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Pro football wouldn't exist in Montreal without Robert Wetenhall's generosity

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2021-09-07 Herb Zurkowsky, Montreal Gazette
a man and a dog walking on a field: Robert Wetenhall walks his dog Three across the field following a Montreal Alouettes practice at the Olympic Stadium in 2008. “This man spent a lot of money out of his own pocket … just for people to have a good time, © Provided by The Gazette Robert Wetenhall walks his dog Three across the field following a Montreal Alouettes practice at the Olympic Stadium in 2008. “This man spent a lot of money out of his own pocket … just for people to have a good time,
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Somehow it seemed fitting Robert Wetenhall died while watching a football game — Virginia Tech against UNC, not his beloved Alouettes — Friday night, peacefully, at his Palm Beach, Fla., residence.

Wetenhall, 86, had a profound love for the sport and was a part-owner of the AFL’s Boston Patriots and, later, New England Patriots when they became part of the NFL — not to mention his affinity for the University of Notre Dame.

He came to the Als’ rescue in 1997, one year after the CFL franchise returned to Montreal from Baltimore, but after the team was revoked by the league due to a litany of unpaid debts accrued by Michael Gelfand, the money man, and Jim Speros, who talked a good game but never had the resources.

They had solicited Wetenhall the year before but he demurred, likely cognizant of how this was going to end. Wetenhall became the franchise’s white knight, not only assuming ownership but agreeing to absorb the bills owed to creditors, until May 2019.

That’s who Wetenhall was, and professional football wouldn’t exist in Montreal today without his commitment.

“Let’s be clear about Bob Wetenhall: his actions saved the Montreal franchise,” said former Als president and CFL commissioner Larry Smith . “He had total dedication to the franchise and loved his players. He gave us a chance to do our jobs. I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to help Bob resurrect the Alouettes.

“He was a very smart, intelligent businessman. He was a blessing for Montreal and the CFL.”

Wetenhall made his fortune in investment banking and real estate, but was an unpretentious millionaire, his shirt often untucked beneath his sports jacket — when he wore a jacket. He was never in socks, either, no matter how frigid the temperature.

The only visible sign of his wealth was within the walls of his downtown Montreal penthouse — he lived in the city during the football season — which he kept at a ridiculously hot temperature year-round. He often had a beverage within arm’s length, his voice gravelly from years of chain-smoking cigarettes. But Wetenhall would take only a puff or two before extinguishing the dart, often into the floor, eschewing an ashtray.

He was unique and quirky, conducting business well past midnight and never available before noon. Despite his public presence, he largely remained a private, shy and family-oriented man who avoided the spotlight.

“He was a unique man, stealth in some ways,” said Marc Trestman , the Als’ head coach from 2008 to 2012. “Most players and coaches didn’t know he was the owner while sitting on the bench, having a cigarette, wearing the same polo shirt and pants. There was definitely a quirkiness to him. But he was extremely kind, respectful and genuine. You could sit and have a beer with him and just talk.

“Personally he saw something in me, when I met and interviewed, nobody else saw in 20 previous years as an assistant coach. He told me he knew he was going to hire me within five minutes. I didn’t ask why, but that meant a lot to me.”

The Als became one of the CFL’s model franchises under Wetenhall’s stewardship, at one point announcing 105 consecutive sellouts at Molson Stadium. Between 1999 and 2010 the team finished first in the East Division 10 times, advancing to eight Grey Cups and winning three championships.

Wetenhall oversaw the refurbishment and expansion of the McGill University venue — some of the funds coming from his pocket — while rarely, if ever, turning a profit. He became a model owner, hiring competent people to run the team, allowing them to perform their functions, while ensuring the bills were always paid, never asking for anything in return. Wetenhall also had the good fortune of having Jim Popp as general manager and years of Anthony Calvillo as the starting quarterback .

“He was a great owner to work for,” Popp said. “He created a bond and there was a lot of trust. You were allowed to voice your opinion; we didn’t have to agree. He was pleasant and a pleasure to be around. He treated myself and my family unbelievable.

“This man spent a lot of money out of his own pocket … just for people to have a good time. He did some special things only a special person can do.”

Wetenhall adored his players, holding picnics periodically for their families, along with an annual Halloween party during which lavish gifts were presented to the players with the best costumes. While he expected nothing short of excellence on the field, he also did everything he could to alleviate their stress and pressure. Wetenhall always ensured the players’ wives made it to the Grey Cup, providing them with a travel allowance so they wouldn’t have the financial burden and could concentrate on the game.

“To hear the news, you always feel sad,” Calvillo said. “You think about the memories … the relationships we had. He believed in the people he hired, let them run the business and gave us the resources. He was always taking that added pressure off the players so they could concentrate on football.”

Wetenhall is survived by his sons, Andrew and Bob Jr., along with six grandchildren.

hzurkowsky@postmedia.com

twitter.com/HerbZurkowsky1

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