March 23, 2017

Finlay almost missed ’92 party

Matt Finlay during a game with the Calgary Stampeders (Photo by Scott Grant)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Stampeders’ 1992 Grey Cup championship squad.

In the coming months, we’ll be taking a look back at the squad that snapped the Stamps’ 21-year title drought and the cast of characters responsible for the conquest.

This time, we reminisce with all-star linebacker Matt Finlay.

Matt Finlay
Eastern Michigan
In 1992:
29 years old, 6th season with Stamps, 7th season in the CFL
Regular season:
Played all 18 games, second on the team with 88 tackles, also had 12 special-teams tackles, eight knockdowns, two sacks and two fumble recoveries
Played in both the West final and the Grey Cup and recorded seven tackles and two special-teams tackles

Matt Finlay almost missed out on the big celebration in 1992.

The Canadian linebacker broke into the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes in 1986 and would keep going until 1995 when he concluded his time with the Stampeders, but his career almost went off the rails along the way.

“I think it was in 1989 or 1990, I was about ready to retire,” says Finlay.

He was poised to call it quits, not because he wasn’t able to perform at a suitable level or because he didn’t love the game anymore, but because almost any other career option seemed preferable to playing for Lary Kuharich, the Stamps’ head coach at that time.

Matt Finlay during a game with the Calgary Stampeders (Photo by Scott Grant)

Photo by Scott Grant

Kuharich was certainly a controversial figure in Stamps history, infamous for unceremoniously releasing popular players, throwing objects during post-game interviews and, at the end of his tenure, giving Calgary fans a middle-finger salute.

“I was three or four years into my career,” he says, “and I was going to retire because I wasn’t having fun. That was the low point in my career.

“For some, he was the type of guy who was good for them, I guess, but to have a coach who was good for some and not for others generally doesn’t work well. What you need is a coach who is very methodical and you know exactly where he’s coming from.”

Enter Wally Buono, who became head coach in 1990 following the stormy end of Kuharich’s tenure.

“With Wally, at least you knew exactly what you were getting,” says Finlay. “Every player felt that way. He showed he could build an organization from the ground up, which he did.”

In 1991, the Stamps made it to the Grey Cup but dropped the championship game to Toronto.

“A very good team,” says Finlay. “Very happy just to be in the Grey Cup, especially since the Stampeders hadn’t been to the game since the ’70s. Of course, leading up to that, we had beaten Edmonton in Edmonton in the West final, so we were able to overcome some hurdles that the Stampeders had never been able to do.”

But still, the Stamps fell one agonizing step short.

“After the game, everyone looked around the room and we realized we had the foundation of a great team,” he recalls. “We just needed to dedicate ourselves to winning the next year.”

That they did, with Finlay doing his part. He finished second on the team in tackles to fellow linebacker Alondra Johnson and earned West Division all-star honours.

“Doug Flutie came in and that was last piece of the puzzle for that team,” says Finlay. “It was a dominant team from beginning to end and, going into the Grey Cup, it was a very confident team and a very confident feeling, knowing we were going to win.

“With that season, it’s nice to set out in the beginning what you want to do and then achieve those goals. The character of that team was very, very strong, from the top down.”

The Cup was a glorious indication of how much Finlay’s situation had changed since the Kuharich era and the potential premature end to his playing career.

The Stamps remained a powerhouse until the end of Finlay’s career in 1995, but still experienced post-season frustration.

“We made three trips to the Grey Cup during my time with the Stamps but 1992 was the only year we won,” he remarks. “It just goes to show how hard it is to win a Grey Cup, even with that kind of talent.”

A Toronto native, Finlay chose to stay in Calgary after retiring from football.

“I’ve been a broker since I retired,” he says. “I actually became a broker while I was playing.”

Finlay is currently a senior vice-president with Richardson GMP.