Hope not lost for Senators to move downtown, but it won’t happen soon

Brady Tkachuk had two goals and two assists as the Ottawa Senators beat the Vancouver Canucks in preseason action.

There was a time when the concept of a downtown arena for the Ottawa Senators seemed as real as the two LRT stations recently built near LeBreton Flats.

Ah, the good old days.

At the moment, depending on one’s personal level of optimism, the idea of the Senators moving downtown from Kanata lies somewhere between the foreseeable future and the Impossible Dream.

Best case scenario: The National Capital Commission, masters of this precious parcel of land west of Parliament Hill, keeps a portion of the site set aside for a time when the Senators, perhaps under new ownership/partnerships, are willing and able to build a downtown arena.

Worst case: The Senators fatally missed their opportunity when the RendezVous LeBreton project fell apart last December and former partners Eugene Melnyk of the Senators and Trinity Development’s John Ruddy filed a massive lawsuit and counter-suit against each other. A new arena had been the centrepiece for the proposed multi-billion project.

For now, while forging ahead with a different, less clear vision, the NCC is keeping the door ajar for a potential hockey arena at some point down the road.

“We’re very much open to the idea of a major events centre, should there be interest in the future,” NCC CEO Tobi Nussbaum said at last week’s meeting, an update on the LeBreton file. “But it’s not a decision that needs to be made in the short term. Fifty-five acres can’t be developed overnight and that allows us to have some flexibility.”

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk sits with his team following the National Capital Commission approving the results from the an evaluation committee regarding the Lebreton Flats redevelopment in Ottawa on Thursday, April 28, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

When the NCC went back to the drawing board with the LeBreton project, it also went back to the public, through online and in-person consultations. More than 2,000 people participated via digital submissions and another 400 or so attended an event last June at the Canadian War Museum on LeBreton soil.

According to the NCC’s assessment of these consultations — along with the suggestions of grand ideas and grassroots connections a majority of participants said that “a major event space, museum or public attraction (eg. arena, theatre or concert hall) would enhance LeBreton Flats.”

There was also mention of outdoor skating rinks, local shops, cafes, parks, affordable housing, attractive waterfront development and a child-friendly entertainment space. Respecting the wishes and input of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples is a large part of the project as the site is on what was historically Algonquin land.

How this all shakes out will come into clearer view in the upcoming plan being developed by the NCC with the help of Calgary-based company O2 Planning + Design.

What’s next?

In late October, the draft master plan will be presented to a review panel, ahead of further public consultation in November.

The status of the plan will be updated at the NCC’s meeting in late November and the completed Master Concept Plan for LeBreton is expected to be delivered to the NCC board in time for approval at its January meeting.

By the summer of 2020, the LeBreton concept will be presented to the city of Ottawa so it can amend the Official Plan.

Until such time as they are capable of being partners in a new arena venture, the Senators will continue to operate in Kanata, in a Canadian Tire Centre building that is coming up on its 24th birthday (January, 2020). Originally called The Palladium, the arena opened in January, 1996.

‘Give up and go away, or die’

The saddest aspect, if the Senators never get downtown, is that it all came down to bad timing. Earlier in his ownership, Melnyk might have been able to pull this off. He certainly talked a good game about the need to move to a central location.

Decades earlier, before the Senators were even conceived as a franchise, co-founder Bruce Firestone had his eyes on LeBreton as the perfect site for an NHL team. He once shared with me an interesting conversation he had with then-NCC chair Jean Pigott in 1987. Pigott died in 2012.

Bruce Firestone: “Jean, what would you think about us building an NHL rink on NCC land at LeBreton?”

Jean Pigott: “Bruce, do you want the public or private answer?”

BF: “Are they different?”

JP: “Yes.”

BF: “What’s the private answer?”

JP: “No.”

BF: “So, what’s the public answer?”

JP: “We’ll agree to study it.”

And then Pigott added, “Bruce, we’ll study it until you give up and go away, or you die, whichever comes first.”

OK, then.

That’s how it was with the old NCC, a stodgy old bureaucracy that left much of the LeBreton land vacant from the 1960s onward. It was the Non-Committal-Commission.

How frustrating it must be for many hockey fans then, that the day the NCC finally invited an NHL team to develop an arena on its land the team declined the invitation. Some residents in the far west end and Ottawa Valley are quite OK with the hockey club remaining in its Kanata location, though eventually the arena will have to be replaced. Driving to and from the arena, plus parking, are still problematic. There won’t be LRT to this rink for many years, if ever.

One certain prediction: more twists and turns are on the way before the concept of a downtown NHL arena can be ruled out.

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