50TH VANIER CUP INTERVIEW SERIES: 2006
A conversation with.
Justin Éthier, offensive coordinator, Laval University Rouge et Or
In Vanier Cup XLII, the first one played outside of Ontario, the Laval Rouge et Or captured their third national title in four years – all in different cities – thanks to a 13-8 win over the hometown Saskatchewan Huskies in front of a standing room-only crowd of 12,567 at Griffiths Stadium in Saskatoon. With the game being played in frigid conditions, both teams struggled to move the ball and long-time Laval offensive coordinator Justin Éthier saw his troops prevail despite racking up only 164 yards of net offence, the lowest production in history for a Vanier Cup champion.
What is your major memory of the entire Vanier Cup week and the overall experience?
It was special because it was the first time we were playing in a Vanier Cup outside of Ontario. We had played our first three finals either in Toronto or Hamilton. It was quite the experience heading to Saskatoon knowing the local team was in the game. I remember that when the Huskies played in their national semifinal at Ottawa the previous week, that game was very close and we thought the Gee-Gees would win.
(Note: In the 2006 national semifinals, the Huskies defeated the Gee-Gees 35-28 at Ottawa, while the Rouge et Or easily disposed of Laurier 57-10 in Quebec City)
You had lost to the Huskies the previous year Saskatoon, in the Mitchell Bowl, a setback that prevented the team from advancing to a third straight national final. Did that loss become extra motivation for the 2006 Vanier Cup?
Absolutely. Over the years, we’ve always been lucky enough to get the opportunity to redeem ourselves pretty quickly. In that case, that opportunity was served to us on a silver platter the following year. In 2005, it was the Huskies who had revenge on their minds after we beat them in the 1999 Churchill Bowl in Quebec City and the 2004 Vanier Cup in Hamilton. Following our loss in 2005, we had the chance to play the Huskies again right away, the following season, which was the ideal scenario.
This being said, while it was ideal to face them again, to do it in their stadium, in front of their fans, was quite a challenge.
(Note: The 2006 Vanier Cup marked the fourth head-to-head meeting in eight years between Laval and Saskatchewan. The Rouge et Or had prevailed 27-21 in the 1999 Churchill Bowl in Quebec City and 7-1 in the 2004 Vanier Cup in Hamilton, while the Huskies had won 29-27 in the 2005 Mitchell Bowl at Griffiths Stadium)
What is your one major lasting memory of the actual game?
You can’t talk about that game without talking about the extreme cold. My favourite memory is of seeing the guys before the game, in a small and humid locker room, get ready the way they did. They were very calm and at the same time excited to play in that game, as they should have been, but the weather was so extreme… It was unthinkable to play a football game in that kind of cold. That’s what hit me the most in the locker room: the guys didn’t seem affected at all by the cold. It’s something we had to manage, but it never affected us.
What adjustments did you have to make on offence due to the extreme cold?
We had a great passing offence that year, so it hurt us not to be able to pass the ball. It was extremely difficult, I’d even say almost impossible to use our passing game to its full potential. We had to be patient. We knew it would be a close game, that we’d have to protect the ball and be more conservative.
(Note: Led by star quarterback Benoit Groulx, who earned his first of three Hec Crighton Trophy nominations in 2006, Laval had averaged 307.5 passing yards per game during the regular season. In the Vanier Cup, Groulx, who went on to win the Hec in 2008, completed only 10 of 23 passes for 106 yards but avoided being intercepted)
What do you remember as the key play of the game?
I remember a play that led to our only touchdown. Just before halftime, Benoit Groulx escaped from the pocket and completed a 42-yard pass to Samuel Grégoire-Champagne along the sideline. Moments later, Guillaume Allard-Caméus scored on a one-yard run and we headed back to the locker room with a 10-2 lead.
(Note: Grégoire-Champagne, who received the Bruce Coulter Award as the game’s top offensive player, accounted for 87 of Laval’s 106 yards through the air thanks to his game-high five receptions)
Did anything unusual or out of the ordinary happen during the game or during Vanier week?
It was unusual to be in a Vanier Cup that wasn’t held on neutral ground. Everything in Saskatoon was fantastic but because the local team was in the game, it made things a little different.
I remember that everyone was talking about the cold. The temperature went down consistently throughout the week. At every practice, we were saying, “it’s not that bad”, but in reality, it kept getting colder every day.
The best way to sum up how cold it was on game day is, since 2006, every time I get up in Quebec City in January or February and it’s minus 30 or minus 35, I get out of the house and I’m thinking a football game was playing in those conditions. It’s unbelievable!
Did the staff do anything different from normal routine in the preparation for the game?
The preparation was pretty much the same. Some people around the team, like the medical staff, volunteers or equipment managers, chipped in to find solutions to manage the cold. They did an amazing job making sure the athletes weren’t too affected by the conditions.
How did the team react to the stadium and the hostile Saskatoon crowd?
We reacted pretty well. I’ve always said it’s a lot more fun playing in that kind of atmosphere. I have better memories of games like that one than of games played in bigger stadium in front of non-partisan crowds of 10,000 or 15,000. And when the game starts, you don’t notice the crowd anyways. I was impressed though by the fact the stadium was packed in that kind of cold.
What are your memories of the post-game celebrations on the field and/or in the dressing room?
It’s pretty simple. The stadium emptied in minutes, first because the home team lost, but especially because of the extreme cold. I remember our 50-or-so players, the coaches and team personnel with huge smiles on our faces, celebrating. And all of a sudden, for the first time that day, I felt warm. Crazy what adrenaline can do.
I also remember going back to the locker room and everyone dreaming about a warm shower, only to find out there was no hot water…
What was the reaction on campus or in Quebec City when the team returned?
We were honoured with a parade on Grande-Allée, the main street in downtown Quebec City. The support in Quebec City is always amazing. We took part in a number of events and people would stop us on the street to congratulate us. It’s a great experience for the players and everyone associated with the team.
At the time, how did winning the Vanier Cup change your everyday life?
It didn’t really change our everyday life. However, I remember that win in 2006 was a huge one for us because it was a rebuilding year, even though that’s a term we don’t use very often at Laval. We always aim for the top, but at the start of that season, we really considered it a transition year. We always believe in our chances, but winning the Vanier Cup that year was special.
How often to you reminisce about that Vanier Cup win?
We talk about it whenever we meet players from that team, but that’s about it. I have a thought for that game every winter though. We’ve never played a game in that kind of cold in Quebec City.
Where did you go to university and what did you study?
I have a degree in physical activity from the University of Montreal. I immediately started working in coaching and I joined the Rouge et Or in 1997.