Let's begin with this -- the Ottawa Redblacks team that will make it's regular season franchise debut against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at Investors Group Field Thursday night is not your father's Ottawa football team.
For starters, these guys look like they might actually be competitive, which is not something that you could say about a CFL team in Ottawa since 1979, the last year a team in the nation's capital finished the regular season with a record above .500.
Indeed, while this new CFL team with the goofy name is a brand-spanking new expansion team, the Redblacks already have more CFL experience than the Bombers, before they've even played a regular season game. The Redblacks will take the field in Winnipeg tonight with a 30 CFL veterans with a total of 1,675 career games of experience -- 400-plus games more than the Bombers have as a team.
What's more, the Redblacks are also so deep in the all-important Canadian category that their depth chart lists eight Canadians as projected to start tonight, one more than the league mandated seven.
And on top of all that, the latest incarnation of three-down football in the nation's capitol has a starting QB in Henry Burris whose career numbers -- 51,529 yards passing and 5,033 yards rushing -- gives them a future Hall of Famer at the most important position on the field.
And so it seems safe to say that if you're one of those old-time CFL fans expecting a renewal tonight of the stumbling bumpkins that were the late-era Rough Riders or the brief and ill-conceived experiment known as the Renegades, you thought wrong.
And their opposition tonight knows it.
"If we're not sharp," said Bombers head coach Mike O'Shea Thursday, "they're going to hit you in the mouth... I don't look at them as an expansion team."
Now, none of this is to say fans in Ottawa should be expecting to see a Grey Cup hoisted in the shadow of the Peace Tower come this November. This Ottawa team remains very much a work in progress -- and one that is made up in large part of players selected in an expansion draft last December that was, let's face it, nothing more than the rejects from the rest of the CFL.
But what is new and interesting with this latest incarnation of football in Ottawa -- the third since the Rough Riders folded in 1996 -- is that the locally-owned Redblacks already appear to be better managed off the field than either those late-era Rough Riders or the Renegades team that briefly replaced them from 2002-06 ever were.
A quick review of that unfortunate history:
There was the time they drafted a dead guy; there was the time owner Lonnie Glieberman dated one of his own cheerleaders; there was the time Glieberman promoted a 'Mardi Gras Night' at Lansdowne Park, where female fans were going to be encouraged to show their breasts in exchange for beads (the woman with the most beads at the end of the night was going to get $1,000); there was the time Glieberman was jumped in an Ottawa bar by disgruntled fans and had to be rescued by a girlfriend, who waded into the melee kicking and punching; there was the mysterious -- and almost as bizarre -- ownership of the invisible Horn Chen; there was the time -- true story -- an elephant on the field at halftime took a gigantic dump on the Riders logo; there was the time... well, you get the picture.
How bad did it get? Well, Bombers punter Mike Renaud grew up in Ottawa and he says the day the Renegades folded in 2006 almost came as a bit of relief to football fans in that city.
"It stung quite a bit when the Ottawa Rough Riders left the first time," Renaud said. "But when the Renegades came back, the way things were run...it didn't sting as much."
The general consensus is the new Redblacks ownership group has the perfect combination of deep pockets and good intentions to give this incarnation of football in Ottawa a chance to succeed where the others failed. And that starts with rebuilding a brand that was synonymous with such CFL greats as Rough Riders QBs Tom Clements and Russ Jackson long before it was about the Gliebermans and craziness.
They've done a masterful job of renovating old Lansdowne Park -- and even landed the most apt naming rights in sports with a new stadium moniker in TD Place; they've put well-respected and experienced CFL people in Marcel Desjardins and Rick Campbell in the GM and head coach positions, respectively; they've reached out to the considerable French community in and around Ottawa in a way neither the Rough Riders or Renegades ever did.
Plus, well, we'll let Burris explain another difference in the new regime. "Lonnie, last time, was hitting on the fans -- and we can't have that. We have to focus on the important parts," Burris said with a laugh Wednesday, shortly after arriving in Winnipeg with his team. "There's not going to be any Mardi Gras -- so that's a good thing."
Burris, who's been around so long his CFL career predates even the Renegades, said he loves what he's seen out of the newest Ottawa organization so far.
"They've shown -- and you can see the effort they've put in -- to make sure this works this time," said Burris.
Will it be third time a charm for football in Ottawa? We'll begin to find out tonight.
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