Laval Stadium can be as much a Vanier Cup adversary as any opponent

At least three hours before home games, Rouge et Or kicker Vincent Blanchard arrives at Telus-Université Laval Stadium in Quebec City to mentally prepare for maddeningly unpredictable weather that can quash field-goal attempts and stifle long passes.

The stadium, home to the Laval University football team, is an artificial valley, set a few metres below street level and partially sheltered by stands on either side of the turf. But wind still finds its way in through the end zones, swirls wildly and — in winter, at playoff time — numbs and bites at exposed flesh.

“Your technique is different when there is more wind,” said Blanchard, a second-year kicker at Laval who finished third in scoring this season in the RSEQ [Quebec] conference. “You need to hold the ball longer, and you need to focus a little bit more on your routine.”

The Saskatchewan Huskies and Western Mustangs will need to take note of the peculiarities of the stadium when they face off in Saturday’s Vanier Cup. CBC has live coverage beginning at 1 p.m. ET, on CBC TV,, CBC Sports app and GEM streaming.

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Saturday’s forecast is calling for a high of minus-8 Celsius, though the sun is expected to make an appearance.

The quirks of playing at Laval are so pronounced that home-field advantage takes on new meaning. It’s not just about the psychological boost that comes with having 12,000 screaming fans at your back; it’s knowing how the ball travels in November versus September or July. 

You get used to it, no matter what,” said Chris Milo, a fellow kicker who coaches Blanchard and won a national championship with Laval on home turf at the Vanier Cup in 2010. “You’re practising there every day, so you have an idea of your surroundings. You know what to expect more so than, let’s say, the kicker from the opposing team.”

Tractors pushing snow were as much a part of practice as running drills before the 2018 Vanier Cup, won by the home-team Rouge et Or. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Electric atmosphere

When the Vanier Cup is played here — and it frequently is — any Quebec team that qualifies has an advantage over out-of-province schools that don’t visit Laval during the regular season.

“We play a lot of times there,” said Bertrand Beaulieu, a running back with the Montreal Carabins, who narrowly missed the 2021 title game but played in a Vanier Cup at Laval in 2019. “It’s not a new environment for us, so it helps us to get ready for the game.”

Even for regular-season games, the atmosphere is so electric that players have compared it to a CFL environment. 

“This is the closest you can get to playing a pro football game,” Beaulieu said. “You feel chills on your body. And it’s not a bad stress. It’s more like a good stress that makes you want to play harder.”

Players for Laval’s Rouge et Or quarterback know the best place to be is near the propane heaters. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Western might have edge with fans

The stadium will likely be quieter and less emotionally charged on Saturday. Laval fans have less of a rooting interest when the Rouge et Or are ousted from the playoffs early, as they were in a 28-19 loss to Montreal in the Dunsmore Cup conference championship.

And a sellout in Quebec City is never a sure thing when the fans are travelling from Saskatoon and southern Ontario. But if the venue is a factor, Western may have an edge. 

Mustangs coach Greg Marshall is notoriously fastidious about preparing for games, and he likely has vivid memories of losing the Vanier Cup to Laval at Telus-UL Stadium in 2018. 

In the final three minutes of that game, Western quarterback Chris Merchant led the team on two lengthy drives to try to rally from a 21-point deficit. He connected with receiver Cole Majoros for a touchdown on the first drive and closed the gap to 34-20, but was intercepted on the 11-yard-line minutes later on a play that sealed the loss.

A year earlier, Western easily defeated Laval in the Vanier Cup at a neutral site: Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont. 

Home-field advantage wasn’t the difference-maker in 2018, Merchant said, but it “definitely played a factor.”

He noted championship-calibre football teams should be able to win anywhere. But he also acknowledged Laval is the most challenging venue he played in as a Canadian university QB.

Western University Mustangs quarterback Chris Merchant, left, congratulates Laval University Rouge et Or quarterback Hugo Richard after the 2018 Vanier Cup. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

‘That’s Canadian football’

“You’ve got fans screaming at you,” Merchant said. “The fact it was so hostile made it kind of exciting.” 

And while he makes no excuses about the weather that day, he said his hands did occasionally go numb from the cold.

“That’s Canadian football,” he said. “You just get used to it and play through it.”

Ask Laval kickers Vincent Blanchard and Chris Milo, and they’ll tell you home-field advantage can be a double-edged sword. It gives you confidence, but it can also make you brash. And adjusting to the weather is never simple. 

This is why Blanchard arrives three hours before a game to get acclimated. It’s why Milo counsels him to test the wind with kicks to both end zones to see how the ball carries that day.

“We can’t control the weather,” Milo said. “So [we’ve] got to deal with it.”

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