Editor's note: With the NFL's Super Bowl coming to the Bay Area in February, CSNBayArea.com Senior Insider Ray Ratto is in Canada to cover the Grey Cup and see how the other half lives. Bookmark Ray Ratto's Grey Cup blog for complete coverage leading up to Sunday's game.
You celebrated Thanksgiving in the bosom of your family, whether your family wanted its bosom invaded by the likes of you or not. You dined on the finest of cooked meals and inspired conversation, comforted to know that there things more important than the perpetual race of adrenalized rats that our culture has become.
I, on the other hand, celebrated Thursday in proximity to but not meaningfully close to the bosom of the Ottawa RedBlacks, for which they, and I, are both gratified.
Too bad, though, that this is Thanksgiving and you will all be paralytic on an overdose of NFL-and-tryptophan, as theirs is a story worth reveling in, given that it defies logic down to the tenth sub-level.
This is a two-year-old team, built on the graveyard of two dead antecedents who had assembled no winning seasons since 1979. Its ownership front man, Jeff Hunt, made his fortune cleaning carpets, removing him from the growing list of owners who got their teams the newfangled way -– from their parents.
But Hunt’s tale is also instructive because he is speed-racing Joe Lacob’s career owning the Golden State Warriors, which we’ll get to momentarily.
Born in the mercantile hotbed of Stephenville, Newfoundland, Hunt began a carpet cleaning company (began, as in cleaned the carpets) that grew to 250 outlets before he sold it to buy the Ottawa 67s junior hockey team. That succeeded well enough, and he made enough of a reputation be asked to front a group of big-hitters to return football to the abattoir/capital, and after six years of jousting over a new stadium, he and his four partners got the team, which expansioned its way to a 2-16 first season, then to 12-6 in this one.
Oh, and in the corner of that stadium, he has built a condo. He lives there, probably so he can avoid game-day traffic. Perfect.
In short, Hunt is that rarest of birds, an owner popular in his own town. Succeeding at football after the disasters of the late Rough Riders years (mid-80s to mid-90s) and the entirety of the Renegades existence (2002-05), and doing it this swiftly, has rekindled Ottawa’s intrigue with a sport which has offended it so mightily for so many years, though the cost leading up to this has been full retail.
Unlike Lacob, he was starting at ground zero with a new team both burdened by and freed of the failures of the Rough Riders and Renegades. But like Lacob, he decided the only way to get good was to promise good.
“I mean, why wouldn’t you?” he said Thursday. “I know we were an expansion team, and last year was tough (author’s note: 2-16, that’s how tough), and there was a lot of heat on our general manager (Marcel Desjardins) and our coach (Rick Campbell) and our quarterback (Henry Burris). But this year, we won a couple of games, and we were being compared to last year, then we won a third and it was, ‘Well, they’re guaranteed to be better,’ and then it was four, and it was “now it’s double.’ And then we beat Calgary, which has been the class of the league and the defending champion, and all of sudden it was, ‘Instead of comparing us to who we were last year, why not compare ourselves to champions?’”
Lacob caught his deserved grief for daring to fly too close to the sun too quickly, but Hunt was left largely alone because he was also trying to invent a new, younger fan base in a league that is fighting to do that across the board, and he was innovating while the team was growing.
“But it’s all by extension,” he said. “If my GM is being ripped, I’m being ripped. If my coach is being criticized, I’m being criticized. If Henry is being attacked and maligned, I am. I’m an owner (Hunt is one of five), but I’m also the president of the team, which also makes me an employee. So that’s how I looked at it.”
And now that gold has been struck, or at least spotted? Here, too, the Warrior comparison is at least slightly apt.
“Well, we’ve had a plan and we’ve stuck to it, because I don’t think you can always make changes every time something goes wrong and get anywhere,” he said. “But we’ve also had some luck, and I don’t mind saying that. I think you can do a lot of the right things, but you can’t win without a little luck, and I’m good with that.”
Gee, any other teams you know fighting the “they were lucky” tag?
But Hunt remembers where he came from, and is open enough to admit it.
“The people who ripped us last year aren’t talking right now,” he said, “but I have to confess that there are times when I’d like to go through my correspondence and Facebook and all that and said some really terrible things and ask them what they think now. I don’t do that because it’s not really a good idea, but I do think about it sometimes.”
Yes, the old Anglican saying, “Win, and the world wins with you. Lose, and you suck alone.”
And as for the possibility of a championship and the ensuing “How do you top this?” syndrome?
“I can’t say I have to worry about that until we do it,” he said, “but it is something I think about. I think there can be something like a championship hangover, because fans can be, ‘Oh, you won, that’s nice, we did that, now what?’ But we don’t have to face that until we face it, and right now, all I’m doing is killing time. I’m just walking around enjoying all this, watching the practices and everyone with the team and soaking it in. I’m not doing a lot of doing right now.”
But he is hoping to put a bit more skin in the game than he already has.
“I had a 67’s tattoo done when I first got the team and we had success so when the RedBlacks started, I felt like it was something I had to do,” he said.
So he did it. It is safe to assume he left room for something like “2015 Grey Cup Champion” to fit elegantly in front of the team name. Because when luck and skill collide and produce something really memorable for a town that has had so little to cling to, there’s really no better motif than skin ink to say it.
Now over to Joe Lacob to see what tats he might have accumulated in the last few months.