Looking ahead to this month's 2019 uOttawa Gee-Gees Touchdown Dinner in collaboration with and support from 1881 Gee-Gees Football Alumni Association, uOttawa is pleased to profile each of its new Football Hall of Fame Inductees. Mark Pretzlaff becomes a Hall of Famer following a dominant career as a linebacker for the Gee-Gees from 1998-2001.
Sometimes a roll of the dice just happens to pay off. In 1998, Mark Pretzlaff rolled the dice and hit the jackpot. A native of Edmonton, Alta., Pretzlaff was an All-Canadian defensive star in the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) for his hometown Edmonton Wildcats. Following the 1997 season, he decided to take a chance and move across the country to attend a university he had barely even heard of before. His first introduction to the fact that the University of Ottawa existed was when Gee-Gees were defeated in the 1997 Vanier Cup.
"The farthest east I had travelled was Winnipeg," remembers Pretzlaff. "So, Ottawa was a unique opportunity to see Ontario and Quebec at the time playing in the OQIFC. The football team was at the point where they had been to a couple of semifinals and a Vanier Cup, so I thought it was a great opportunity for me to win a Vanier."
Fresh from three consecutive Dunsmore Cup winning seasons, the Gee-Gees ruled the Ontario-Quebec conference through the mid-1990s. In Pretzlaff's first year, Marcel Bellefeuille took over the head coaching job from Larry Ring and continued to build upon his predecessor's successes to close the decade.
"The players and teams that came before us really established the standard and the culture, the expectations were high and the coaching staff mirrored that," said Pretzlaff. "I consider myself very lucky to have been a part of a team that's mindset was not rebuilding, but reloading to get back to the top."
In 1998, the team finished 6-2, but settled for an early exit in the conference playoffs against Laval. An undefeated regular season in 1999 had the Gee-Gees rolling into the Dunsmore final, only to have the eventual Vanier Cup Champion Rouge et Or come out on top once again to end their season.
Two years removed from their last Vanier appearance, the team entered the 2000 season feeling different. It was Pretzlaff's third season in Ottawa, and everything started to click.
"It was a very unique team," he said. "We had people from all over Canada come together on that team. We had guys from BC, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and I think we just developed a unique cast of characters that all came together at the right time."
The Gee-Gees defence was daunting at all three levels in 2000; there was transcendent talent in Hall of Famers Steve Alexandre rushing the edge, Pretzlaff in the linebacking corps, and Lukas Shaver leading the secondary.
The team cruised though their regular season schedule posting a 7-1 record, with the sole loss at the hands of the Rouge et Or, once again.
The team's motto "kaizen", means continuous and never-ending improvement, something that came to the test as the Gee-Gees met their rivals from Quebec City in the Dunsmore Cup. This time the kaizen mantra proved correct - Ottawa defeated Laval, followed by McMaster in the Churchill Bowl to earn their spot in the Vanier Cup.
There was perhaps no one that better understood the team's opponent in the Vanier Cup, the Regina Rams, better than the former CJFLer. Following national junior titles in 1993, '94, '95, '97, and '98, the Rams left the CJFL to become the official football program of the University of Regina for the 1999 season.
"Playing junior football, I had four years of playing Regina, and never came close to beating them," said Pretzlaff.
At the SkyDome in Toronto, the Gee-Gees became National Champions for the first time since the hallowed 1975 season. Pretzlaff had six solo and three assisted tackles, while also recovering a late-game blocked field goal to help seal the victory. He finally beat the Rams, and got to hoist the Vanier Cup that inspired him to move to Ottawa—which was a special kind of kaizen.
"It was great to reach the top of mountain, but to do it by beating a team you've struggled against for so many years was just the cherry on top," he said.
After being named an OQIFC First Team All-Star in 2000, Pretzlaff was destined for greater accolades in his senior season in 2001. The 6-foot, 210 pound linebacker led the OUA in interceptions en route to becoming a First Team All-Canadian, an OUA First Team All-Star, and won the President's Trophy as the OUA's best stand-up defensive player.
Following his outstanding season, he signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders as a free agent. Shortly thereafter, he returned to uOttawa in 2003 to complete a Master's in Sport Business Management.
Pretzlaff began his working career at uOttawa Sports Services, followed by stops at the OUA, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and various roles including Athletic Director at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Now, he is working outside of sport, in a new role in municipal government.
"Football and the University of Ottawa really prepared me for life," he said.
"Football gave me the opportunity to not only play sports, but to get an education, and when I came to Ottawa, I thought I'd be lucky to graduate just once. Though the culture of sport and academics there, I was very fortunate to graduate twice and now am incredibly grateful to receive this honour."
Nearly 20 years after he became a National Champion, Pretzlaff looks at the football program today, still nationally-ranked contenders in the OUA, and sees a continuation of culture that he was welcomed into and helped further develop.
"That culture from the '90s to the early-2000s was well established, it was established not by not just one individual, whether it be Chris [Evraire], or Ousmane [Tounkara] or Phill [Côté]."
"It's a testament to the team itself and to the University, just as it was when I started, it's about constantly reloading now," he said. "Obviously the game has changed a lot since then, it was a simpler era, you chose the school that best fit your football and academic needs. Nowadays, there's a bunch of other factors in play, but that culture is still intact."