They haven’t played a game since March 11 and won’t play another until at least December, when the 2020-21 NHL season is loosely slated to begin.
So, how do the Ottawa Senators stay relevant and connected to the National Capital Region?
They get out into the community, as they did on Wednesday, to announce a new Senators foundation, headed by former Senators defenceman Chris Phillips.
Phillips, who had his No. 4 jersey retired in February, has been named executive director of the Senators Community Foundation (SCF). Part of his job description will be to mend fences after an ugly breakup between the hockey club and the previous Senators Foundation earlier this summer.
Phillips was introduced at an outdoor media conference held on a grass field near the Brewer Park COVID-19 testing centre, a makeshift venue set up inside an old Ottawa hockey rink. Children being tested for COVID-19 received Phillips bobblehead dolls, an initiative the team said it will continue with other Senators souvenirs.
Number 4, also known as the Big Rig, for which a beer brand is named, admitted he was among the legions of people in Ottawa disappointed with the breakup between the team and the former foundation, which raised more than $35 million for charity since 1998.
“No question,” Phillips said, “they’ve done amazing work, and we’ve done a lot of work with them over the years.
“I’m not aware of all those inner workings and how that came to be, but this is where we are today. And I’m excited about moving forward and working closely with the team, with alumni, to get out there and do some great work.”
Phillips and his wife Erin were known for their community work over a span of two decades, including with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), the Candlelighters childhood cancer support, Ottawa Boys and Girls Club and Ronald McDonald House.
The new foundation’s biggest challenge, Phillips said, is the aspect of starting from scratch.
“It’s a great opportunity to maybe look at how the old foundation operated for so long and how things can be improved upon,” Phillips said. “It allows a reset, a 2.0.”
Club president Anthony Leblanc, who introduced Phillips, said the coming weeks will be spent ensuring rules and regulations are established for the new charity. What the focus will be for the foundation is to be determined, but all doors are open for the time being.
“Given the times we live in, it goes well beyond youth,” Phillips said, of the community needs. “There are a lot of people struggling in this pandemic in a wide variety of areas.”
CHEO CEO Alex Munter concurred, stating that organizations like CHEO and Roger’s House, a family palliative care centre established in Roger Neilson’s name, depend on fundraising.
“Our revenues have been going down while the needs have been going up,” Munter said. “This renewed commitment by the Sens Foundation to the kids and the well-being of our community couldn’t come at a more important and appreciated time.”
It was Mark Bonneau, the chief revenue officer for the club and a day one employee, who suggested Phillips as the one to head up the new foundation. Leblanc was elated with the idea and passed it along to owner Eugene Melnyk.
In a statement, Melnyk said he was proud to have Phillips lead the new charitable arm of the hockey team as he “personifies what a community leader is all about.”
“From being our first overall pick in 1996, to his 17 remarkable seasons that led to his jersey retirement earlier this year, he’s a natural fit for this role,” Melnyk said. “His energy, enthusiasm and his community involvement will take our Foundation to a whole new level.”
Leblanc started the day with a round of applause for front line workers, some of whom stood on the lawn to hear a bit of the ceremony, a launch the business side of the operation imagines can do big things.
“Our anticipation is that when the new hockey season begins, and the Senators are back on the ice, our foundation will be in place and doing everything it can to raise as much money as possible so we can continue to give back to the community,” Leblanc said.
Both Leblanc and Phillips said the foundation will try to keep costs low and will be more of an in-house operation instead of the arms-length set up of the former foundation. That group, incidentally, is still operating under the new name Ottawa-Gatineau Youth Foundation.
Their board of directors includes Brendan Bell, a former Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, and Tara Borowiecki, wife of Senators defenceman Mark Borowiecki, a pending free agent.
Sens rebrand is coming
Leblanc promised hockey fans in Ottawa a “rebrand” in the weeks ahead, an initiative that was being talked about long before Leblanc was hired as president of business operations on April 20. An Ottawa resident, Leblanc was a CEO, and co-owner of the Arizona Coyotes from 2013-17 and has been a Senators season-ticket holder.
There have been multiple reports of the Senators reverting back to their 2D centurion logo of the 1990s, with small adjustments, but Leblanc said the full rollout will happen over the next two months.
“One of my main mandates is a rebrand,” Leblanc said. “We think once Labour Day rolls around we will be able to get back into the community in a bigger way.”
Look for the jersey and logo rebrand to be loosely tied in with the upcoming Oct. 9 draft, in which the Senators hold two high picks, third and fifth overall.
Asked if he was concerned about fan apathy during this prolonged off-season, Leblanc challenged that premise.
“I think it’s actually going to be the opposite,” Leblanc said. “I think fans are going to be so starved for their local team to come back that there is going to be a tremendous level of excitement.
“I defer to Eugene and Pierre (Dorion, general manager) with what they are doing with the club. … But as someone who has split loyalties between the Senators and Coyotes, I think things are going in the right direction.”
Leblanc’s foremost task, he admitted, will be improving on a season ticket base that has deteriorated over the past three years. The Senators had the lowest attendance in the league with an average gate of 12,618 for 37 home dates.
Due to COVID-19, there is no assurance fans will be allowed into arenas when the new season begins. Leblanc says the team is planning for different scenarios and has faith that the health authorities and the NHL will do what is right.
When the gates are open to the public, Leblanc is optimistic Ottawa fans will be craving live action.
“It’s not optimal to go from March to December, or God knows when, without playing,” Leblanc said, “but I do think through these unusual circumstances people will be excited and they will come back.”