Third time poised to be charm for CFL in Ottawa

OSEG partners John Ruddy, left, Roger Greenberg, centre and Jeff hunt congratulate each other after...

OSEG partners John Ruddy, left, Roger Greenberg, centre and Jeff hunt congratulate each other after Ottawa council approved their Lansdowne redevelopment plan on June 28. (ERROL McGIHON/QMI Agency file photo)

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:40 PM ET

It’s been home to some of the very best CFL franchises of all-time, and also some of the very worst.

And now, Ottawa will also be home to the most resilient.

The history books will show June 28, 2010, as the date city council voted 15-9 to go forward with a $250-million rejuvenation project at Lansdowne Park that will not only add bars, restaurants, shops, office towers and condos to the cherished site in the heart of the nation’s capital, but also a beautiful new 24,000-seat stadium.

The world-class sports facility secures a CFL franchise that was conditionally awarded to an impressive group of deep-pocketed local businessmen and resurrects a pro football team that died as the Rough Riders in 1996 and — after an ill-fated four-year run as the Renegades — again in 2006.

Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin next June, with the yet-to-be-named new team taking the field in 2013. 

“This is the best damn thing that’s happened to the city in years,” said Jim Durrell, a former Ottawa mayor and Rough Riders president. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.

“It’s going to revitalize a piece of pavement that was deteriorating and the city couldn’t even afford to maintain. I think it’s a wonderful thing for the city.”

The consortium that rode to the rescue — Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group — consists of Ottawa 67’s owner Jeff Hunt, who made his fortune in the carpet-cleaning business, and three of the city’s most successful and respected real estate developers: Roger Greenberg, John Ruddy and William Shenkman.

Their plan began with a discussion over lunch Hunt and Ruddy had three years ago, and from there, the idea was shared and sold on Greenberg and Shenkman. 

OSEG is also aiming to bring a North American Soccer League team to the city for either 2013 or 2014.

“When you have an opportunity and you have the right group, any time is the right time,” said Hunt. “I think there are many reasons why businesses fail, and many reasons why businesses succeed. I don’t think football failed here because football can’t work in Ottawa. I think football failed because of a lot of business fundamentals that went against them.”

Still, poor ownership is blamed for the downfall of Ottawa-based CFL teams in the past. A franchise that was founded in 1876 and has won nine Grey Cups — including four between 1968-76 — the Rough Riders endured a tumultuous final two decades during which they had just one .500 season.

A group of 27 local businessmen that dwindled to three finally relinquished control of the team to the league, which then passed it on to Detroit millionaire Bernie Glieberman and his son Lonie in 1991. After several controversial decisions and a clash with the city over stadium issues, the Gliebermans moved the franchise to Shreveport, La. 

Senators founder Bruce Firestone took over the reins, but alienated fans (by hiking ticket prices) and businesses before declaring bankruptcy.

Horn Chen, a Chicago-based businessman and minor-league sports entrepreneur, was next in line. He never did come to Ottawa for a game and after his bumbling operators ran the team into the ground, the league stepped in and asked the popular Durrell to save it.

By then, it was too late.

Toronto’s Brad Watters was the frontman of a dysfunctional group that gave birth to the Renegades and brought the 2004 Grey Cup game to Ottawa, but disbanded after that. The second coming of the Gliebermen included a controversial Mardi Gras promotion and ended after one year.

“It’s not that people didn’t try,” said Durrell, among the many who put all of Ottawa’s football problems on faulty ownership. “I know the Watters group tried and I think they really believed that they could do certain things ... but Horn Chen was a joke, we all know that. I don’t know why he ever got involved.

“Certainly we had the Glieberman fiasco, and when you have that, it’s very challenging to take anything seriously. As a result of all those things, you had constant movement in your football operations. The public looks at those things and you really take a loss. Not just with the ticket-buying public, but the business market and the sponsorship. When businesses don’t take it seriously, they’re not stepping up. That won’t happen with this new group.”

Jeff Avery remembers clearly the good old days of football in the capital, as he was close to them. An Ottawa native and former receiver with the University of Ottawa Gee Gees, Avery went on to play six years with the Rough Riders, starting in 1976.

The last sellout for a football game at Frank Clair Stadium he remembers was in 1975 — when the stadium had seats in both end zones and held more than 30,000, but he does recall regularly playing in front of crowds in the mid-20,000 range. Four years after the death of the Renegades, Avery believes it will take some time and hard work to win back the football faithful in Ottawa.

