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The Ottawa Senators played a large role in escalating salaries when they signed rookie Alexander Daigle to a $2.5-million-a-year contract in 1993. (RICK STEWART)
The Ottawa Senators played a large role in escalating salaries when they signed rookie Alexander Daigle to a $2.5-million-a-year contract in 1993. (RICK STEWART)

Roy MacGregor

Ottawa: The little team that could. And did Add to ...

“Maybe Rome Was Built in a Day!”

Twenty years on, Ottawa Senators president Cyril Leeder is still chuckling over that legendary Ottawa Citizen headline that greeted his team’s first game back in the NHL – a 5-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, who went on to win the 1992-93 Stanley Cup.

“Then we go off to Quebec City and get bombed 9-2.”

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It took the reborn Senators to the end of the month to earn their next point, and to the end of the next month to get their next win, eventually ending up with 24 points and an all-time NHL record for futility on the road: a single victory in 42 attempts.

Leeder was there from the very beginning, was one of the original three – Bruce Firestone and Randy Sexton the others – popping a few beer in the dressing room after a game of shinny and deciding they could somehow convince the NHL to grant a franchise to Ottawa.

Their scheme seemed preposterous. Firestone had this notion that there is “a natural relationship between hockey and real estate,” Leeder put together their leather-bound, 600-page application, Sexton did the contacts and much of the selling. Not only would they build a new rink, they would establish a new town of close to 10,000 people.

The Canadian franchise should likely have gone to Hamilton, but the Hamilton people balked at paying the $50-million expansion fee at once while the Ottawa pitch offered cash on the barrel, even though they didn’t have it. Same with Tampa Bay, which also got a franchise that should have gone to deeper pockets. But no matter, both were in and both, miraculously, are still in 20 years later.

Leeder was there through all the madness – the Alexandre Daigle and Alexei Yashin years, the change of ownership as financier Rod Bryden became majority owner, the bankruptcy that eventually put the franchise in the hands of multimillionaire Eugene Melnyk.

Leeder was there for the battles to build a rink in a distant corn field on the western fringes. They dug a hole and couldn’t finish. The Coast Guard came in to determine if the trickling Carp River was going to be affected. Workers found bones that some thought were evidence of a sacrificial lamb. They even had to build their own exit off Highway 417 when the Ontario government refused.

But 16 years have passed since that new rink finally opened on a cold January day in 1996 and this week the NHL’s all-star game will be played in that rink that took so long to get built. And while no one would ever mistake Kanata for Rome, the changes are remarkably as Firestone first envisioned.

“Bruce was right on the money,” Leeder says. “He’s always been about 10 years ahead of the curve.”

Where once there were only fields and scrub bush, there is housing as far as the eye can see. The rink is surrounded by office buildings and car dealerships, with a massive outlet mall tagged to go in across the highway.

“When we first moved to Kanata in 1992,” Leeder says, “you had to go elsewhere to shop or go to a restaurant.” No longer, though. As for those NHL people arriving in 2012 not having seen the rink in years, they’d be “shocked – the growth has been phenomenal.”

The team also changed dramatically over those years, reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2007 before going into a tailspin a year ago in which multiple veterans and its coaching staff were dumped. Much to the surprise of everyone from management to local media to the players themselves, the Senators of today are a playoff contender again under new coach Paul MacLean. Four players – captain Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza – were voted to the all-star team, rather more than should be the team’s due but an example of what this team that never should have been has come to mean to Ottawa.

For years the Senators fought to get the all-star game to this facility, but the hitch was always lack of enough convention space to hold the other events of the weekend. That was solved this past year with the opening of the new Ottawa Convention Centre on the banks of the Rideau Canal.

The one unavoidable complaint that has stuck fast since the rink first opened on another January night in 1996 is traffic. But even that is going to change, with two new lanes to open over the next couple of years.

It may hurt the ratings for the postgame radio shows, but Ottawa fans will cheer the changes as loudly as, these days, they cheer the team itself.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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