The CFL waited patiently to put a team back in the nation’s capital. If they were going to do it, they wanted to do it right.
Man, have they done it right.
As of today, the Ottawa Redblacks, born in 2014, are the most dominant and successful three-down pro team in Eastern Canada. They’ve been relevant since the first game they ever played, they play in a gorgeous stadium, they’ve attracted a loyal fan base and are now headed to Edmonton for their third Grey Cup game in four years. They’ve even won the silverware once.
With CFL expansion again in the air, this time possibly to Halifax, it’s worth noting the Redblacks stand as quite possibly the league’s most efficient and effective initiative in a very long time.
For that, well, folks who love this league should thank Mark Cohon, the former CFL commissioner who shepherded the expansion Ottawa franchise from an idea to reality and insisted on the “go slow” approach. Randy Ambrosie runs the league now, and he’ll have an enormous job on his hands to match the work done in Ottawa if the CFL attempts to place a team in Atlantic Canada for the first time ever.
This modern Ottawa gridiron outfit, quite simply, has been a blessing to this league, particularly in the east where Hamilton hasn’t won a Grey Cup in 20 years, the Argonauts don’t draw flies and were horrific this season and Montreal has lost ground ever since Anthony Calvillo retired.
The league may have trouble being noticed in the country’s largest three cities, but the Redblacks have, in their four seasons, delivered a blast of energy and enthusiasm that was noticed across the nation.
On Sunday, Ottawa pounded Hamilton 46-27 in a one-sided East Final, jumping ahead 27-6 early by intercepting two errant Jeremiah Masoli throws and turning them into touchdowns. By the time it was over, Ottawa quarterback Trevor Harris had completed 29-of-32 passes to 10 different receivers and thrown a CFL-playoff record six touchdown passes in an extraordinary performance.
Think of all the great Ottawa quarterbacks. Russ Jackson. Tom Clements. Condredge Holloway. None ever did what Harris did on Sunday.
Next, Harris will face a much sturdier Calgary defence, which shut down the CFL’s highest-scoring offence from Winnipeg at home to make it to the Grey Cup game for the third straight year. The chances of Harris being able to slice and dice Calgary like he did Hamilton are slim.
The Stampeders are the CFL’s standard of excellence right now, having averaged 14 wins for the last six seasons. But they’ve got only one set of championship rings from those years, and have lost the Grey Cup game the last two years, including a 2016 defeat to the Redblacks.
There’s reason to believe they’re a bit haunted by those disappointments.
So the storylines will be varied and plentiful for this one, as Ottawa and Calgary go at it again with a chance to end an up-and-down CFL season with a strong title game. None of the four playoff games so far have been thrillers, so hopefully the Stamps and Redblacks will be able to deliver something more memorable.
Two years ago, the two clubs clashed at BMO Field in Toronto and produced the third overtime Grey Cup contest in the league’s history. The game ended up being a roaring success, but going in, there were fears it would be an unmitigated disaster. The Blue Jays had just finished a pennant run, the World Cup of Hockey had sucked up a lot of attention and part of the world junior hockey championships were scheduled for the city as well.
Quite simply, nobody seemed interested, let alone excited, by the arrival of the Grey Cup game, and the future of the Argonauts was again up in the air after another season of poor attendance and ownership questions. In the end, more than 33,000 fans attended and were treated to a thriller, with Henry Burris leading the Redblacks to the upset triumph while four million Canadians watched on television at home. It was evidence that there was some enthusiasm for the CFL in Toronto, although we haven’t seen much of it since.
The Stamps felt they gave that game away, just as they did again last year when they were stunned by the Argonauts in Ottawa. Late-game errors hurt Calgary in both those losses, errors they didn’t make against the Blue Bombers on Sunday despite the fact quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell’s offence was as explosive as it can be. That’s going to be a big part of the pre-game story, how the Stamps, 13-5 in the regular season, just haven’t been as impressive this season despite the excellent record.
Ottawa wasn’t as good in the regular season as Calgary. Still, the mere fact the Redblacks are again in the big game is a spectacular success story for Canadian football, particularly when you understand that the city was a smoking crater for the CFL after the Renegades packed it in early 2006. There seemed no chance, ever, the league would ever go back. Anywhere but Ottawa seemed like a good idea.
But go back they did, and today players like Brad Sinopoli and record-setting kicker Lewis Ward — a security guard at the ’16 Grey Cup — are household names around Bytown. Seven of the nine CFL teams also have NHL teams in their cities, but the Redblacks are the only one of those seven with a local profile equal to or better than their local NHL club.
They’ll be underdogs again this year in Edmonton, but not by quite as much. This is now a strong football organization from a good football market. If you know the history, you’ll understand that’s quite a statement to be able to make.