It was to be a week of joyous celebration.
The NHL would be marking its centennial, the born-again Ottawa Senators saluting their 25th year back in professional hockey.
There would be an outdoor alumni game on Parliament Hill featuring both the still beloved, Daniel Alfredsson, and the once loathed, Alexei Yashin, from Senators teams of years past.
There would be a much larger outdoor game, the NHL 100 Classic, played Saturday at the TD Place football stadium, three days short of the 100th anniversary of the very first NHL game played in Ottawa. The 2017 Montreal Canadiens were in town to play the 2017 Senators. A century ago, the 1917 Canadiens had beaten the 1917 Senators 7-4 at the long-forgotten Dey's Arena, Joseph (Phantom Joe) Malone scoring five goals as he began a season that would result in a record goals-per-game average (44 in 20 games), which has stood for a full century.
With snow falling early in the week and temperatures dropping, the optics were perfect: Parliament Hill as backdrop for the old-timers game, a sellout crowd in excess of 30,000 for Saturday's heritage game.
Except when you took a closer look, all was far, far from perfect.
The turmoil spread
Earlier in the week, the 2017 Senators came straggling home from their worst trip in recent memory, having won but a single game of the seven they played while the Canadian Tire Centre was home to the week-long Roar of the Rings curling competition.
In the final match of the torturous journey to other NHL cities, they had fallen to the Buffalo Sabres, the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Over the previous 13 games, the suddenly hapless Senators had but a single win to show for their efforts – or lack of effort, as many saw it. Even with a 3-2 victory Wednesday night at home against the New York Rangers, the Senators had fallen to second last in the East, barely above the lowly Sabres and a playoff berth seemingly out of reach by Christmas.
Hard to believe for a team that only seven months earlier had come within a single overtime goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final.
Fan faith had plummeted faster than the mercury, which showed -20C Friday morning. In the bars, coffee shops and, most wildly, on talk radio, those outraged fans not calling for the owner's head were calling for the general manager's head, while those not calling for the GM to be fired wanted the coach booted.
It reached such a fevered pitch that by late Wednesday the team's owner, Eugene Melnyk, was moved to tell the Ottawa Citizen that he fully supported GM Pierre Dorion, who "does an excellent job." As for Dorion, he was likewise doing damage control, telling the paper that "We're not making any coaching changes." Head coach Guy Boucher, he added, "was a great coach last year. He got us one goal from the Stanley Cup final. He's staying."
The turmoil even spread to the dressing rooms, involving both current and past players.
Captain Erik Karlsson – widely held to stand with Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid as the game's top three players – was asked for a list of teams to which he would agree to be traded. In nine years as a Senator, the gifted defenceman had never before been approached with such a request, though such is fairly common for star players nearing the end of expensive, long-term contracts.
Karlsson is on the final leg of a six-year, $45.5-million (U.S.) deal and, if he is not signed to an extension, the two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league's best defenceman would be able to test the market next summer as a free agent. Then only 28, he could surely command one of the league's premier contracts.
Concern that the below-cap Senators might lose their brightest star was only exacerbated by a report in a Swedish publication that had Karlsson saying, "When I go to market, I'm going to get what I'm worth and it's going to be no less, no matter where I'm going."
Karlsson was quick to distance himself from any suggestion of a threat, saying the words were taken out of context. "It's not something – leaving – that I've ever considered," he told Sportsnet during the team's stopover in San Jose. "I'm comfortable and happy where I'm at right now.
"This is the place I want to win with. I want to win in Ottawa. That's where I'll always be. It's going to be my home, no matter where I end up playing when I get older, if that ever happens. So that's the thing: I want to be where home is. I'm comfortable at home, I like it at home and Ottawa is home."
Yet another media grenade landed when The Canadian Press caught up with Kyle Turris, the popular and highly skilled forward who Dorion traded to the Nashville Predators in a complicated three-team deal in which the Senators also lost a significant draft pick and the Colorado Avalanche send forward Matt Duchene to Ottawa. The Senators' demise began just around the time of the trade, and while Turris has thrived in Nashville – and the Predators led the Western Conference heading into Friday's games – Duchene has struggled mightily along with his Ottawa teammates.
