The return of CFL football to Ottawa all began with a private jet whisking Jeff Hunt and John Ruddy off to Toronto seven years ago to brainstorm ideas with then-Argonauts owner Howard Sokolowski over lunch. It was a meeting that Hunt, quite honestly, suspected would be a “real waste of time.”
Frank Clair stadium, part of Ottawa’s historic Lansdowne Park, was too old and tired to support a football team. Talk of renovating the site was toxic and worn-out, Hunt initially thought. Yet without a new stadium, discussion about getting a football team was futile, especially since Ottawa had poorly managed, woefully performing CFL teams leave the city twice in the past 20 years.
After bouncing around ideas at that lunch, the two men returned to Ottawa believing there might be a business case for bringing a team back to Canada’s capital, if it was part of a much bigger venture. As the stadium’s south stands were crumbling and being condemned, this would have to be more like a rebuild, so Hunt, Ruddy and three other Ottawa businessmen formed visions for a massive sports, entertainment, shopping and living complex at Lansdowne Park, a site that sprawls some 40 acres, nestled by the Rideau Canal.
It would have a stadium for a CFL team and an expansion pro-soccer franchise too, along with concerts and events, and a renovated hockey arena for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, while still offering an urban park.
There would condos, bars, restaurants – lots of revenue streams and reasons to arrive long before games and stay late.
Fast forward to this Friday, and Hunt is the president of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group and will see the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks play the first regular season CFL game in the nation’s capital since 2005. The RedBlacks will face the Argonauts that night in sold-out, renovated 24,000-seat TD Place Stadium, in the heart of a still-being-constructed shopping, condo and entertainment complex which is a $500-million partner venture between OSEG and the city.
Yet it’s still the same grounds where great Ottawa Rough Riders such as Russ Jackson and Tony Gabriel once played Grey Cup-winning seasons.
“What to do about Lansdowne has been a topic in Ottawa for 30 years, so this was just another idea, and we had a CFL team that failed twice at the heart of the plan, so you can bet there was skepticism,” said Hunt, standing on the field turf inside the new open-air stadium as construction crews worked on a concrete structure overlooking the west end zone that will some day be a condominium tower, full of people watching from their windows.
“But we really began to believe that if you fix Lansdowne, whatever happens here – concerts, FIFA, football, hockey, soccer – if it’s a destination, anything that happens here has a chance to succeed.”
It’s been a long seven-year road to this point, from forging a partnership with the city, appealing to the CFL and overcoming objecting citizens who had alternative visions for “Ottawa’s Jewel by the Rideau Canal” and argued them vehemently in public meetings and courts.
The businessmen repeatedly visited Los Angeles to see how their new entertainment hub L.A. Live rejuvenated the area around Staples Centre. Along with Hunt, OSEG also included three Ottawa businessmen with expertise in retail and real estate: Ruddy (Trinity Development), Roger Greenberg (The Minto Group) and William Shenkman (The Shenkman Group).
Then, there was the building of a football team, one that must try to make people forget gaffes from past Ottawa football teams, such as when the Rough Riders drafted a dead guy in 1995 or when past owner Lonie Glieberman promoted a controversial Mardi Gras Night, where female fans were encouraged to flash their breasts in exchange for beads. Forget how poor support and mismanagement caused the once-beloved Riders to fold in 1996. Forget the Ottawa Renegades, which failed to reach fans or the playoffs in its four years of existence.
The RedBlacks have already sold 16,500 season tickets. The team has reached out to French and English in the city and its suburbs. There were 10,000 fans at a meet-the-team event with a look inside the stadium last week. Some 1,200 fans packed into an Ottawa hotel back in May to see the new team’s uniforms unveiled – in the same red, white and black colours worn by iconic Rough Riders.
“Not having Ottawa in the league was a hole in the heart of the CFL,” league commissioner Mark Cohon said. “The season ticket sales so far indicate the fans were always there; we just had to give them the right ownership group and the right environment. I truly believe this is going to be one of the best places in North America to watch a football game.”
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.”