OTTAWA - It is a small slice of true Canadiana: Three guys enjoying a cold beer after a Saturday morning game of pickup hockey at the old Lions Arena in Westboro with a vision of building an arena and bringing an NHL team to Ottawa.
It is the stuff people can only dream about.
As Bruce Firestone and his pals from Terrace Investments wrapped up their skate, the former real estate magnate asked Cyril Leeder and Randy Sexton to stick around because he had an idea he wanted to discuss.
“(Firestone) had been thinking about it for a while,” said Sexton. “We were doing like every rec hockey player, having an adult beverage afterwards, shooting the breeze and that’s when Bruce laid down his vision.
“It caught (Leeder) and I by surprise, but it also got us excited because we had tremendous love for the game and our passion for the city. We just felt like this was something that was going to put us on the map.”
Almost 20 years after the Senators played Opening Night at the Civic Centre on Oct. 8, 1992, Firestone, Leeder, Sexton and former owner Rod Bryden (the man who built Scotiabank Place) will be honoured by the community.
The foursome will be back together Wednesday when they are inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame in the builders category during a ceremony at the Convention Centre.
Had it not been for the vision of Firestone, along with tremendous perseverance of Bryden, Leeder and Sexton, the Senators would never have become one of the NHL’s most successful franchises.
Nor would Kanata have experienced the residential and retail boom that Firestone had envisioned in his original plan to combine a sports franchise with real estate development.
“I had this thought in my mind that the NHL was maybe going to expand, maybe Ottawa had grown up enough to support a team and maybe that we could be the support of it,” said Firestone in an interview last week.
“I just asked (Leeder) and (Sexton) to hang back and they did. As soon as I said it, (Sexton) jumped up, he’s a real hockey guy, and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ (Leeder), because he’s a CA, said, ‘How much is it going to cost?’ ”
While many bidders flinched at the $50-million franchise fee during a pitch to the NHL’s board of governors, Firestone didn’t. On Dec. 6, 1990, it was announced that Ottawa had won an expansion franchise.
Building the franchise was not easy, however, and there were bumps along the way. Terrace Investments had the idea, but it didn’t have the money for the project that included an 18,500-seat arena in Kanata called The Palladium.
That’s where Bryden entered the picture. After making his money in the hi-tech business and starting up SC Stormont Corporation, he was brought on board to help put the funding in place to get the arena built.
Bryden wasn’t a hockey man. He was a solid businessman with capital and Firestone needed someone who could help get the necessary funding in place so work could begin in earnest on what is now known as Scotiabank Place. Not only were the Senators battling for money, the were up against a cynical media that doubted the group could get the financing in place or build the franchise into a winner.
As well, the Canadian dollar was in a free fall, at one point falling as low as 62 cents U.S., making both running the franchise and financing a new $250-million arena precarious at best.
“The sense that Canada was too small and Ottawa was too small was somewhat pervasive,” said Bryden, who took over as the club’s majority owner from Firestone following the 1992-93 season.
“That’s despite the fact that Canada is one of the most successful startup countries in the world. There’s still this sense that, ‘We don’t count, we’re too small’ and that we have to follow the Americans.”
It took hard work, many phone calls, a lot of arm-twisting and countless hours, but the Palladium opened in January 1996. After taking over as GM in 1993, Sexton was fired by Bryden in December 1995.
The Senators had a new building, but had to get their act together on the ice. Roy Mlakar was hired as president, Pierre Gauthier took over as GM and it wasn’t long before the franchise began a run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances.
Bryden, who lost $150 million as owner, was forced to put the team into bankruptcy protection in January 2003. Owner Eugene Melnyk was able to buy the building and the franchise for $130 million. Thanks in part to a dollar that is now on par with its U.S. counterpart, the franchise is on solid financial footing.
There have been many highlights for the Senators on the ice, with their trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2007 the pinnacle.
Sexton is just happy the franchise is successful.
“I’m not sure I have a favourite memory. They’re all great,” he said.
Firestone, Bryden, Leeder and Sexton knew the organization would have an impact in the community, but they could never have envisioned how important it has become two decades later.
“We never really thought we weren’t going to get this franchise. We just wondered what it would be like here if we did get it. We had pretty high expectations for this franchise,” said Leeder.
“We thought it would be a big part of the city and we thought it could do some big things. We didn’t really realize it would have this much of an impact economically, socially or in the community. There’s just so many things that having this franchise does for the city. I couldn’t imagine living here without this team now.”
Currently: Writes a blog about entrepreneurship, urban lifestyles and life at EQJournal.org
His role: Was the founder of the franchise and helped lead the “Bring Back The Senators” campaign in 1988 that led to the franchise being awarded on Dec. 6, 1990. He saw the club through its inaugural season, but left when Rod Bryden took over ownership of the franchise in 1993. Firestone’s vision of a building and a vibrant community in Kanata ended up being exactly right.
On the hall of fame induction honour: “It caught me off-guard. I got a call from my lawyer (Mike Gerrior) and usually when you get a call from a lawyer it’s not good news. It turned out to be wonderful news and I was really excited ... We couldn’t have done this without a lot of help.”
Currently: President and CEO of Plasco Energy Group
His role: In January 1992, Bryden was named CEO of Terrace Investments, along with vice-chairman and alternate governor of the Senators. On Sept. 1, 1993, he took over sole ownership of the franchise. In July 1994, the construction of the Palladium began and the building opened in January 1996. Bryden remained in his role until the team was placed into bankruptcy protection in January 2003.
On the hall of fame: “I was surprised. It hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t consider myself, on the sport side, to be either an entrepreneur or an aficionado. But, as part of keeping the hockey club here and building that building, I can understand why the group felt we were worthy.”
Currently: Assistant director of amateur scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
His role: The Brockville native was instrumental in bringing the team back to Ottawa. He did the groundwork with NHL governors and helped to put the pieces in place for the club to have success. Sexton spent four years in various roles with the club, including chief executive officer, president and GM. He was fired in January 1996.
On the hall of fame: “This was a complete surprise. This was out of the blue. I had no idea. It’s a tremendous honour. I never actually thought about it until I got the call. When you think about it, one of the driving reasons was we all loved the city of Ottawa, we all lived here and we felt like this would put Ottawa on the map.”
Currently: President, Ottawa Senators
His role: Took a leadership role in the “Bring Back the Senators” campaign with Firestone and worked hard in making sure the company had a winning bid. Has played virtually every role in the management of the organization — including CEO and COO — before being promoted to president by owner Eugene Melnyk in July 2009.
On the hall of fame: “I’m pretty honoured. We didn’t get involved in hockey for the recognition, we just thought it would be the right thing to do. It’s been a 20-year career and I feel pretty fortunate. Going into the hall of fame is just a great honour, really.”
TOP 5 FRANCHISE HIGHLIGHTS
- 1. May 19, 2007: Daniel Alfredsson scores OT winner vs. Buffalo to advance Senators to Stanley Cup final.
- 2. April 12, 1997: Steve Duchense scores winner vs. Buffalo to propel Ottawa to playoffs for the first time.
- 3. Dec. 6, 1990: Ottawa is awarded an expansion franchise with Tampa to start in 1992-93 season.
- 4. Oct. 8, 1992: Neil Brady scores first goal in franchise history as Senators beat Montreal 5-3 on Opening Night.
- 5. June 20, 1992: Senators make centre Alexei Yashin their first No. 1 selection in franchise history.