OBJ Newsmaker of the Year: Hunt in a league of his own

Jeff Hunt might be the face of the group that brought professional football back to Ottawa, but there is no denying he is a team player through and through.

The 50-year-old native of Stephenville, N.L., was front and centre during Grey Cup Week in Vancouver last month when he accepted the Canadian Football League Commissioner’s Award for outstanding contributions to the sport in Canada on behalf of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.

But Mr. Hunt, one of the five partners in the Ottawa RedBlacks’ ownership group along with Roger Greenberg, John Pugh, John Ruddy and Bill Shenkman, makes it clear he is simply one cog in a well-oiled machine that worked tirelessly for seven years to make the dream of the CFL’s return to the capital a reality.

“I think it’s an honour to accept that award on behalf of our whole OSEG team and ownership group,” he says.

Still, there might not be a bigger or better promoter of the tenants at the new Lansdowne Park, be it the RedBlacks, the Ottawa Fury FC of the North American Soccer League, or the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s, than Mr. Hunt.

Mr. Hunt’s relentless drive to connect with fans and improve their game-day experience – he figures he’s met the majority of the RedBlacks’ 16,000 season-ticket holders – has justifiably earned him the title of OBJ’s Newsmaker of the Year.

Still, when the news first broke that OSEG was bringing the CFL back to town, the applause wasn’t universal. Skeptics cited the league’s two previous failures in Ottawa, while critics of the Lansdowne redevelopment plan launched legal challenges that delayed the project.

But once the legal hurdles were cleared and the organization began falling into place, “the conversation changed,” Mr. Hunt says. “People started talking about a bright future.”

On July 18, the RedBlacks christened their new 24,000-seat home at TD Place with a thrilling 18-17 win over the Toronto Argonauts. It was one of the few highlights for the RedBlacks organization on the field in a dismal 2-16 campaign, but it’s what happened off the field that day that still makes Mr. Hunt smile.

“That was for me, a real hold-your-breath moment,” he says of the home opener. “The fact that 24,000 people came efficiently and all left efficiently, that was the best you could hope for. It exceeded our expectations as far as how it was received.”

Mr. Hunt justifiably takes pride in the fact the RedBlacks sold out all nine home games at TD Place in their inaugural season. He was particularly encouraged by the number of fans he saw at the stadium in the coveted 18-34 demographic the CFL is so eager to attract.

“We hit it out of the park with that group,” he says enthusiastically.

Though he is officially Newsmaker of the Year for 2014, in truth Mr. Hunt has been making news regularly in the Ottawa sports scene for nearly two decades. But his business acumen had already made him a success well before that.

Born and raised in Newfoundland, Mr. Hunt first moved to Ottawa with his family in 1984 and started a carpet cleaning business, Canway. Over the next decade and a half, he grew the business to 250 locations in Canada and the United States. During this time, Canway made the PROFIT 100 list seven times.

The lifelong sports fan was a regular at the old Lansdowne for 67’s and Rough Riders games. Eventually, he decided it was time to make the jump from fan to owner.

In 1998, Mr. Hunt purchased the 67’s and dramatically increased the team’s marketing budget with the goal of giving fans an experience on par with NHL hockey. The result was a franchise that soon led the OHL in attendance.

Through the mid-2000s, he spearheaded efforts to bring CFL football back to Ottawa and assemble a group of investors willing to revitalize a tired Lansdowne Park. It was that effort that led to the creation of OSEG, the new Lansdowne and the arrival of the RedBlacks.

After an inaugural season that earned Mr. Hunt and his cohorts plaudits around the league, he’s not about to rest on his laurels. His goal for 2015 is straightforward: to deliver fans a better product, both on and off the field.

“I think people are going to want to see progress next year, and I think they will see progress next year,” he says. “We are always going to be improving and trying to make (the stadium experience) better and more fun. You’re always evolving.”