Saturday, July 19, 2014

Toronto Argonauts 17 at Ottawa Redblacks 18 - July 18, 2014


Football in Ottawa had a long and storied history with the Rough Riders, who spent 120 years in Canada's capital in various leagues and guises. Unfortunately, mismanagement in the late 1980s and 1990s coupled with the arrival of the NHL's Senators and AAA baseball's Lynx led to the team folding in 1996. Six years later, new owners tried again with the Renegades, but they were unable to secure the Rough Riders intellectual property, and never established themselves as a viable entertainment option, disappearing in 2006 after four unsuccessful seasons.

In 2008, Ottawa 67s owner Jeff Hunt bought the franchise and eventually the rights to the Rough Riders name and history, with a plan to start a third iteration in 2010. However, Frank Clair Stadium was literally falling apart, with cracks in the south side stands being noticed. This led to a long-term renovation with the south side being completely demolished and rebuilt. Delays in construction postponed the opening of the venue, renamed TD Place Stadium, until 2014. Even the 67s had to evacuate the Civic Center (now known as TD Place Arena), playing two seasons at Scotiabank Place as the entire Lansdowne Park area was redone, with condos and an entertainment area also being added. Much of the work remains unfinished, but the stadium was finally ready for football. That's the south side below, you can see on the left how the lattice work is incomplete.



With the Saskatchewan Roughriders contesting use of the old Rough Riders nickname, Hunt decided to name the team the Redblacks instead, stylizing it in all caps and asking the media to follow along. Few have done so. Despite this rather questionable move, Hunt has done a lot right, bringing the CFL back to Ottawa with proper marketing and promotions to get fans excited. The delays were likely a blessing in the end as it gave management more time to get things right.

With renovations still being completed on TD Place, the Redblacks played their two preseason games and first two regular season games on the road. Their home opener was played in Week 4, on Friday night. As luck would have it, I had to pop back to Canada that weekend and so decided on Ottawa as my destination. Although the game was listed as sold out on the CFL website, there were single tickets available online, so I picked up one for me and one for my friend Sharpy. On Friday, we took transit (free with your game ticket, an idea other cities should adopt) and made our way along Bank Street to see Ottawa and Toronto engage in the battle of Ontario.



Arriving nearly three hours before game time, we had time to enjoy the free party that was being held next to the Aberdeen Pavilion (above). The Trews, one of Canada's top bands, performed while fans mingled in the beautiful afternoon sunshine. It was better than most of the NFL pregame parties I had attended last year. A few Argos shirts were spotted, including one Doug Flutie version worn by Sharpy that garnered a few comments, but most fans were sporting Redblacks merchandise in some form or other.



We made our way into the stadium around 5:30 and were amazed at how crowded it was despite being 90 minutes until kickoff. Fans were definitely ready for the return of football. Unfortunately, the stadium wasn't. First, there were problems with the kitchens in some of the concession stands. Orders were being taken but food wasn't ready. Some cashiers told customers this, giving them the option to choose ready-made pretzels or popcorn, but others made no mention of the wait. I ordered chorizo poutine ($8) that took about 25 minutes to be delivered (though it was very good and a huge portion, so worth the wait). Other fans had ordered ribs which were sold out before they could receive their portion, necessitating a refund and causing even more confusion. Despite this complete lack of co-ordination, orders were still being taken, leading to some very frustrated, hungry fans.



The mistakes continued during the pregame ceremonies. First, the Redblacks did not come out of their large helmet (above) when they were being introduced, waiting until the end of the introductions to come out as a group. Perhaps this was intentional, but it certainly seemed odd as another player had to run over and get them to run onto the field. Then the national anthem began without an introduction, as people stood up and players hustled to the sideline to stand at attention. The anthem had to be finished by a certain time so the flyover would occur just as the last words were being sung, hence the lack of a proper introduction.



With that done, we were ready for kickoff (above). Toronto was missing their top three receivers, while Ottawa had struggled on offense so far, so a low-scoring affair was expected and that is what happened. Neither team moved the ball with any authority, and the first half saw Ottawa score 3 field goals while the Argonauts booted 2 and added a rouge to go into the break down 9-7. Fans in the south side kept things interesting by bringing back an old chant, "North Side Sucks!", and repeating it throughout the half.



Our seats were in the upper deck near the west goal line (view above), but we saw very little action, so I moved down at halftime and stood on the concourse behind the Argonaut bench. This offered a better view and not a single usher asked me to leave. Even then, nothing happened on the field as Argo QB Ricky Ray could not generate any offense. That's him below scampering for a few yards. Ray was intercepted midway through the quarter and Ottawa used the field position to add another field goal and take a 12-7 lead into the final frame.



Early in the fourth, Ray connected with Darvin Adams for a 20-yard touchdown, the only major of the evening. The teams then exchanged field goals over the next few possessions, with Toronto's coming with just 1:33 left. Given how anemic the Ottawa offense had been up to then (Chevon Walker, running below, was the star with 60 yards on 12 carries), it looked like the Argos would escape with a win.



By now, we had moved down to the west end zone, where a grass berm separates fans from the field. Many had chosen to stand here as it provides a quick escape to the street after the game. It also happened to be where the play of the game occurred. With a minute to go, Henry Burris hit Kierrie Johnson with a perfect pass for 43 yards to the Argo 21-yard line, just in front of the berm. Johnson had dropped a sure touchdown in the first half, but atoned for his mistake with a superb grab over his left shoulder. After a clock-killing run, Brett Maher had no trouble kicking his sixth field goal of the night (below) to give the Redblacks the 18-17 lead. Toronto had 28 seconds to do something, but Ray was intercepted on the last play of the game and the hometown fans had something to cheer about after eight long years in the football wilderness.



This was an ugly game with 21 penalties, including a few stupid ones from Toronto that allowed Ottawa to maintain drives. Ottawa ran a fake punt play for a first down and did not commit a turnover and that was the difference in a game that disappointed only the Argo fans in attendance. Congrats to Redblacks fans and let's hope the team is still there 120 years from now!



There is only one scoreboard behind the west end zone, which is why this picture is at such an odd angle. It is quite nice but they need some more ribbon boards to display in-game statistics. Other than that and the few glitches before the game, this was a great experience and I'm glad I was able to go. I am sure things will get worked out in time for the next home contest. Sadly, I will be back in New York and starting a new job, and thus unable to attend, but if you are in the Ottawa area, make plans to see the Redblacks in their inaugural season.

Best,

Sean

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