• By: Dave Gross

Jeff Hunt Proves Fruitful At Discovering A Dream

Feature image by Andre Gagne

You'd be hard-pressed to run into many in this city who don’t recognize the name or the face.

That was certainly not the case back in the late 1990s when a young entrepreneur from Newfoundland arrived in Ottawa to take over as owner of the storied 67’s junior hockey franchise. Jeff who? Well, you know him now.

What Jeff Hunt has accomplished is remarkable: First, hosting and winning the 1999 Memorial Cup; then taking an attendance-starved team to new heights of success – in the mid-2000s the 67’s were averaging 10-11,000 fans per game; then winning the hosting duties for the 33rd World Junior Championship in 2009; to securing a CFL franchise a year later, revamping crotchety old Lansdowne with the city and back-to-back trips to the Grey Cup culminating in a win last month. (Ottawa hosts next year).

There’s not a lot of swings-and-misses in Hunt's history.

OLM: How do you top what you accomplished this year (with the REDBLACKS)?

HUNT: Easy, win and win at home (laughing).

OLM: Expectations are obviously very high following this year’s Grey Cup and the fact you’re hosting next year. Is there added pressure?

HUNT: Yes, but I don’t know if ‘pressure’ is the right word. We want to keep the winning going and it’s a good feeling. Being in a Grey Cup and doing it at home is something special. It’s like when we hosted and won the Memorial Cup. It’s something that is very unique and special. It’s an incredible opportunity for us to come back as reigning Grey Cup champs, and just to make it to the game itself would be something special and gives us something to strive for. And it’s not just winning on the field, I feel pressure to keep growing our fan base.

OLM: How could you possibly grow your fan base (Ottawa was 10-for-10 in sell outs this past season)?

Jeff Hunt of the cover of the November
1998 issue of Otttawa Life.

HUNT: Yeah we sold out every game, but not all sell outs are created equal (laughs). Toronto Maple Leafs have a waiting list of 100-thousand fans and with other teams their ticket sales exactly meet the demand. In other words if there were eight less people who bought tickets there wouldn’t be eight more people there to buy them. So you always want to build your fan base. Utopia would be a waiting list for season-ticket holders. Every year you’re going to lose fans, I don’t care who you are… The Yankees, Maple Leafs… you need a pipeline, you need people on that escalator. Particularly the young fans. I think we captured that.

OLM: Switching topics, what do you think the previous CFL ownership group (Renegades) did wrong? What did they not capture?

HUNT: Well, first of all, they didn’t have a brand-new redeveloped stadium. Let’s put it this way, if there were 10 reasons why the CFL didn’t work last time, seven of them had to do with the stadium. It just was such a bad distraction to a good fan experience. Think about it: washrooms, concessions, seats, audio system … it was just a bad experience. You might be the best restaurateur in the world but if you have a run-down, dilapidated (facility) it’s going to be a terrible experience. The other reasons? Well, the product on the field was subpar and lack of confidence in ownership was a factor. One of the things we’ve succeeded at was engaging the francophone fan and much has been made of that. Fans in Gatineau feel that the REDBLACKS are their team and we’re very proud of that.

OLM: Speaking of capturing the fans, Henry Burris certainly has done that and more. Is Henry Burris as popular now as Daniel Alfredsson?

HUNT: I just made that comparison. If you did a poll, Daniel was here a lot longer, but Henry, in a very short time, catapulted himself into being one of the most beloved Ottawa sports personalities of all time. Talk to anyone who’s met him and they’re blown away by his demeanor and enthusiasm. Henry is smiling and interacting in the same way with the first fan as he is with the 1,000th fan. That’s an incredible attribute and I’ve never seen it in another professional athlete.

OLM: On to soccer. What challenges do you face, as a guy who has to sell tickets, to the Ottawa Fury switching from the NASL to the USL?

HUNT: I don’t think there’s any challenge. I don’t think fans are too concerned (with the switch). They want to go out on a Saturday afternoon and watch an outdoor sporting event and cheer on the home team. I don’t think they’re overly concerned about what league we might be in. There are diehards who follow that closely to be sure, but that’s 10 per cent. The other 90 per cent just like to show up and sometimes don’t know who we’re playing. I think the Fury have shown growth, which is tough with all the noise surrounding the REDBLACKS, but they’ve done very well.

OLM: Switching gears again, have the Ottawa 67’s become the ugly stepchild here? Attendance is way down. Is there a priority to get the 67’s back to where they were?

HUNT: Definitely. The 67’s have paid a price for the whole Lansdowne redevelopment. Had to leave for two years and go to Canadian Tire Centre which wasn’t optimum. Face it, if I only owned the 67’s and had to contend with the REDBLACKS, my job would be tougher. In a very short time you’ve added two new sports franchises to the Ottawa market and those were two sports teams I didn’t have to compete with over the years. We’re competing with ourselves. Next year is our 50th anniversary and we’re going to take that opportunity to try and get a little more focus and attention in the market … It’s just that the marketplace has gotten a lot busier.

OLM: Finally, your relationship with Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has been categorized as fractious. Is that accurate?

HUNT: I don’t feel that way.

OLM: But they’re your direct competitor.

HUNT: I am not friends (with Melnyk), but we have collaborated as with the world juniors, when we had that. They were great hosts to us when (the 67’s) played there and we have had that ongoing relationship for many years. We still continue to play our annual school day game at CTC. I consider the Senators to be our friendly competitor. I consider the Senators and OSEG to have a common competitor, and that’s apathy, and that’s the couch … I’m glad the Senators are here and they’ve been good to us over the years.

OLM: What’s your relationship like with Melnyk?

HUNT: Like I said, I don’t have much of a relationship with Eugene and don’t really have a reason to. Again, my interactions with him in the past have been cordial and reasonable.