MEET A KEY FIGURE BEHIND THE REDBLACKS’ RETURN, LANDSDOWNE’S REVITALIZATION AND LEBRETON’S FUTURE
June 5th, 2017
Peel back the layers of the multimillion-dollar real estate deals and you’ll find that Ottawa entrepreneur John Ruddy is a football man at heart.
He had little choice. As a boy, John’s family lived a few doors away from Ottawa Rough Riders wide receiver and Hall of Famer Bobby Simpson. John’s own father, John Ruddy Sr., played professionally for the Ottawa Trojans in the 1940s, a halfback known to his teammates as “Johnny.” Partly because the son was so proud of his father’s ties to Ottawa’s rich 120-plus-year football history John Jr. published a book on Ottawa football in 2015 (Inside the Huddle: Rough Riders to Redblacks, with local sports historian Jim McAuley).
When he wasn’t playing pro football, the senior Ruddy was an early Ottawa entrepreneur, selling fuel oil for heating and installing large mechanical systems in buildings through his company, John P. Ruddy Ltd. In the early years of the company, John Sr.’s wife, Georgie, helped keep the books.
John Jr. cut his own path on the gridiron, playing minor football for the Alta Vista Raiders and then in high school for St. Pat’s, as a running back and linebacker. At Carleton University Ruddy was renowned for his devastating hits from the cornerback position.
As a boy, Ruddy already had ties to the CFL Rough Riders. Ruddy’s second family residence in Ottawa was on Chalmers Road, near the Billings Estate, a few doors down from legendary Riders head coach Frank Clair. The Clair and Ruddy families were close, and John Jr. met numerous Rough Riders players from the family association.
On Friday, Ruddy and his four OSEG partners were inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame for their role in reviving Ottawa’s CFL franchise and revamping the Lansdowne district.
One of six children — three boys, three girls — born to Georgina and John Ruddy, John Jr. remembers a home where kids were challenged to excel.
“My parents led by example,” Ruddy says. “They encouraged individuality — wanted us to find our own way.”
Over the years the family endured more than its share of tragedy. All three of the Ruddy sisters died prematurely, two of them of their own will. Julia ended her life in 1983 and Christina in 2007. Gina died of cancer in 2013. In a small mercy, Georgina wasn’t alive to see the last of her girls pass. John Sr. died in 2009 in his 87th year, after suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Losing two daughters to suicide was catastrophic for a mother, and no less for the whole family.
“It’s better understood now,” says Ruddy, 64, who was in his early 30s when his first sister died. “At that time, the first thing people did was blame themselves. That becomes very stressful.”
Ruddy remembers Julia as a bright, artistic young woman, but was also aware she was battling demons.
“ You never know till you’re there, how devastating it really is,” Ruddy says. “It sucks everything out of you.”
The impact was lasting. Ruddy was chair of a 2015 campaign that raised $25 million for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for mental health issues.
“Had it not been for my own personal experiences I probably wouldn’t have stepped up and accepted that position,” Ruddy says.
His family history helps Ruddy take stock of his own “surroundings” and people around him. He’s decidedly not old school on mental health, advocating positive, supportive interaction.
Ruddy’s studies took him to Carleton where he combined university football with a demanding undergrad degree in architecture. Renowned Ottawa architect Barry Hobin was a classmate and football teammate. Hobin believes the combined demands of school and sport helped shape Ruddy.
“Architecture is a grueling study,” Hobin says. “And football is disruptive in terms of time . . . we’d finish the day at 4:30, go to practice, have dinner from 7:30-8 and then be back in the studios working until 11 p.m.
“It provided the rigour of what it means to practise and execute and compete. A lot of guys I played football with are very successful in whatever they do. It’s like sport informs life. John is very much like that.
“He competed hard. He’s really focused. You see him in a work environment he’s the same way. Organized. And he competes.”
