

But Claybooks also has a solid resume. Calgary's defence allowed the fewest points in the league over his three seasons as defensive co-ordinator and like Buono, he is a former player, having spent 11 seasons as a defensive tackle in the NFL, NFL Europe and CFL. Claybrooks also earned a Super Bowl ring in '03 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders promoted veteran special-teams co-ordinator Craig Dickenson to head coach after Chris Jones left to take a job with the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Dickenson's brother, Dave, is the head coach in Calgary.

Corey Chamblin returns to Toronto as its head coach after serving as defensive co-ordinator during the club's 2017 Grey Cup run. Chamblin has previous CFL head-coaching experience with Saskatchewan, leading the Riders to the 2013 Grey Cup title.

In Hamilton, Orlondo Steinauer begins his first season as the Tiger-Cats' head coach.

INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE

CFL rosters will have an international flavour this year as each team will carry one global player and two in 2020. That will boost game-day rosters to 46.

It's all part of Ambrosie's CFL 2.0 initiative to grow the Canadian game internationally. Since November, Ambrosie has secured partnerships with nine football federations (Italy, Mexico, Germany, Austria, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland).

That has allowed CFL teams to work out their players and conduct separate drafts of Mexican and European talent.

The CFL announced a Mexican television deal on Wednesday.

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