Not surprisingly, the loss of Turris, who continues to score points, and the lack of production from Duchene has riled the populace. Turris further stirred the pot by telling CP that, "I think management did want to sign me, but I think that the owner didn't." Dorion quickly responded by telling TSN that "Everything in the hockey department goes through me – not Mr. Melnyk." Julie Turris, Kyle's wife, shot back a tweet saying only "lol" ("laugh out loud").
As if the soap opera were not already enough, old and persistent rumours about Melnyk being forced, for financial reasons, to sell the Senators bubbled up once again, this time with sports personality Liam Maguire suggesting that local entrepreneur Jeff Hunt, whose Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group already owns the local junior franchise, the Redblacks of the CFL and the United Soccer League's Fury, might be part of a group moving to purchase the NHL franchise.
Melnyk's response was instant: "I am NOT selling the team – period!"
Fans were forgiving, remained loyal
This month Forbes Magazine released its annual survey of sports franchise values. The Ottawa Senators, Forbes calculated, are worth $420-million, a rise of 18 per cent over the past 12 months. The franchise is worth much less than the Toronto Maple Leafs ($1.4-billion) or the Montreal Canadiens ($1.25-billion) but worth enough that the club was listed in 20th place in the 31-team league.
With the cost of a new NHL franchise now set at $650-million – the fee the league says Seattle will have to pay to gain admission – it is mindboggling to remember that the Ottawa franchise was granted for a mere $50-million back in December of 1990. The new owners, three young men who decided to chase a franchise after downing a few beers at the end of a pickup game, didn't have the cash but did have a grandiose plan based more on real estate than hockey. They would build a rink and the people – along with retail, restaurants and housing developments – would follow.
The original ownership didn't last long enough to finish building the Senators' new rink – now called Canadian Tire Centre – in a windblown cornfield on the outskirts of the city, but that rink eventually opened in January, 1996, slowly became surrounded by housing, retail, restaurants, hotels and multiple-brand automobile dealerships. Pretty much as Bruce Firestone, Randy Sexton and Cyril Leeder told the NHL would happen.
"This was a land plan," says Jim Durrell, who was mayor of Ottawa when the franchise was awarded. He was deeply involved with the Senators in the early years and today is president of the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership next to the arena.
"Sports today are real estate plays. They all are. It's like a golf course. You don't just build a golf course, you build a course and houses. You create critical mass and all feed each other. Success breeds success."
Despite lack of instant success on the ice, fans were most forgiving in the early years of futility, and remained loyal following the team's only trip to the Stanley Cup final, in 2007, when it lost to the Anaheim Ducks. The team has been largely competitive and soared again in last year's playoffs, defeating the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers before falling in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who went on to claim their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
Only now there are empty seats in the once-filled arena. Unheard of in Canada, the Senators failed to sell out two home dates during the playoffs.
"The trouble with this location is strictly accessibility," Durrell says. "It's a pain to come out here."
"The rink cannot exist in its current position," says Moshe Lander, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal who studies the economics of sports. "It was a mismatch 25 years ago. It's like it just dropped out of nowhere."
The thinking has changed, says Lander, from a philosophy that you should build such stadia on main throughways that allow for the efficient filtering of traffic in and out, to building in a high-density residential area with public transit.
"It makes sense to move back into the centre," he says.
The fans seem to agree, but Ottawa sports fans are notorious for their fickleness. They pride themselves on being sophisticated fans of the game, and while they cheered last year's playoff run, they groused from the start over the defence-first, at times defence-only, systems of the new coach. It had some success, but it was rarely edge-of-the-seat entertaining.
That Ottawa can be a tough town when it comes to hockey has long been known. Former New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury once said that "Mother Theresa would have a bad reputation in Ottawa. You can't go down the street and so much as sneeze without something going wrong."
