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Hockey Is the Ottawa Senators relocation plan on the verge of collapse?

Ottawans woke up Thursday morning to the coldest Nov. 22 in recorded history: -15.

As if the chill wasn’t already on as the National Capital Commission (NCC) met in an open board meeting to discuss where matters lie with the much-anticipated move downtown by the struggling, and seemingly cursed, Ottawa Senators.

To no one’s surprise, the conclusion was, as former Ottawa Citizen sports reporter Wayne Scanlan so adeptly put it, “…stalled, like an old car in frigid weather.”

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The NCC, which controls the federal lands along the Ottawa River where the new rink was to be the centrepiece of a $3.5-billion residential and retail development, had demanded that the two key partners in the RendezVous LeBreton plan – Trinity Development Group and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk – have an agreed-upon master plan by November. When they failed to do so, they were given a week’s extension. They still have not come to the required agreement.

“We are disappointed,” said Mark Kristmanson, the NCC’s chief executive. “Our attempts through the fall … to reach a resolution with those partners have not borne fruit.”

In a half-hour session tinged with regret and barely suppressed anger, the NCC board moved that the two sides get their act together by the time of the next board meeting in late January or else the board will begin “a new process.”

There are fears in some circles that the entire project is on the verge of collapse.

And it is fear that spreads far beyond a single development project. Fans fear their hockey team will one day leave Kanata, a suburb 25 kilometres to the northwest – but not for downtown Ottawa. A year ago, Melnyk threatened to move his franchise if fans didn’t step up, a threat he later rescinded but which outraged the fan base to the point where several fans put up billboards calling for him to sell and leave town.

And the city itself has concerns, having committed to a $2.1-billion light-rail system that is scheduled to open in the spring and was closely tied to getting people in and out of the long-abandoned LeBreton Flats area.

“This is personally and professionally disappointing, that we have reached this step,” said Mayor Jim Watson, who attended the meeting as a non-voting member. “If I had a vote, I’d vote in favour of this motion … it puts pressure on the partners to get their act together, to come forward with one voice so we can eventually approve the process.”

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Board member Larry Beasley said that, in a rare switch of roles, it was the bureaucrats at NCC and City Hall who were well ahead of schedule when it came to documenting a final agreement, with the supposedly eager developing partners dragging their heels.

Beasley said he was “very unhappy” to go to the meeting and be unable to act “because that business entity is not available.”

John Ruddy, the head of Trinity Development Group, released a statement defending his side of the partnership, saying that over the past 30 years in Ottawa, Trinity has been a recognized leader in such developments, with more than 25 million square feet and $7-billion in construction and financing to its credit.

“We are determined to work towards the right solution,” Ruddy said, “and in doing our part to make the National Capital Region a world-class destination for all Canadians.”

It is not a stretch to think the Senators are looking for some help in building their new arena, as taxpayers in Edmonton and Quebec City have recently appeared eager to do to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. It has, in fact, become standard pro sports procedure to pressure to the 11th hour in the hopes of getting relief at some government level when building a new facility.

Melnyk said in a statement later Thursday, “We’ve championed a downtown sports and entertainment arena, and this important civic project, since initiating our proposal in 2014. We continue to be committed to making our vision a reality.”

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Ruddy’s group certainly has the backing of local business leaders. In an Oct. 11 letter sent to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and provided Thursday to The Globe and Mail, a spokesperson said he represented “a large number of concerned leaders in law, banking and finance, real estate, building and trades, labour, construction, information technology, tourism and hospitality, First Nations, philanthropy, public opinion, science, health care, government, the media – all sectors that make up the foundational leadership of Canada’s National Capital Region.”

Calling themselves the Capital Built Task Force, they told Bettman they “wholeheartedly endorse” the project as well as the Senators moving downtown. They expressed, however, “serious concerns over the intentions of Senators’ owner Mr. Eugene Melnyk, and whether he in fact is committed to moving the team downtown.”

They even provided a survey undertaken by Abacus Data in which 60 per cent of responding Ottawans would support “NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL getting involved to ensure the project moves ahead on time.”

Bettman responded on Oct. 23, thanking them for the letter but saying, “While I cannot speak for the Senators (only Eugene Melnyk can), I am always happy to chat with concerned constituents. Please feel free to call.”

Meanwhile, the Senators hockey team continues to be its own convoluted and confounding story. Earlier this month, the British newspaper The Guardian tallied up a list of recent horrors – collapse in the standings, on-line trolling accusations and denials, the forced trades of the two key players and the now infamous Uber taxi ride in Arizona in which seven of the players are seen dissing their own team – and the newspaper concluded that the Senators “appear to be the most dysfunctional team in professional sports.”

Thursday’s NCC meeting in Ottawa seemed merely to underline that.

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The team, fortunately, was not in town, off on a four-game trip where, the night before, it lost 6-4 to the Minnesota Wild.

Unless the Senators get their act together off the ice, as well, however, the loss at home could be much greater.

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