OTTAWA - The Canadian Football League is heading back to Ottawa.
CFL commissioner Mark Cohon awarded a conditional expansion franchise Tuesday to an Ottawa-based group headed up by Jeff Hunt, the owner of the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's.
"This is an exciting time for the CFL and the city of Ottawa," Cohon said. "I am guardedly optimistic and excited at the same time."
This will mark the CFL's third stint in Ottawa. The franchise could begin play as early as 2010.
Hunt's group, which will pay a $7-million expansion fee, must still secure a lease agreement for Frank Clair Stadium at Lansdowne Park, which has been earmarked for development after the southside stands were condemned last fall.
"That (a stadium) is the condition and that is why we're calling this a conditional franchise," Cohon said. "I believe that the job of the CFL and the commissioner . . . is to find the business leaders, to find the community leaders and to find the sports leaders.
"It's now in their capable hands to make sure we bring football back to the nation's capital in a stadium and a facility that the CFL and the fans here deserve."
This marks Hunt's second attempt to land a CFL franchise for Ottawa. Last year, Hunt was part of the Golden Gate Capital group that was regarded as the front-runner among three bids to land a CFL expansion franchise for Ottawa. But Golden Gate was forced to withdraw from the bidding after a prominent group member was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.
While this would be the CFL's third stint in Ottawa, league officials are confident Hunt's group can succeed where others failed. Hunt has done a masterful job of turning the 67's into one of the top junior hockey operations in Canada and has developed a reputation of being a shrewd sports executive. And his partners all have the financial clout to ensure enough money to operate a franchise with a league-mandated $4.05-million salary cap.
The Ottawa Rough Riders enjoyed a long and storied history in the city. Formed in 1876, the franchise captured nine Grey Cups, including three between 1960 and 1970. But the Riders' demise began in the 1990s when it stopped being a community-owned franchise and questionable moves by private owners Bernie Glieberman, then Bruce Firestone and finally Horn Chen resulted in the club folding in 1996.
A new ownership group was granted a CFL franchise for 2002 under the name Renegades, but the CFL was forced to mothball the operation prior to the 2006 season after co-owners Glieberman and Bill Smith walked away from the club rather than cover a projected $6-million operating loss.
The Renegades players were then allocated for a CFL dispersal draft. Quarterback Kerry Joseph was selected first overall by the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Last season, Joseph captured the CFL's outstanding player award (the first Rider to do so since '76) and led Saskatchewan to the Grey Cup title, just the club's third ever and first since '89.
Earlier this month, the Roughriders dealt Joseph and a 2010 third-round draft pick to the Toronto Argonauts for offensive tackle Glenn January, defensive lineman Ronald Flemons, a 2008 first-round pick and 2010 second-round selection.