During the 2016-17 season, there were as many changes at the executive level as on the coaching bench. Senior staff were let go, including president Cyril Leeder, who had guided the franchise from Day 1. A new president and CEO, Tom Anselmi, who had previously been with the highly successful Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment in Toronto, was brought in, Melnyk saying that with all the coming challenges to the franchise, new leadership would be required.
"We need to win on and off the ice," Anselmi told a business crowd earlier this year.
Over the summer, the Senators took the remarkable decision to take 1,500 seats out of play, the thinking being that fewer seats available would create more demand for tickets. That is now difficult-to-impossible to measure, given the late fall stumbling of the team.
But the larger and more important change would come through the Senators moving downtown. This would follow a trend set in recent years by multiple sports franchises, most recently in Edmonton, where the Oilers now play in a $480-million (Canadian) rink in the heart of the city.
For the entire 25 years of the Senators, people have argued that they needed to be downtown. In fact, the original owners had believed that themselves, inquiring about the availability of public lands known as LeBreton Flats to the northwest of Parliament Hill. The National Capital Commission, which oversees public lands owned by the federal government, said no.
But eventually the NCC changed its mind. In 2014, the commission announced it was open to receiving various proposals on what to do with the 21.6-hectare site, long left barren, the soil contaminated with decades of industrial waste.
Cleaned up, however, the site would be highly attractive. A brisk walk from Parliament Hill, close to the Ottawa River and the relatively new War Museum and soon to feature two main stops on a new $2.1-billion light-rail transit line that is scheduled to open in 2018.
In other words, perfect for a new home for the Ottawa Senators.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was all for it. As he put it during a news conference held in Stockholm in November, when the Senators and Avalanche played two games in Sweden, "A new, downtown arena is vitally important to the long-term future, stability and competitiveness of the Senators."
Cleanup costs could be $250-million
The Senators have always struggled financially. The original owners lost control to local entrepreneur Rod Bryden, who eventually lost it to the banks. In the summer of 2003, Melnyk, who made his millions in pharmaceuticals, paid the fire-sale price of $127-million for franchise and rink. Ten years later, he said he was losing nearly $10-million a year in the operation. He had come to believe the only possible financial salvation lay in leaving the fringe and moving to the centre.
The NCC received several suggestions on what to do with the land, but eventually pared the potential projects down to two – with both calling for an NHL arena to be the centrepiece of their bids. RendezVous LeBreton Group would include Melnyk's Senators franchise as a partner with Trinity Development Group, a highly successful development company headed up by Ottawa native John Ruddy. It was Ruddy's group that had recently developed Lansdowne Park into a successful sports-retail-and-housing district. Graham Bird, a visionary local developer, Ottawa architect Barry J. Hobin and a variety of local builders were also part of the group.
The other contender, Devcore, Canderel and DLS Group, said it was also locally based – in Gatineau, just across the river – and included several wealthy local investors. The really deep pockets of the group, however, were to be found in Montreal: André Desmarais of Power Corp., son of Paul Desmarais, whose estate was said to be worth more than $5-billion (U.S.) when he died in 2013; and Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil and said by Forbes to be worth more than $2-billion.
On first glance, it appeared as though the RendezVous LeBreton group might be up against a financial goliath with whom it could not compete. Yet when the projects were presented, it was the Ruddy-Melnyk group that shone. Its $3.5-billion (Canadian) IllumiNation LeBreton plans included a new rink, obviously, but also 800 hotel rooms, 4,000 residential units, space for a new central library, a French-language public school, a recreation centre accessible to everyone, especially including users with a disability, a heritage aqueduct, a café-lined waterscape, parks and green space dividing the property into five neighbourhoods. It would become of the world's largest "One Planet" urban communities, dedicated to reducing the ecological footprint.
The other group called its vision LeBreton Re-Imagined. It promised two smaller hockey rinks along with the NHL rink, a central library, a French-language public school, a YMCA, a planetarium, a science and innovation pavilion, an outdoor bandshell, an aquarium, a communications museum and a skydiving wind tunnel. There would also be the requisite retail and housing, but they were also pitching something that seemed to run directly contrary to the NCC's "green" wishes: a car museum.
