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OTTAWA — While others hurry to do their last-minute Christmas shopping Jeff Hunt is content to take his time before wrapping up one of the first big acquisitions for Ottawa’s CFL expansion team.
Hunt, the team’s president, is looking for a general manager. He’s searching for someone capable of nurturing the yet unnamed club through its infancy in a market that has a proud CFL history but has been frustrated by some questionable ownership.
Hunt hopes to have the new GM in place by late January or early February. He chuckles at the thought that both the Edmonton Eskimos and Hamilton Tiger-Cats have hired general managers while he still shops around.
“It would appear as if I’m the tortoise in the race,” said the 48-year-old businessman who also owns the OHL Ottawa 67’s. “We’re going through a process.”
The team’s name will be announced early in the new year. So far over 45,000 suggestions have been made by fans with Ottawa Rush one of the front-runners.
“That’s the name that has been bandied around,” was all Hunt would say.
The shortlist for the general manager’s job has been narrowed to five to seven people but “that could change next week,” Hunt said.
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“It could go up or it could go down. Sometimes guys you weren’t thinking were a possibility could become available.”
Hunt admits Kent Austin, who the Tiger-Cats recently hired as coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations, was on his interest list.
Two candidates being mentioned for the job are Marcel Desjardins, the Montreal Alouettes’ assistant general manager, and Marcel Bellefeuille, the former Hamilton coach who also coached the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. Both men have ties to Ottawa and are bilingual.
“These are all guys we think are great candidates, guys we wish to continue to talk to,” Hunt said.
The challenge of taking over a team that has no players and hasn’t even announced the colours of its uniforms requires a GM with a certain skill set.
Most new GMs have a foundation to build on. In Ottawa, the person will be laying the concrete. The CFL will hold an expansion draft next December and the team will play its first game in 2014.
“The emphasis on personnel is greater on an expansion team environment than a mature team,” said Hunt.
“You could say the demands of personnel, both expertise and resources, is triple what a typical team experiences in a year. We are starting with zero players. A year from April you are going to need 50, 60, 70 players coming to camp.”
Hiring someone with CFL experience “is a prerequisite.” The person must have at least played in the league, if not coached or held a management position.
“Maybe I will live to eat these words (but) I can’t imagine us hiring somebody who does not have a CFL background,” Hunt said.
“There’s a difference between American football and CFL football. A lot of guys have failed in not being able to make that transition. Having been a player in the CFL you couldn’t help but come to understand the nuances and differences.”
A strong knowledge of the game is essential but the Ottawa GM will also become the public face of the team. He needs to be accessible to the media and help market the franchise to fans.
“I don’t think in this business anybody can afford to be one-dimensional,” said Hunt. “You may be the smartest football guy in North America. But if you don’t have a bedside manner with the media, if you can’t deal with fans and represent the franchise in a very professional manner, in my mind that’s a deal-breaker.
“Everybody is well aware of some of the history here and of the fact we’ve got some scorched earth to overcome. The first 16 or 17 months of this GM being on the job we’re not going to play a single game. This is a person that has to establish the excitement and credibility of what kind of team we are going to have. Every GM in the CFL has to have a certain finesse with the media. I think that’s even more so in an expansion franchise in Ottawa.”
So in a perfect world the Ottawa GM would be able to pick talent like B.C.’s Wally Buono and be media savvy like Saskatchewan’s Corey Chamblin. An extra bonus would be the ability the speak French. The Ottawa market is about 15 per cent Francophone. Nearby Gatineau, Que., has a population of 300,000 with 78-per-cent French speaking.
“At the end of the day we want to find the best guy,” Hunt said. “If that best guy could speak French, then that’s our wildest dreams come true.”
At the moment Hunt doesn’t see the GM also being the head coach.
“It’s hard to imagine, with all the work that needs to be done in building a team from scratch, you could have somebody also focused on coaching,” he said. “Maybe once you have an established team and the personnel requirements are not as onerous, you might be more willing to see a coach-GM. At the same time we’re going to make that decision based on the individual.”
Hunt is prepared to roll with some punches in Ottawa’s first couple of years in the CFL. He doesn’t expect miracles on the field, but he does want a general manager to build a team that excites the fans.
“What I would have minimal patience for . . . is a lack of compete and a lack of effort,” Hunt said. “You can’t always get the best skilled players available, especially as an expansion team (but) that can’t affect the effort and compete level and attitude of your team.
“Hopefully that’s what the fans will see game in and game out, a team that goes and ties to win every game.”