Player Profile: Jean-Levy Champagne
Before the Montreal Royal’s inaugural AUDL game at home April 19, Jean-Levy Champagne and 27 of his Royal teammates stepped off single file from a team bus looking impeccably groomed in their tailored suits.
“They looked like they could have been professionals from any sport,” ESPN’s AUDL announcer Evan Lepler said. “They looked like athletes.”
The first impression is the most important, and nobody understood that better than Champagne, who knew exactly what he wanted in his franchise since its conception, right down to the stitching.
“We started the Royal with a plan,” Champagne said. “We had a vision.”
A vision so large that Champagne recruited seven eager friends-turned-co-owners to spearhead the organization. So large that any time Champagne even mentions the team, or just ultimate in general, he defaults to plurality. He is hyper-enthusiastically inclusive, constantly brimming and spilling over with energy to share his dream, his paradise of ultimate.
“We had so many ideas, our meetings could have been 10 hours,” Champagne said.
At nights, on lunch breaks, whenever possible really, he and Christian Mathieu and Patrick Gratton and others would pour over every small detail – players, staff, sponsors, logos, merchandise, marketing, and location. They splurged on Stade Percival-Molson in the heart of downtown Montreal, perched on Mont Royal, which gave them a central location that would draw casual sports fans. Plus, they can sell beer— "that's a big thing for us," Champagne said.
“We’re very serious about the project,” Champagne continued. “But we’re mostly a group of friends. Our board meetings don’t seem like board meetings.”
”Sometimes we just do brunch to see each other and talk about frisbee.” His soft Quebecois accent modifying the final “s” to sound like the “z” in “jazz.”
“We were working hard to set up the best game possible, and making sure that everything would be…” Champagne said of the preparations before the opener, pausing to find the right word. ”Perfect at our first game.” Champagne’s hesitation had nothing to do with language, but with prudence in understanding word choice.
You see, Champagne is a consummate professional. Not just in the sense of his job title as Royal’s full-time president and executive director, nor because of the fact that he now gets paid to play ultimate in front a legion of fanatical Quebecois.*
The word “professional” fits Champagne with the same finesse as his suit.
It is the quality and fabric of his person -- a person who has been involved at the grassroots level of Quebec ultimate since 2002, acted as general manager for the Montreal Ultimate Association from 2007-2012, captained each of his last three internationally competitive club teams over the past half-decade (Magma, Mephisto, and Odyssée), coaches the University of Quebec at Montreal college open team, and oh-by-the-way diligently promotes youth division ultimate across Canada.
“We think we have the best sport in the world, and we want to show that to everyone,” Champagne said.
And damn near everyone turned out for the Royal’s first game. Nearly 3,000 fans packed into Stade Percival-Molson for the Royal’s opening matchup against the defending champions Toronto Rush. So many that the Royal ran out of official tickets to sell.
Most cathartic of all, though – more than the revenue numbers, more than the stylized jerseys and team apparel being worn in force – was the synchronized crescendo of the crowd.
It was a culmination of months of rigorous networking and engaging social media and promotions for Champagne, of tryouts and practice – oh god, the sprint practices - and above all: unification.
“Even before we won our first game, we won a bigger battle,” Champagne said. “We put all the best players of the province together, and that’s one of the biggest victories for us as a team. To represent not only the city, but Eastern Canada as a whole.”
That’s Champagne’s vision. The raison d’etre that drove all of his efforts in creating and shaping the Royal, in tugging the sleeves of the countless people around him to come join in, come see the show. Champagne saw the possibility that ultimate brings with it everywhere – that special quality of bonding over the silly flight of a disc – and wanted to start an institution not just for himself and his friends, but for his province.
“It’s not a Montreal team, it’s a Quebec province team.”
With more than 6,000 members paying league dues in Quebec, the Royal have one of the largest (and youngest) ultimate communities in the world to draw talent from. For some that kind of size might be daunting to navigate. But for Champagne and the Royal, it’s all familiar territory.
“Everyone knows everyone in the Quebec ultimate world,” Champagne said.
* “I had to start my own professional team in order to play on it,” Champagne said in complete deadpan.
- Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen and Adam Ruffner