Football is cool again in Ottawa
Solid ownership and lively fanbase are making the expansion Redblacks a success, despite a 1-11 record
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/10/2014 (2921 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — There’s a history here — some of it glorious, some of it infamous, some of it still very much under construction.
This is where nine Grey Cup champions lived and where Russ Jackson did his thing. This is where Tony Gabriel played catch with Tom Clements and Conredge Holloway, where Ron Stewart ran through defences and coaching icons Frank Clair and George Brancato had their fingerprints all over a powerhouse that won five championships between 1960-76.
But it’s also where the Gliebermans gave us “Mardi Gras Night,” a promotion that encouraged female fans to lift their tops for prizes, where the franchise drafted a dead guy, where bankruptcies were filed and payrolls were regularly missed.
And it’s where, through it all — through the good times and the bad, through sickness and in health — Ottawa football fans continued to show up every game night. So, no surprise, but they’ll be there again in full force tonight when the expansion Redblacks, 1-11, play host to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers at spectacular TD Place.
“You have to remember that for a lot of the ’60s and ’70s the Ottawa Rough Riders were arguably the class of the league,” said Jeff Hunt, the Redblacks president. “Many of our fans lived through that. And then they lived through 20 years of torture.
“I moved here in ’84 and I never saw a winning team. The stadium was tired and old… bench seating, long lines at the concessions, warm beer, cold hot dogs, poor washroom facilities, poor audio, no video system. It was sit down, shut up and watch the game. On top of that, on the field, you lose. And yet at the bitter end there were still 15-20,000 people at the games.
“So how could you not believe that in this city if they just had a product they could support and get behind and a building with some basic amenities couldn’t work in this market?
“We’ve got some of the best fans in the league here and we’re proving it now.”
The Redblacks have a season-ticket base of 17,000 and over 100 corporate sponsors, including TD Bank, which has ponied up for the most-lucrative stadium naming-rights deal in the CFL.
The south-side grandstand was demolished and rebuilt. A high-rise condo is under construction nearby, already casting a long shadow over one end zone. The real-estate project surrounding the stadium will soon include more bars and restaurants, a movie theatre and shops.
“My mom grew up near here… just on the other side of the canal,” said Redblacks fullback and Ottawa product John Delahunt, pointing across the Rideau. “A big Irish family of 10. And so, believe me, we’ve got a lot of supporters in our family.
“This area is going to be hopping soon when all these shops are done. Now the businesses have something nearby that is being used, not just a run-down old stadium. They’ve got a great job… concerts, tailgating… great concessions.
“We’ve got local ownership that wants to see this franchise stay and succeed, not just as some way to try and make money.
“It feels really cool to be a start of something.”
That’s the vibe you get from the moment you deke through the construction zones around the stadium. This isn’t a Band-Aid. It feels different this time, that this franchise actually has legs, because there is local ownership that oozes credibility and a long-term vision that involves something more just trying to recreate the scene after last call on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
But Hunt will tell you getting here was far from easy. The end of the Rough Riders in 1996 and the quick birth and death of the Renegades (2002-05) left a significant stain in the sporting carpet here in the capital.
And the challenge of overcoming years of a building cynicism and skepticism — Ottawa fans haven’t had a winning team to cheer for since 1979 — was one of the biggest early challenges for the Redblacks.
“If I had this question, I had it a million times: ‘Football failed twice, why is it going to succeed this time?’ ” said Hunt. “And, to be honest of you, I’m sick of that question. But, yeah, the first five years we were in this process it was all about the Gliebermans and Horn Chen (the absentee owner in 1995 who did not attend a single game) and failures, a lousy stadium, lousy teams.
“It was reminiscing about the stumbles, the bumbles and the failures. It was tough because that’s all you talked about, that’s all you heard about. There was a skepticism in this city that we were actually going to get something done with Lansdowne Park, something that has eluded the city for decades, and that we were going to get a successful CFL team back. It’s like people couldn’t bring themselves to believe that, that it was too pie-in-the-sky and wasn’t going to happen.
“But,” Hunt continued, “once the stadium started to rise, that’s when people started talking about Russ Jackson and Tony Gabriel and not the Gliebermans. And then every time we had an event or people saw the building coming out of the ground it helped put the scorched earth behind us more and more and more. Everybody started talking about our future.”
Gone is the Gong Show, the circus-type sideshow that pockmarked those dominant Rough Rider teams of the ’60s and ’70s. Now the talk in this town is about the heartache of last-second losses, not of being stiff-armed by another bad ownership group.
Just as it should be.
“Fans here have been waiting for years to have a conversation about things like Henry Burris and the receivers,” said Hunt. “And what are we going to do about special teams and getting wins? We’re talking football. We’re not talking about botched promotions or city council approvals or public meetings. We’re talking about the team on the field. We wish the conversation was a little more positive, we wish we were talking about a winning streak instead of a losing streak, but we’ll be talking about that soon enough.
“And you know what? The 20-somethings in this town don’t even know about Lonie Glieberman. They barely know the Rough Riders. All they know is they went to the game last Friday and they had a ball.”
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