Autostade - The Accidental Football Stadium
A few years ago, I wrote an article on this site about a ballpark in Thetford Mines, Quebec, that was once part of Autostade in Montreal. It was quite a discovery for me since I thought the former home of the Montreal Alouettes was demolished right around the time of my birth, but little did I know that parts of it were still in play a few kilometers to the north in the mining town.
As with many things in life, my curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to dig deeper into the stadium’s origins. I soon realized that it was never really intended to be a professional sports stadium, but just happened to become one based on what was happening in the city at the time.
During its ten years of usage, and loathing, by almost everyone who took in a game at the stadium, it was home to pro sports clubs: Canadian Football League, North American Soccer League, Continental Football League. and when the National League expanded to Montreal, the ill-conceived home of the Montreal Expos.
Construction began on January 28, 1966, and the major selling point was that it would be portable if it ever had to be relocated to another part of town. The 25,000-seat venue cost $3.2 million and was built in the Point St. Charles Waterfront of Montreal. It would be used during the six months of Expo 67 for military events, circuses, horse shows, and international soccer.
The Montreal Beavers of the Continental Football League were its first main tenants. The minor league operation had been based in Ft Wayne the season before but relocated for the 1966 season. Ticket packages to games ran from $8.75 to $35 per person for 7 games of American-style football that began its season on August 20.
The crowds were anywhere from around 4,000 to 11,000 for the club’s first season in town. One game against the Brooklyn Dodgers was highlighted by giving Jackie Robinson, who was working for the club at the time, the key to the city during half-time ceremonies.
Even with respectable crowds at the stadium, it was still at best one-third full. The wind whipped fans from the nearby St. Lawrence River, a harbinger of things to come with style and comfort. The Beavers were forced out of the stadium for Expo 67 and relocated to a 10,000-seat stadium in the suburb of Verdun before quietly folding after its second season.
The Beavers did leave a legacy and one that is most likely ignored by football historians; they became the first pro football team to utilize the slingshot field goal post that had been recently installed at Expo Stadium. The revolutionary field goal posts were different from the standard H-shape posts of the time, and in just a few short years, a majority of football stadiums adopted the single-post field goal.
It was invented in Montreal by Joe Rottman, a retired magazine distributor, and part-time inventor. He came up with the concept of what newspapers called at the time a “tuning-fork design” during lunch with Alouettes head coach Jim Trimble and Jack Rabinovich, the originator of skateboards in Canada. Rottman was so upset that he couldn’t get a word in between the two men about skateboarding that he held up his fork, bent it, and asked them if they ever heard of a one-legged goalpost.
He then began work on his concept and displayed it at Autostade. A set of posts cost $2,200 and were custom-made, and Rottman and Trimble both saw the potential of 38,000 colleges and high schools in the United States and 3,000 schools in Canada adopting their invention.
Autostade also featured Xenon lamp lights which were the first of its kind in North America. A few newspaper reporters added that the lighting was so natural that it was almost daylight. However, those lights would be looked upon a lot differently a few years later when meager crowds braved the cold and chilly nights for football and soccer games.
The first CFL game played at the stadium with the tuning-fork field goalpost took place on November 19, 1966, between the Ottawa Rough Riders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals. Renovations on the North Side stands and the construction of the Civic Centre (now known as TD Place Arena) prevented the game from being played at the Riders home at Lansdowne Park.
An estimated 14,000 fans made the trip to Montreal with rail service departing the Canadian capital at 8:45 am and returning at 6 pm; a crowd of 20,000 plus witnessed the game creating a Grey Cup vibe a week before the big game in Vancouver. The Riders mauled the Cats 42-16 to win the aggregate series 72-17.
The crowd control was described as disgraceful and inexcusable during the playoff game. It was reported that fans flocked to the field in the second half, and spectators who remained in the stands threw bottles from the stands delaying the game several times. All balls kicked into the end zone were gobbled up as souvenirs by fans wrestling with one another for the ultimate prize.
A few more engaged in fisticuffs with players with reports of shoving, arguing, and running onto the field during the final quarter of play, chasing loose balls, and attempting to climb the goalpost. There was one report of Hamilton’s Angelo Mosca knocking a fan onto the ground with his helmet after being punched on his chin by an unruly customer. Ottawa GM Red O’Quinn said that Montreal police refused to enter the stadium to police the games.
The next year Expo 67 opened and attracted millions of people from all over the world. The world exhibition commemorated the country’s centennial birthday with hundreds of exhibits on display, Autostade became the venue to host a myriad of events from international soccer to horse shows.
Six countries took part in a round-robin soccer tournament from May 31 to June 11 that was sanctioned by FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association featuring the Soviet Union, England, Czechoslovakia, Italy, West Germany, and Canada. The national teams were split into divisions of three in a double-elimination format that capped off with England defeating West Germany in the final in front of 20,653 people.
A total of 652,344 people took in a variety of events that included a two-night track and field meet, a three-day lacrosse tournament, the Ringling Brothers circus, the Canadian Armed Forces tattoo, the Maurice Chevalier’s Flying Colors show, the Gendarmerie Francaise, the Wild Horse Spectacular, and the Great Western Rodeo.
When the National League expanded to Montreal in May of 1968, it was Autostade that was slated to become the temporary home of the baseball club. The initial plan was to increase the capacity to 35,000 and cover it with a roof for $3 million. The field dimensions would be 330 feet to the left and right field and 410 to centerfield. Being that the stands were removable, the conversion of the football field to a baseball stadium would seem very logical at the time until a permanent dome stadium would be ready in 1971.
“The only thing that worries me right now is giving people a good ballpark. Fans will have to rough it at Autostade before the other park is ready, but this is a good baseball town.”
