By Rob Ficiur
The second year Ottawa Red Blacks will be in the 2015 Grey Cup. Being in a championship final in a second year of existence has not happened in North American Team sports in this modern era. (We don’t count the 1968 St. Louis Blues, because in that NHL expansion one of the new teams was guaranteed a place in the league final.)
Major League Baseball’s most quickest expansion team to a championship was the 1993 Florida Marlins. Four years after entering the league the Marlins won the World Series. The 1998 expansion team in Arizona repeated the feat by winning the World Series in year four. In the NFL the expansion Baltimore Ravens took four years to win their first championship. The NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers won a championship in their seventh year of existence.
In the NHL the third year Florida Panthers went to the Stanley Cup final. The Panthers have never been past the first round since then. The Buffalo Sabres showed great promise when they made the finals in their fourth year. They have only been back once since that failed attempt.
The quickest expansion team to win a Stanley Cup was the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers who won a championship after only six years in existence. Yes, Oilers fans, technically the Edmonton Oilers won their first championship in their fifth year, but unlike most expansion teams, the Oilers started with a core player named Gretzky.
The reality is that expansion teams in professional sports should expect to struggle for a few years. The other teams offer them over the hill players and unproven rookies for expansion drafts. The hope is that the novelty of having a professional sports team in the city will last several years allowing the team to build towards a championship.
The Ottawa Red Blacks 2015 season will be remembered for three reasons.
First, this Red Blacks team is the first expansion team to reach their league finals in their second year. Based on success in other sports, Ottawa would have been considered a success if they reached a championship game by year five.
Second, the 2015 Ottawa Renegades were 20 points better than the 2014 Renegades. Improving by 20 points in an 18 games schedule would be like an NHL team improving by 84 points. Ottawa’s .111 winning percentage last year improved to .666 this year. A baseball parallel would be a team winning 18 games (out of 162 games) one year and then the next year winning 107 games.
In the modern CFL, Ottawa is only the third team to improve by 20 or more points from one year to the next. The 1998 Hamilton Tiger Cats were 21 point better than the 1997 version. These Tiger Cats lost in the Grey Cup to Calgary. The 1996 Toronto Argonauts were a record 22 points better than their previous year. Do you think it was a coincidence that the 1996 Argo team picked up future Hall of Famer Doug Flutie to lead that team?
Third, Ottawa football fans have been starving for a winner. Prior to the Red Blacks’ expansion in 2014, Ottawa had been without a CFL team for sixteen of the last twenty years. The Rough Riders had been around for 98 years when they folded after the 1996 season. From 2003-2006 the expansion Ottawa Renegades played in the CFL with very little success. In four years the Renegades best season was 7-11 with no playoffs.
Ottawa football fans had not been part of a playoff game since the 1994 Rough Riders lost in the Eastern semifinal at Winnipeg. From 1975-1994 Ottawa made the playoffs six times, losing all those games on the road.
Playoff home games and win are rarer. Ottawa’s last playoff home game was in 1983 when the team lost to Hamilton. The last Ottawa playoff victory was in 1982. The 1981 Rough Riders had had a miserable season with a 5-11 record but got hot at the right time. Those Rough Riders went all the way to the Grey Cup, losing 26-23 to the Dynasty Edmonton Eskimos.
Ottawa was a dominant CFL city fifty years ago. From 1960-1975 the Rough Riders missed the playoffs once, with five Grey Cup appearances and four championships in that time. Ottawa’s last championship was in 1976 when Tony Gabriel caught a Tom Clements pass in the dying minutes to defeat Ron Lancaster’s Green Riders from Saskatchewan.
On paper it may seem like Ottawa’s football team got to the finals quickly. For Ottawa fans it has been a long wait.