Departure caused ‘sleepless nights’ but former president Mario Cecchini sees ‘bright future’ for Alouettes under new ownership

Photo courtesy: Montreal Alouettes

After steering the franchise through one of the darkest chapters in its history, Montreal Alouettes’ president Mario Cecchini is scheduled to head out the door for the second time in four months. However, accepting the high-profile job of commissioner in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is in no way an indication of diminished affection for his hometown CFL club.

“I can assure you that the passion will never leave. That love for the Alouettes is always going to be present,” Cecchini said Saturday during an appearance on TSN 690’s The Starters. “The challenge was all about timing in this case. It’s unfortunate what happened in December with the former owner.”

The executive was hired alongside general manager Danny Maciocia in January 2020 shortly after the team was purchased by S and S Sportsco, a corporate entity owned by steel magnate Sid Spiegel and his son-in-law Gary Stern. He helped lead the team through the COVID pandemic and cancelled 2020 season, laying the groundwork for a later resurgence.

The Alouettes have seen increased ticket sales under Cecchini’s watch and, according to published data, are one of only three teams to achieve an increase in attendance from 2019 to 2022 alongside B.C. and Winnipeg. He also improved corporate sponsorships and ingratiated himself with fans due to his genuine love of the football team.

Spiegel passed away in July 2021 having never seen his team play a game and his 75 percent ownership stake moved into the control of his estate. The remaining 25 percent remained under the ownership of Stern, who reportedly grew impatient with the lack of immediate financial returns in Cecchini’s strategy for long-term growth.

The popular president’s contract with the team was not renewed in December. Two months later, the CFL seized control of the Alouettes after the Spiegel estate stopped funding routine football operations. By that time, Cecchini already had other irons in the fire.

“The Alouettes were unfortunately not an option and then the process started late January, early February and when you enter that, it’s been a month where you put your head somewhere in the future,” he explained. “When the league took over the team, that started the sleepless nights of seeing what could be but again the timing made it that the league asked me to commit without having any precision on the future.”

Cecchini did commit, but only on an interim basis. He returned to the franchise on February 14 to run the business while the league and investment bank Park Lane hunted for new ownership. With roughly 10 groups expressing interest, his insight and experience were vital for looping in potential buyers.

“We were piggybacking a little bit on the work that was done in January, when the former ownership said they were open to listening to people for minority shares. That triggered a lot of people into thinking about jumping in with the eventuality that minority ownership would become 100 percent,” Cecchini explained.

“They needed someone to run the day-to-day, but also be on the ground to help out a little bit and make sure that any questions would be answered swiftly and that the owners would actually get the real story. Not that they did not in 2019, that’s not what I’m saying, but we wanted to make sure that there was stability. We wanted to make sure that it was the right person with deep enough pockets in order to survive and the patience in order to continue building what we started. As you heard me say in December, we had a very good year of the three-to-four-year plan. So that needs to continue, it needed to be clear.”

Media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, CEO of Quebecor, was announced as the team’s new owner on March 10. He brings an estimated net worth of $1.9 billion USD to the table, as well as significant media coverage, but also appears to grasp the long-term vision for the team.

While new ownership has inspired those in the building, the franchise will still need to find a new president. Cecchini’s new role with the QMJHL was officially announced three days before the purchase and he is scheduled to begin work on May 8. Though he accepted that job without knowing what the future held for the Alouettes, neither career path was a bad decision.

“We will never know really what would have been the outcome had the two things come at the same time. Some people claim that they know, some people are sure, but me and my family weren’t sure and so we decided to jump,” Cecchini mused. “In a way, it’s like plan A and plan 1; I couldn’t lose. I felt like I had the choice between Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur in the goal tonight. Whatever I decided, I’m going to have fun.”

Still, he remains invested in the next chapter of the Alouettes. Asked by Péladeau to stay on board for four additional weeks and direct the integration of the franchise into his business, the outgoing exec is soaking in his final days with the confidence that he leaves the team better than when he arrived.

“It is extremely fun because we’re looking at a bright future from times that were a bit more difficult. Now we can look ahead and enjoy what we’ve all been asking for: some stability, local ownership, dedication,” Cecchini remarked. “I love the fact that Mr. Péladeau did it on a personal basis. It’s an engagement and a commitment that, as far as I’m concerned, is even greater.”