“I think your core groups are excited about it, the 2,500-5,000 season ticket holders that are still gung ho about football,” he said. “And your core business people, OSEG, the alumni ... they’re all excited. But, and I think OSEG knows this, they’re going to have to work their asses off to get people in the stands. They’re going to have to market the hell out of it. If those four can’t do it, nobody can, said Avery.

While there is no questioning the cumulative wealth of OSEG, much of the onus to pull it all together will fall on Hunt, a marketing guru who turned the 67’s into one of Canada’s most enviable junior hockey franchises. 

Upon his arrival in Ottawa from his native Newfoundland in 1984, one of the first things Hunt did was buy season tickets in the southside stands for Rough Rider games, with his dad Sandy and his brother Alex. He maintained those seats and attended every game until the team died.

“It wasn’t Glieberman’s fault, and it wasn’t Watters’ fault, and it wasn’t the Rough Riders ownership groups’ before fault ... the facility was sub-par,” Hunt said when asked to pinpoint past problems. “It was not up to a standard that people expect in Ottawa today.”

Next on the agenda is coming up with a team name (there remains a possibility the Rider handle will be incorporated), as well as working on details for a favourable expansion draft with the league and hiring a GM, something the group wants done before June 2012.

“I think that the biggest challenge initially is just that scorched earth,” said Hunt. “We’re going to have to change the way a lot of people think about CFL football in this market. I think there’s going to be a little bit of initial skepticism that we’re going to have to overcome. The brand new building, and the confidence in the local ownership group, which is what people have been begging for, for years, will go a long way. But there’s still going to be a part of a lot of people that is going to say, ‘OK, show me it’s going to be different,’ and we’re going to have to do that. 

“It’s not going to happen after the first game, and it’s not going to happen after the first season, although I think if we get a great year under our belt, on and off the field, people will be a long ways to overcoming that perception.”

To pull it off would mean everything to Hunt and his partners.

“I think I’ve accomplished some things but, bar none, that would be the biggest accomplishment in my life,” Hunt said. “To bring a successful, long-term CFL franchise back to Ottawa that people can enjoy and be proud of for generations, to me that would be my biggest accomplishment. And although you’re talking about guys like John, Bill and Roger who have done some pretty remarkable things, I think they would count this among the most significant things they’ve done as well.”

And they would all prove that, when it comes to pro football in Ottawa, three times is indeed the charm.

A timeline on the return of football to Ottawa:

Circa 1868 — The City of Ottawa Agricultural Society acquires rural land on Bank St. beside the Rideau Canal for use as a show ground.

1876 — Ottawa Rough Riders founded.

1898 — City buys an expanded Lansdowne Park as well as all existing buildings for the princely sum of $25,000.

1903 — The Coliseum is built. In 1904, the roof collapses under heavy snow, and collapses again the next year. On Jan. 21, 1914, the boiler in the basement explodes, killing three men, 20 horses and 600 head of poultry.

1967 — The Civic Centre is built for close to $10 million.

1973 — The Central Canada Exhibition turns over operation of the park to the City of Ottawa.

1996 — After 120 years and nine Grey Cups, the Ottawa Rough Riders fold.

Oct. 25, 1997 — The city releases the names of three companies that hope to invest up to $300 million to redevelop Lansdowne Park as a cultural, housing and commercial complex.

Dec. 5, 1997 — Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says the city can’t continue to maintain an empty football stadium at Lansdowne Park indefinitely.

Nov. 19, 2001 — Ottawa’s new CFL football franchise is named the Renegades. They begin play the following year.

April 9, 2006 — The CFL’s board of governors decides not to take over operations of the Renegades as the team folds.

Sept. 26, 2007 — QMI Agency learns that Roger Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Minto Developments, John Ruddy, the president of Trinity Development Group, and William Shenkman, chairman of Shenkman Corp., are part of a group considering a redevelopment proposal.

Oct. 17, 2007 — QMI Agency reports that Mayor Larry O’Brien will endorse the proposal. The plan is said to include several condominium developments and has the potential to raise almost $15 million in property taxes annually for the city. It also includes the return of CFL football to the capital.

May 26, 2010 — Parks Canada will not allow the Rideau Canal to be altered for the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park.

June 9 — A seven-member jury recommends a design by Phillips Farevagg Smallenberg in the Lansdowne front-lawn design competition. While the proposed design was $68 million, $22 million of that could be chopped.

June 25 — A report surfaces saying the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group has a clause in its proposal giving it dibs on municipally funded stadiums in Ottawa for 30 years. Critics say this could derail the redevelopment of Lansdowne.

June 26 — OSEG removes the clause from the proposal.

June 28 — Ottawa city council passes the Lansdowne redevelopment plan by a vote of 15-9.


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