Promising an NHL rink without owning an NHL team also puzzled many. The common interpretation was that this group rather arrogantly assumed that Melnyk would have no choice but to sell his club to them. He was adamant that he would not.
To no one's surprise, the RendezVous LeBreton pitch carried the day. It was smart, slick – and didn't have an eyebrow-raising car museum.
The NCC said it would begin negotiations for the cleanup of the site and other related issues and have a decision in the fall, but that was later extended slightly to mid-December. The NCC could then conceivably report on what is decided by the commission's end-of-January public meeting.
"I had set a goal of bringing this phase of the negotiations to a conclusion by the end of the year," Mark Kristmanson, CEO of the NCC, told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail this week. "The results will go to the NCC's board in January for decisions regarding next steps. As you can imagine, these complex discussions are intensifying as we seek to come to a resolution."
The complication is the oldest one in professional sport: who will pay for what? In the Edmonton situation, the city offered to pay $125-million toward the new arena, while the ownership, Katz Group of Companies, would put in $100-million. Another $125-million would come from a user-paid facility fee. The remainder, they hoped, would come through various provincial and federal contributions.
Edmontonians seemed willing to help pay for their new rink, having grown concerned that the Oilers might flee for Seattle or some other attractive alternative. Ottawans, for the most part, have not seemed so eager.
The immediate issue is the cost of the removal of some 1.2 million cubic metres of contaminated soil and shipping it to a suitable landfill. Cleanup costs could be anywhere from $50-million to $250-million, just for starters.
"It's not a precise science," says Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who expects to begin negotiations with the federal government shortly. "We don't believe the city should pay for the cleanup," he says.
Watson is all for the rink moving downtown and says that the city is more than agreeable to assuming financial responsibility for the large public-realm space that the project will entail.
"Most citizens," he says, "would accept that as a reasonable investment."
As for paying anything for the new rink, that remains a debate. Some say that the original rink in Kanata was built by the Senators themselves and, therefore, the Senators should also be responsible for this rink – which is, in fact, but a small portion of the overall redevelopment plan. Others note that Edmonton pitched in, Calgary has said it would offer some help on a new rink, and therefore Ottawa should follow suit.
A new rink and the new development "would be a great bonanza for the area," Watson says, "but would also bring in a great amount in property taxes." At the same time, he says, council is determined to ensure city taxpayers "remain whole" in whatever happens.
City councillor Rick Chiarelli has taken issue with Watson on a number of matters concerning the move downtown. The issue over what will become of the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata, Chiarelli said in a recent posting on his website, is "none of Watson's business." The Senators will redevelop it, he feels, and likely make money from it.
Chiarelli believes that past bad blood between Melnyk and Watson – mostly over a casino Melnyk wished to build – is again at play, saying that any other developer would have the city pick up 50 per cent of the cleanup and the Senators should be treated no differently.
"If the Senators leave town," Chiarelli wrote, "Watson will need to find a new city in which to live."
This, of course, only served to raise the anxiety level of Senators fans. Here was a councillor, and soon the sports talk radio, talking about financial difficulties with the new arena. The Senators were known to be in the stages of renegotiating their debt load, something that had happened regularly before but which, today, caused imaginations to race. Speculation soon spread to a point where Melnyk was going to be forced either to sell to the deep pockets of the other LeBreton Flats development group, or else strike a reluctant partnership with them. And, it was pointed out time and time again, there is now a state-of-the-art $400-million "NHL rink" in Quebec City – 50 per cent of the costs picked up by the province and city – and no NHL team to play in it.
"You could hardly blame Melnyk for moving the team," Chiarelli wrote. "He's got an attendance problem in Kanata and has taken more garbage from the municipality than anyone should. The easy move for Melnyk is to get a huge cheque worth hundreds of millions of dollars, give all these problems to Quebec City and get out of Dodge."
Few, however, see that as even a remote possibility.
"If you moved a team today," says Durrell, the former mayor, "there would be an enormous relocation fee – almost equal to an expansion fee."
The Ottawa Senators are still likely moving, but downtown.
When they get there, and how they get there, is still to be decided.