Hunt is applying lessons he learned after buying the 67’s in 1998, a team whose attendance was dead last out of the 60 teams in the Canadian Hockey League before becoming No. 1 in just three years. His staff focused on marketing to areas in and all around Ottawa and greatly improving the fan experience.
“In the past, one of the biggest failures was Ottawa football teams only going after males 25-35 – a very narrow demographic; but in Ottawa, to succeed in a 24,000-seat facility, you better have a much bigger range,” Hunt said. “I thought it would be a couple of years of a well-run team and some on-field success before we could all get past the skepticism, but surprisingly, I think it’s happening already. We’ve had lots of events, a postage stamp launched with Russ Jackson on it, and alumni from successful Ottawa teams coming in for things. No one really talks about the bitter end of those teams any more. It’s taken a long time to change that conversation here, but I think it’s finally happening.”
In January of 2013, the RedBlacks hired long-time Montreal Alouettes assistant general manager Marcel Desjardins, who despite growing up in Oskee Wee Wee country with Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans in Burlington, Ont., was a lifelong Ottawa Rough Riders fan. He was the solo employee early on and did whatever was needed. His first task was to order the players’ hot and cold tubs because “they had to go in right away before the walls could go up.”
Desjardins relished being the one to build the team from scratch.
“The only reason I would have left Montreal this time would be for a great opportunity, and this was it,” Desjardins said. “I wanted to be part of bringing CFL football back to Ottawa by doing it the right way.”
He hired head coach Rick Campbell and selected 24 players from existing rosters in the CFL expansion draft, some of whom were crushed they hadn’t been protected by their teams. He acquired more, built around solid Canadian linemen and looked for a few choice veterans at each position who could help grow the right chemistry. He jumped when the Ticats released Henry Burris, after he just took them to the Grey Cup final in November. While he’s 39, Burris is a 15-year CFL veteran, has won two Cups and is one of the most prolific passers in league history.
“This definitely is not an expansion team to me, this is a wealth of talent coming together,” said Burris, who has relocated his wife and two kids to Ottawa, and has taken in the sights of a city he never got to know during quick trips to play the Renegades a decade ago. “I’m hungry after being shown the door in Hamilton. We’re getting to know each other, trust each other and we’ve had to expedite the process because we haven’t had much time together. But we don’t care that we’re an expansion team; we want to win right away.”
They held a mini-camp in Virginia, where Campbell addressed players about refusing to play the role of a newbie squad or an assumed easy win for opposing teams. Yet signs of newness are all around. They began training camp up the street at Carleton University before getting into the stadium three weeks ago, with construction crews still labouring about the red and grey-seated stands and concourses while reporters entered in hardhats past cranes and bulldozers.
“A lot of our veteran players have serious chips on their shoulders if they weren’t protected or were let go in the off-season, and there are many like me, who asked to be let go,” said Paris Jackson, a Vancouver-born receiver who played 11 seasons for the B.C. Lions, before asking for a release. “I pencilled the RedBlacks in a couple of years ago when I knew they were coming back, and I was just waiting for the opportunity to come here. I know everyone across the league fears us because they don’t know what to expect from us.”
The RedBlacks, despite a fast three-touchdown first quarter in their season-opener, are 0-2 and have scored just one touchdown in their last seven quarters of football. Their home too, will still look like a work in progress, as much of the retail, parking condo and park projects are still under construction. Still, it will be a full house.
“I can remember when John and I said to Roger, ‘We have an idea that will cost a little bit of money, take a little bit of time, but we have a lot of fun,’” recalled Hunt. “Well a little time turned into seven years, a little money turned into $500-million, and we’re finally now having some fun.”