For the past four seasons, Bernie Ashe’s 24-7 responsibilities meant Redblacks game nights were work nights for the chief executive of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.
But on Thursday, it was Ashe’s turn to party.
Surrounded by dozens of his closest friends and business associates, the recently retired OSEG boss was able to kick back and enjoy Ottawa’s home opener against the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders. The hometown Redblacks happily obliged with a dominant 40-17 victory over the Green and White, the same team that ended Ottawa’s playoff run last November in Ashe’s final season as CEO.
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But the festivities had really begun hours earlier at an invitation-only VIP tailgate event that served a dual purpose: Besides giving friends and family a chance to share their appreciation for Ashe’s long and distinguished career as a businessman in the nation’s capital, the celebration also helped raise more than $200,000 for the OSEG Foundation, the sports group’s charitable arm.
Part of that money will be used to launch the new Bernie Ashe Sports Fund, which will offer underprivileged boys and girls a chance to play team sports.
Friends and family said there couldn’t be a more fitting legacy for a man who’s always been the first to credit others for his success.
“When you hear Bernie talk, Bernie talks about the team,” his younger brother Rob told the crowd of nearly 150 gathered at the Horticulture Building near TD Place for the VIP party. “He’s a team player, and I think that’s what draws people to Bernie. In our family, we call Bernie the commissioner, or the commish. Mostly because he’s a great leader.”
Rob said those qualities were evident right from Ashe’s early days growing up with five siblings “in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom” in Elmvale Acres.
“It’s quite a journey from the neighbourhood kid to the CEO,” Rob said, the pride in his voice evident. “It’s really quite phenomenal.”
An all-star lineup of Ottawa business leaders turned out to pay tribute to the personable former executive, including OSEG partners Roger Greenberg, John Pugh, John Ruddy and Bill Shenkman.
Among others who stopped by were Mayor Jim Watson – who presented Ashe with a proclamation honouring his achievements – as well as former mayor Jim Durrell, former Senators president Cyril Leeder, Ottawa Tourism president Michael Crockatt, Algonquin College dean of hospitality and tourism Jim Kyte and Ottawa Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ian Faris.
Local provincial politicians were also well-represented, with Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod and Kanata-Carleton MPP Merrilee Fullerton in attendance. Later on, Ottawa South MPP and interim provincial Liberal leader John Fraser and former Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi caught some of the game with Ashe.
Greenberg recalled how he could hardly believe his good fortune back in October 2012, when Ashe emailed Greenberg to tell him he was leaving his job as chief executive at the Kott Group at almost precisely the same time the OSEG owners were about to start searching for someone to lead their organization.
“You have these moments in your lifetime when you literally feel like the light bulb has gone off over your head,” Greenberg told the audience. “I just said, ‘That’s our new CEO.’”
True to form, Ashe deflected all the praise thrown his way as deftly as a great defensive back knocks away an errant pass.
On stage to address his well-wishers, he called the redeveloped Lansdowne Park a “magical place” before pointing to OSEG’s ownership group.
“It’s just been a dream to be part of it.”
“It’s not me – it’s you guys who had the original vision for this,” Ashe said. “It’s just been a dream to be part of it.”
As the crowd filed out of the Horticulture Building and headed to the game, OSEG Foundation executive director Janice Barresi told OBJ the new sports fund is Ashe’s parting gift to the organization.
“It’s just an incredible legacy, and I think it speaks volumes about Bernie,” she said. “Bernie’s an incredible leader. He’s a visionary, but I think one of the adjectives that stands out most when you work with Bernie is that he is just so personable. He just genuinely cares, and some of the people he cares most about are kids.”
Fittingly, the fund will provide kids a chance to benefit from sports programs offered by the Children’s Aid Society, a cause near and dear to Ashe’s heart.
The parents of three grown children and grandparents of a newborn, Ashe and his wife Nancy took in a foster child from the Children’s Aid Society nearly seven years ago. Today, their daughter is an active participant in various sports whose team recently won the city championship in novice girls’ hockey.
Ashe said giving kids a chance to be part of a team from a young age keeps them active and helps boost their confidence and self-esteem.
“We think team sports builds a healthy community,” Ashe said after Thursday’s event. “But we didn’t see anybody really targeting that area. We know that for our business to be successful in the long term, we need people to play soccer, play hockey and play football. We’re developing future professional athletes on the one hand, but we also want to keep people interested in sports.”
As for retirement, Ashe said he’s looking forward to indulging his passion for football in a way he hasn’t been able to for the past few years – relaxing in the stands and enjoying the action as a fan.
“It’s going to be a blast,” he said with a grin.