That changed when NL president Warren Giles visited the stadium in July of 1968 and deemed it unsuitable for baseball. The cost of the roof now ballooned to $7 million. That prompted a four-hour meeting between the mayor, sponsors, city officials, and baseball executives to upgrade Jarry Park from a 3,000-seat venue used for local baseball leagues to a 33,000-seat venue that would now be the home for the baseball club in 1969.
The switch in venues ended Autostade’s brief run as a major league venue. A similar position would take place six years later when there was a chance that it would have to substitute as the main stadium for the upcoming Summer Games due to a province-wide strike of 1,200 ironworkers that began in November 1974.
The strike forced the shutdown of the $380 million Olympic Stadium; if it was not completed on time, sections of Autostade would be relocated near its site which would include a second deck to increase the capacity to 55,000. The strike ended in May 1975, and construction resumed on Olympic Stadium.
After the Expo had concluded, the Montreal Alouettes moved from Molson Stadium downtown to the new facility in 1968. The club also relocated its ticket offices, executive offices, and practice facilities to the two-year-old stadium. However, it soon became clear that the new venue had its red flags.
Workers did not have much time to prepare the field for the game; the goalposts were inverted by the groundskeeper, who was from Europe and unfamiliar with gridiron football. Assistant Coach Ralph Goldston quipped: “As if we didn’t have enough trouble kicking field goals last year.”
Als head coach Kay Dalton felt that they would fill the stadium once the team began winning, adding that “in Montreal, it’s what’s up on the scoreboard that counts, you’ve got to win faster here.”
However, there were other concerns about the new stadium that would put a black cloud over it for the rest of its existence. The local newspaper columnists and reporters described it as being “a dark, dismal concrete cavern” and “damp and dark.” The conditions of the dormitories and tunnels resulted in one player walking out over the conditions at the stadium. Dalton thought the lighting hurt his players finding the ball on passes.
The practice field was much worse with potholes littering the grounds that caused injuries to two of the Larks star wide receivers. “You could shoot ducks off it any day you care, too,” added Dalton. There was also the mighty wind of the St. Lawrence River that would snap up balls in the air and send them into the water.
A crowd of 27,214 took in a game against the Toronto Argonauts that was the largest in club history. However, the Alouettes would average 18,000 per game during the 1968 season; the following season, average attendance fell to 12,169. It was becoming evident that Autostade was a highly unfavorable facility for football at a time when the team compiled a 5-19-4 record over two seasons at Autostade.
The crowd was much better during the 1969 Grey Cup between Ottawa and Saskatchewan. A total of 400 police officers marched around the playing surface with three-foot-long billies and wearing hard hats for crowd control. The influx of police officers was due to concerns about ongoing FLQ separatist terrorist bombing activities in Quebec and to secure the protection of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was in attendance. The 33,172 fans taking in the game went off without notice.
Attendance did improve to 24,191 during the Larks 1970 Grey Cup-winning season, but quickly tumbled the following season, prompting an announcement that the club was moving back to Molson Stadium on the campus of McGill University for the 1972 season, citing that the “windswept waterfront stadium has been disappointing in terms of attendance, season ticket sales, and sightlines.”
During this time, Als’ owner Sam Berger purchased a club for the North American Soccer League in hopes of bringing in additional revenue. The Montreal Olympique operated at Autostade for the 1971 season to disappointing crowds before relocating to the smaller University of Montreal Stadium the next season. The team would cease operations after three years after being unable to secure a suitable venue in town.
Berger was paying for rent, taxes, and maintenance at the “architectural monstrosity” and then had to rent out another football field. Berger had gambled that he would have complete control of the stadium and reap money from other events from concerts to other sporting events.
A three-year deal was set to play at the McGill University stadium with the hopes of Olympic Stadium being ready for the 1975 season that Berger believed would set up a trial run for the 1976 Summer Olympics. The plan backfired, average attendance fell to a meager 14,224 fans per game at McGill, resulting in the club returning to Autostade the following season.
The Als would win the Grey Cup in 1974 and lose a heartbreaker 9-8 the next year in the championship game on a missed field goal in the closing seconds. By 1975, construction had begun on the new Olympic Stadium, and all eyes were focused on when it would be ready for football. The difference between the two venues was night and day and helped usher in a few years of record crowds, not just for the team but for the league.
Berger couldn’t wait to get out of the Autostade that he switched dates with the Ottawa Rough Riders to ensure a meeting would take place at Olympic Stadium, a crowd of 50,000 would be on hand for that contest. Berger might have thought he was dreaming when he looked at the packed stands in the ultra-modern stadium.
The last game held at Autostade was a 28-0 trouncing of the Argos in front of 20,444 spectators on September 5, 1976. Three weeks later, the Larks beat the Riders 23-2 at Olympic Stadium in front of 68,505 people, a record crowd for the league at the time.
The top four crowds in CFL history took place at Olympic Stadium during its first four seasons and would culminate with 69,093 for a game on September 6, 1977, against Toronto. The 1977 Grey Cup established a still-standing record of 68,318. Montreal was in love with its football team again and finally had its modern stadium
Autostade would quietly be dismantled from the Montreal landscape with its parts transferred to other cities in the province. A total of five sections would be relocated to Thedford and repurposed as a baseball stadium, and four more sections moved to the city of Hull, now Gatineau, for a planned baseball stadium at Mont-Bleu High School. However, it appears that the latter never occurred.
Looking back at the stadium’s brief existence of 12 years, it can be concluded that it was never meant to be a permanent fixture of professional sports, but more of a temporary home at a time when a lot was happening in Montreal. Autostade just happened to be available to whoever needed its use; unfortunately, it was usually meant with disapproval and discomfort. It was indeed an accidental football stadium.