Ottawa's fervent love for football has been around since long before our professional hockey team skated back into the nation’s capital.
The sport has proud roots, much like the annual Ottawa Sports Celebrity Dinner that has cumulatively raised more than $2 million for the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (JCC), along with its partner charities.
The dinner, which got its start in 1998, has featured a who’s who of celebrity athletes, including such football legends as Dan Marino, Joe Namath and this year’s former Detroit Lions superstar Barry Sanders, one of the best running backs in NFL history.
On Tuesday night, more than 800 people took part in the 22nd Annual Ottawa Sports Celebrity Dinner, which moved to a new venue: the stylish Infinity Convention Centre.
The fun and memorable evening was co-chaired by Stuart Ages and Fitness Depot president Dave Ross. Ages's involvement in the event goes back to 2003, when he first joined on as a volunteer. By the next year, he was chairing the dinner.
Ages is a vice president with Paramount Properties, a family-owned Ottawa property management firm that specializes in multi-family residential high-rise apartments.
“We’re deeply grateful for the efforts of Stuart and Dave Ross,” Soloway JCC president and COO Barry Sohn told OBJ.social. “They’ve really carried this event on their shoulders and have really made it happen. It’s become, in many people’s opinion, the preeminent event in Ottawa.”
Proceeds from the evening will help the Soloway JCC provide scholarships to families and individuals who are financially unable to cover the costs of membership, preschool and day camp.
The JCC is a very welcoming and inclusive environment, the room was reminded by “Stuntman” Stu Schwartz, morning show host on Majic 100. “The JCC isn’t just for Jews; it’s for everyone!” he said enthusiastically on stage. Schwartz co-hosted the dinner (one of his favourite fundraisers of the year) with former football player-turned-lawyer Jock Climie.
Also benefiting from the dinner is OrKidstra, a charitable social development organization that provides free music education to youth living in underserved neighbourhoods. Some of its young musicians performed during the 90-minute, open-bar cocktail reception.
The evening featured some live comedy, an online silent auction and a live auction that showcased the kind of big-ticket packages and experiences that every sport’s fan dreams of. There was also a champagne dinner for 10 with fine Italian cuisine. It was donated by Cocco Catering, a new catering company that combines the forces of Giovanni's restaurant with Sala San Marco Event & Conference Centre and executive chef Ozzie Osman.
All it took was a quick shout out to former Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson for the room to erupt into chants of “Alfie! Alfie!” The hockey hero was at the dinner with his entrepreneurial brother Henric Alfredsson of CanSwede Custom Homes.
Easy to spot from the Ottawa Redblacks team were Grey Cup-winning offensive linemen Alex Mateas and Nolan MacMillan. The Butchery owner Mark Cantor jumped up on a chair to pose alongside the players. You can't blame him; both of the athletes are well over six feet tall.
The sports dinner is popular in the business community, particularly in the construction and real estate industry. “Many individuals comment to me that it’s so much fun to walk into a room and feel like you know hundreds of people,” Ages told OBJ.social.
Most of the attendees are men, which has a silver lining for the outnumbered gals in the room. “At least there aren’t long lineups to use the ladies’ washrooms,” quipped Susan St. Amand, board chair of the Ottawa Community Foundation.
The dinner has celebrated a mix of sports celebrities over the years, paying tribute some years to Canadian hockey legends. Ages has a fondness for football, though. He grew up in the 1970s watching the Ottawa Rough Riders' games at Lansdowne Park. His grandfather, the late Joseph Ages, lived nearby in the Glebe. Stuart would walk over with his grandfather and father, Stan Ages, on Sunday afternoons, when all the games were held.
Joseph Ages would regale his grandson with stories about the team, like when Ottawa hosted the New York Giants in exhibition games in the 1950s. Or, when fans used to pack brown bag lunches, head to the stadium over their lunch break, and watch the team practice from the south end, prior to the stands being built there.
“This city has deep roots when it comes to football,” said Ages.
Later, there was a special interview held with 51-year-old Sanders, who’s considered the greatest Detroit Lions player of all time and one of the greatest players in NHL history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
For Canadian football fans, the NFL is “on a whole other level,” Ages said. “It’s a dream to meet these guys. They’re larger than life.”