Boyhood friend Terry Kiefl remembers Ruddy as a bright, funny student whom girls found charming. Ruddy’s attention to detail was long apparent. During an excursion to Montreal for a guys weekend, Ruddy was the one at the McDonald’s counter requesting a special-order burger when everyone else was getting Big Macs off the rack. When his pals asked him why he was being so picky, Ruddy said “you get a fresher burger when you ask for a special order.”
“He was always a step ahead, in business, too,” says Kiefl, an assistant VP at Nav Canada.
“He did a bit of everything. He could hang with anybody, talk with anybody, and he still can.”
On the football field, Ruddy was known to punch above his weight. Small but solid by football standards, Ruddy could level an unsuspecting running back. Former standout Ravens linebacker Bob Eccles called Ruddy “pound-for-pound the hardest hitter I ever saw.”
Those hits took a toll. Often the youngest and smallest on his teams (he skipped two grades in elementary school), Ruddy suffered severe injuries at Carleton. Today he has two artificial knees to remind him of his playing days, not that it keeps him from his beloved ski trips to Aspen, Colo.
“They didn’t have the technology then for knee procedures, they just cut and tore,” Ruddy says. “There was no such thing as arthroscopic surgery. I have Bobby Orr syndrome.”
Fortunately for Ruddy, there is technology today to help skiers with rebuilt knees. Ruddy deploys carbon fibre sticks that transfer the weight away from the knee and into the foot. “Gravity management,” Ruddy says of the contraption.
“Believe it or not, I think I get better every year at skiing. I finally learned how to ski.”
Though Ruddy graduated from Carleton in 1975 with a degree in architecture, he didn’t work a day in the profession. Instead, he was drawn to commercial real estate in Toronto
The early years were lucrative, but when a major recession hit in the late 1980s, Ruddy lost all his equity, “living on fumes” for a while.
By then he and his wife, Jennifer, had decided to raise their children in Ottawa, and it was here he picked up the pieces of his business life. His Toronto experience had provided him with connections in the leasing industry as well as ties to companies such as Loblaws and Famous Players.
Retail was moving out of the malls and into large format outlets and Ruddy was at the forefront of the shift. Ruddy formed his Trinity Development company in 1992, virtually from scratch.
“The economy was not great overall in Canada, the U.S. or the world at the time,” he says. “But you know what, slumps create the best opportunities.”
When Ruddy became established in the real-estate business here, his father encouraged him to bring CFL football to Ottawa after the Riders died in 1996.
As much as the younger Ruddy loved football, his business mind was wary.
“Dad, it doesn’t make any money,” he remembers telling his father. “Why would I get involved in a money-losing proposition?”
John Ruddy in the Ottawa Redblacks locker room Jean Levac / Postmedia News
Today, Ruddy laughs retelling the tale. By the time of his father’s death in 2009, Ruddy was heavily involved in not one, but two football reclamation projects. In 2013, the Carleton Ravens returned to CIS (now U Sports) play after a 15-year absence. Ruddy’s $2.5-million contribution was no small factor in the successful alumni campaign to return football to the campus in a rebuilt Keith Harris Stadium.
A year later, the Redblacks were relaunched, ending a nine-year CFL football hiatus in Ottawa. No single person was more responsible than Ruddy for bringing football back to the Capital in a remodeled TD Place Stadium, part of a major facelift to Lansdowne Park and Bank Street.
Nearly a decade ago, Ruddy shared the idea with Jeff Hunt, owner of the OHL 67’s, and then with business confreres Roger Greenberg and Bill Shenkman, promising a project that would take “a little money, a little time and provide a lot of fun.” Thus were seeds planted for the Ottawa Sports Entertainment Group partnership involving Ruddy, Greenberg, Shenkman, Hunt and soccer man John Pugh.
Now owners of the Redblacks, soccer Fury and hockey 67’s, OSEG also built the mixed-use retail, housing, entertainment and office space that now rims Lansdowne.
