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TSN25: Ottawa's Rough Riders, Renegades and Senators

TSN.ca Staff

8/12/2009 12:22:00 PM

In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, TSN.ca is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up, the ups and downs of pro sports franchises in our nation's capital.

Since its establishment as Canada's capital over 150 years ago, Ottawa has stood proudly as a city that's rich in political tradition. It also has a great sports tradition.

The Ottawa 67's are one of the model teams in junior hockey, thanks in large part to the contributions of recently-retired head coach Brian Kilrea. University sport also gets plenty of exposure, highlighted by the Carleton Ravens' recent run of five straight CIS men's basketball championships and football's perennial powerhouse - the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees.
  
But when it comes for professional sports in our nation's capital, there have been just as many reasons to jeer as there have been to cheer.

For over a century, the Ottawa Rough Riders were a cornerstone in Canadian pro football. The franchise captured an impressive nine Grey Cup championships, including five under legendary general manager and head coach Frank Clair during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the Canadian Football League's greatest names also played for the club, including Tom Clements, Tony Gabriel, and Russ Jackson - arguably the best Canadian-born quarterback to ever play in the league.

But the 1980s and 1990s were far less kind, as the franchise struggled on and off the field with losing seasons, bad ownership and front office debacles. After a heartbreaking loss to the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1981 Grey Cup, Ottawa never returned to the championship game, losing the East final the following year and either missing the playoffs or getting knocked out of the East semi-final over the next 14 seasons.

As with many sports franchises, the bad product on the field led to a lack of fan support and gate attendance. And it only got worse, as the Riders quickly became the CFL's national punch line. In 1991, American real estate magnate Bernie Glieberman - along with his son Lonie - took control of the struggling franchise and began a long and strained relationship with football fans in Ottawa. They fired general manager Dan Rambo the day before the 1993 season. They brought in former all-pro defensive back Dexter Manley, who not only failed four drug tests and was banned by the NFL, but did nothing to reverse their fortunes on the field. In 1995, management drafted defensive end Derrell Robertson - only to discover that he died five months earlier. In what could only be described as a relief for some fans and a travesty for others, the franchise finally folded in 1996.

Ottawa was without a CFL team until 2002, when the league granted an expansion team - the Renegades. But even with veteran personnel like Eric Tillman and Joe Paopao in charge, the club never made the playoffs and struggled to establish a footprint with the community.

Adding more fuel to the fire was the return of the Gliebermans, who assumed ownership of the club in 2005.

"This is the only business I've entered that I haven't succeeded in," said Bernie Glieberman at the time. "Very fortunately over the last several years, my business has been very, very, very successful and I felt I could afford to set the record straight. We're buying this team for a very long term."

That being said, the three-ring circus was back in full force. Prior to the team's last game of the 2005 season, they fired head coach Joe Paopao and later replaced him with John Jenkins. They also hired 71-year-old Forrest Gregg as VP of operations despite the fact that the former pro football coach was 10 years removed from the game. Lonie Glieberman also devised a Mardi Gras promotion at Frank Clair Stadium - where women could earn beaded necklaces during games by baring their breasts.

All of these changes never came to pass, as Bernie Glieberman announced before the 2006 season that he would stop funding the club and the CFL soon suspended its operations. The Renegades' players were later dispersed to the remaining eight CFL teams, with quarterback Kerry Joseph going first overall to the Saskatchewan Roughriders and guiding the team to a Grey Cup win just two years later.

But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for Ottawa football fans, as the CFL awarded a conditional franchise (pending a stadium deal) to Ottawa 67's owner Jeff Hunt to begin play in 2012.

Ottawans have also had a tenuous relationship with pro hockey - namely the NHL's Senators. The first time anyone can remember an Ottawa team being called the Senators was back in 1901, when the the Journal referred to the local club in such fashion. They were more commonly known as the Silver Seven while they were winning four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1903 to 1906. After that, however, the Ottawa hockey club was almost exclusively called the Senators - a team that won the Stanley Cup in six times between 1909 and 1927.

Despite being the dominant team of the era, the Senators struggled financially. The original Senators were forced to move to St. Louis in 1934, but only survived one season before folding.

Although there is no direct tie to the original franchise, the modern era Senators were given a certificate of reinstatement by the NHL when the team joined the league as an expansion franchise in 1992. But like the cross-town Rough Riders, the Sens had more than their share of issues away from the game.

Even with a winning product on the ice and a brand new arena located off Highway 417 in Kanata, majority owner Rod Bryden (who took over the club from owner Bruce Firestone in 1993) put the club up for sale in 2003 after players got a notice saying the franchise didn't have the money to pay them. Over a ten-year period, he went deep into debt just to finance the Corel Centre and retain key roster players. On top of that, it turned out that a $235 million restructuring deal for the club fell through when one of the creditors backed out.

With debts of over $300 million, the Senators filed for bankruptcy protection and emergency financing to make payroll and the threat of another NHL team being moved out of Canada loomed large.

"We need to decide whether or not we are going to have a team in the city and whether we're prepared to pay for it," said Bryden at the time. "There is a marvelous opportunity to have this asset here at today's values, soundly funded."

But unlike the Rough Riders and Renegades, the Senators had a much better fate. Seven months after the club was put up for sale, Biovail founder and CEO Eugene Melnyk officially bought the franchise and the Corel Centre (now called Scotiabank Place). 

"It's got to be run like a business," said Melnyk at the time of the purchase. "But the bottom line is it's got to be fun."

Promising stable ownership and a commitment to building a winner, Melnyk also told Ottawa's sport fans something they've wanted to hear for years. "I'm guaranteeing you the team is going to be staying in Ottawa now," he said.

With a well-established NHL team and the return of CFL football on the horizon, there are certainly more reasons to cheer in our nation's capital.