They said it couldn't be done, yet they did it.
They didn't have the money, but they landed a National Hockey League franchise because the NHL didn't bother to check their pockets.
They didn't have a proper rink, but said they'd build one in a rural cornfield 25 kilometres away from the heart of their city – or, as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird put it this week, "in the middle of nowhere."
Twenty-four years after the NHL awarded Ottawa the franchise that should have gone to Hamilton – where they had the money, but asked to pay in instalments – the Ottawa Senators have set records for futility, declared bankruptcy, changed ownership three times, gone to the Stanley Cup final and, this month, have been looking at moving to where they should have been in the first place.
Not Hamilton – but downtown Ottawa.
The leaked story that the Senators are sniffing around one of the oldest parts of Bytown, LeBreton Flats, has sent shockwaves through the nation's capital. The west end is worried it is losing a franchise; downtown thinks it is getting one.
You begin to see, as you read the reports and tune in to talk radio, why former Senators owner Rod Bryden once threw up his hands and declared Ottawa is "not a city at all, but a collection of small towns separated by parks."
The reason for such panic and hope lies in a "Request for Qualifications" put out by the National Capital Commission. They invited "innovative proposals" for the vacant federal lands by the war museum and set a Jan. 7 deadline for submissions.
The NCC could hardly consider a hockey rink alone as a "bold, new anchor institution." There is, after all, a perfectly good one out in that cornfield that is no longer in the middle of nowhere, but is today surrounded by housing, malls, restaurants and car dealerships.
The oft renamed rink – Palladium, Corel Centre, Scotiabank Place, now Canadian Tire Centre – is in excellent shape and widely considered one of the finest facilities in the league by those who come to play and broadcast.
Their complaint is the same one most local fans have – it's a pain in the butt to get to. Visiting teams and media prefer to stay downtown – hotel points being the most treasured advanced metric among those who cover the sport – and much of the local fan base considers Kanata roughly halfway to Toronto.
Current Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was in Ottawa this month to say it could be "a game changer for us" should the Senators win the NCC competition.
Certainly, Mr. Melnyk's people have been deeply involved in preparing the submission, which they made official just before Christmas. They call their internal project RendezVous LeBreton and quietly concede that "this has probably come along five years too soon for us." The timetable, however, is set by the NCC. The Kanata rink is not quite 19 years old and in excellent condition, but there is a belief that such facilities have a 25-to-30-year lifespan.
Large rinks built away from downtowns have a history of struggle, if not downright failure. In Canada, the six other NHL franchises are either already downtown or on their way (Edmonton and Calgary).
Money, however, is always as much an issue as location, often more so. The Ottawa rink was built well away from expensive downtown locations to save money but, according to Mr. Melnyk, has ended up costing money. He claims to have lost more than $100-million operating the team. Some would roll their eyes at this, given that he picked up the bankrupt team and rink for $127-million in 2003 and Forbes magazine now values the franchise at $400-million.
Still, the original group had to let Mr. Bryden take over for money reasons and Mr. Bryden eventually declared bankruptcy. The call for federal help has been heard before in Ottawa and if heard again will not likely find a receptive ear. Still, Quebec City got a $200-million commitment from the provincial government to help build the rink they hope will bring an NHL franchise back. Edmonton's Daryl Katz is building a $450-million rink downtown that will have public monies in it, even though Forbes says Mr. Katz is worth $3.5-billion.
Should the Senators' pitch find traction, Ottawans will soon be swarmed by expert economists who will argue (a) such facilities are critical to downtown cores or (b) such facilities provide no perceivable benefit to citizens. Hockey played on a calculator.
Mr. Melnyk tried to land the casino that Ottawa talked about building to compete with the Lac Leamy Casino across the river in Gatineau, but that plan was shelved after angry objections from the local racetrack and supporters. A casino remains a possibility, though the optics of placing one on taxpayers' land within sight of Parliament Hill suggest one is unlikely for LeBreton Flats.
Senator insiders say that when their casino pitch fell flat they had no "Plan C" for finding a new revenue stream that would make the hockey team – currently with the lowest salary commitment in the league – more viable.
"This," says one, "is now our 'Plan C.'"
Their argument is downtown rinks work, suburban rinks don't. They point to the city's current megaproject, a $2.1-billion light-rail line, and say that this would be a perfect tie-in with an event-driven sports and concert facility. They say they could then properly tap into the hockey-mad western Quebec market that considers Kanata farther away than Montreal's Bell Centre.
The Senators are acutely aware that a rink alone will not sell the NCC or the Ottawa public on their plans, that there has to be something magical to add to the mix. There has been no end to suggestions: building a new science and technology museum, a National Portraits Gallery, a First Nations centre. … "There has to be more than an arena," says one from RendezVous LeBreton.
Much more, and a convincing argument to accompany it.