As for that “little money, little time” pitch, it’s become a running gag. Lansdowne cost a lot of money, a lot of time and only now are the returns coming in. The Redblacks turned a modest profit in year one and the future — including as 2017 Grey Cup hosts — is bright. The other two sports properties are not yet profitable.
Fun? It has begun. That was clear watching the partners and the entire Redblacks football team on a stage at Lansdowne square, celebrating with fans after a Grey Cup parade down Bank Street, marking the end of a 40-year Ottawa Grey Cup drought. The Redblacks won in overtime, capping one of the most thrilling championship games in league history.
Unable to retain the Rough Riders name as a condition of their return to the CFL, Ruddy, a design aficionado, fought to maintain the ‘R’ on the helmet. Shenkman came up with the Redblacks name as a fit.
Ruddy is proud that his partners hung in during the protracted process of rebuilding Lansdowne and launching football and soccer teams.
“I laugh because if we were to apply our normal financial models to this project, it wouldn’t have passed,” Ruddy says.
He’s proud, as well, of turning a “derelict piece of property in the centre of the city” into a functioning, lively district.
Now that Lansdowne is up and running, LeBreton Flats is the next focus for Ruddy and his fellow titans of industry. He is a major player among the group negotiating with the NCC to develop with flats with a prominent development including a new NHL arena for the Ottawa Senators.
Ruddy refers to LeBreton as “Lansdowne on steroids, just the sheer scale of it. It is 30 times bigger in size … a multibillion-dollar project,” says Ruddy, during a rare lengthy interview.
“I usually try to keep quiet,” Ruddy says. “It’s just part of my DNA.”
Around the region, his donations speak louder than the man. Ruddy’s Trinity Development Foundation operates on the principal that the bricks and mortar of his buildings should include an investment in the institutions and community to help them thrive. In recent years, Ruddy has made significant financial contributions to the Ottawa Art Gallery ($1.5M), Ottawa Heart Institute ($5M), YMCA-YWCA ($1M), NAC ($1M) and St. Patrick’s Home of Ottawa ($1M), among others.
Though Carleton is his school focus (a Ruddy scholarship is awarded each year to a deserving architecture student), Ruddy made a point of donating to the University of Ottawa when Redblacks receiver Brad Sinopoli was inducted into the Gee-Gees Hall of Fame. It’s the very definition of largesse: a former Raven helping out the rival Gee-Gees. But typical of Ruddy.
“He’s not there just to show up,” Hobin says. “If he’s in, he’s in.”
These days, Ruddy divides his time between Ottawa and Toronto, living out of the fabulous Robert Stern-designed condominium at 1 St. Thomas in Yorkville when he’s there mid-week. He owns an entire floor of the building. In Ottawa, the Ruddys live in Rothwell Heights.
The couple’s daughters, Nikola, 26, and Sonya, 23, both with degrees from Queen’s and NYU, have followed their father’s path into commercial real estate.
Though he’s in a different ionosphere than his former classmates, Ruddy is fiercely loyal and will always pick up the phone when an old friend calls.
There is no older family friend than the late Frank Clair, whose name adorned the stadium at Lansdowne, until OSEG opted to sell the naming rights to TD. Ruddy called Clair’s daughter, Robin, to assure her he would provide something lasting in the Old Professor’s name to make the Clair family proud. In the fall of 2014, the Frank Clair statue was unveiled next to the South Stands of the stadium. Though Frank’s wife, Pat, was not well enough to travel from Florida for the unveiling, Robin was here, delighted at the end result — a 9,000-pound likeness of Clair, complete with oversized glasses and fedora. Sculptor Brian Hanlon spent eight months shaping the clay mold before the bronze finish. Pat Clair died in November, just a few weeks before Ottawa won its first Grey Cup since 1976.
Watching fans take pictures of the statue today makes Ruddy swell with pride and reflect on his childhood when Frank Clair wasn’t a bronze statue but a coach and neighbour in old Ottawa.
Published on: June 2, 2017 | Last Updated: June 2, 2017 8:53 PM EDT