Ottawa Senators' dream of playing in a new downtown arena is very much alive again

The ice surface and bowl of the Canadian Tire Centre, where the Ottawa Senators play. (CP/file)

A trio of longtime Ottawa reporters sat so close behind Eugene Melnyk in the packed NCC board room, we could have tapped him on the shoulder.

And when he heard the winning bid announced, “RendezVous LeBreton! ... ,” the Senators owner looked visibly stunned. He mumbled something like, “I’m surprised,” before shaking the hand of the man sitting next to him, then-Senators president Cyril Leeder. Leeder, a co-founder of the franchise, was the architect of the Senators portion of a bid to build a new arena on LeBreton Flats, a low-lying, 21-hectare parcel of undeveloped land near the Ottawa River, just west of Parliament Hill.

The year was 2016, decidedly pre-COVID, and so reporters comfortably formed large scrums around the principals involved – Melnyk, his new business partner, John Ruddy of Trinity Developments and Ottawa mayor Jim Watson.

They all said essentially the same thing – there would be a ton of work involved, including negotiations with First Nations peoples (LeBreton sits on traditional Algonquin land) and costly toxic waste removal to resolve, but that the Senators could be playing in their new arena as early as 2021 or 2022. The arena, of course, was just one aspect of the multi-purpose, multibillion-dollar project.

Fast forward six years, and the most stunning development of all is not that the arena didn’t get built, but that the entire concept, which fell apart in a string of disputes and lawsuits, could be revived this year, just around the time the Senators once imagined christening their beautiful new building.

As Ottawa Citizen columnist Kelly Egan wryly noted, it’s appropriate that the NHL rink at LeBreton concept is being discussed just before Easter, “when thoughts turn to resurrecting the dead.”

Indeed, on the agenda for Thursday’s National Capital Commission meeting is a planned 30-minute update of the LeBreton development situation, which is expected to include mention of a potential NHL arena. That in itself is remarkable. The plan was officially declared dead in the water in late February 2019 – and the three-plus years of planning, discussion and delays had cost the NCC $2 million in legal costs, salaries, benefits and fees.

It’s a wonder the NCC hasn’t washed its hands of the entire idea at this point.

But here’s the thing. The NCC, better known in these parts for sitting on its hands, has long been wanting to do something “bold” and grand with that land, rather than a piecemeal development on a smaller scale, with condos, green space and commerce.

What first attracted the NCC to the RendezVous LeBreton bid, as opposed to the rival Devcore Canderel DLS Group proposal, was that the Senators provided a vital tenant for its arena plan – the NHL Senators. They were a package deal – a famous tenant made up of millionaire players in a glitzy new venue, to serve as a draw for both visitors to the region and people living and working here, including along the LRT line being developed near the south shore of the Ottawa River.

That much hasn’t changed. Melnyk’s death last week only enhances the probability of a new arena downtown because of the new range of possibilities regarding ownership and future business partnerships.

As much as Melnyk was rightly lauded with tributes for rescuing the franchise from bankruptcy in 2003 – at a very good price – he was not in the habit of making friends with the Ottawa business community.

Sens and OSEG join forces

During his 19 years as owner, Melnyk had very public conflicts with the mayor, the city of Ottawa, and with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG, which includes John Ruddy, Roger Greenberg, William Shenkman and John Pugh as partners – respected Ottawa corporate giants with deep local roots. OSEG operates the CFL Redblacks and OHL 67’s).

This just in: One week after Melnyk’s passing, the Senators and OSEG have joined forces to submit a bid to host the 2023 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. It’s a whole new world, people. That Sens-OSEG partnership, which submitted the bid to Hockey Canada Tuesday, was a last-second shift away from a proposed joint bid with Quebec City, a liaison that fell apart when a story leaked in La Presse about the Senators planning to play five regular season games in QC next season.

This is just one example of the ground shifting mightily in Ottawa.

How the ownership takes shape in the weeks to come remains to be seen, but even before Melnyk’s passing it is believed the Senators submitted “an expression of interest” by the Feb. 28 NCC deadline regarding developing two parcels of land within LeBreton, one of which was designed for a major event venue, such as an NHL arena.

That submission will surely be discussed Thursday, as the NCC begins the procurement process, either negotiating with a shortlist of bidders, or with a single, individual bid. Surely the door is now open for OSEG, or at least Ruddy, to be a part of that process again.

As much as other potential bidders may have great ideas, we repeat, the Senators have the ace in the hole – the NHL team as a tenant.

Combine that with what we know:

• NHL under commissioner Gary Bettman wants the Senators to thrive in a more central location in a new building to replace a 26-year-old facility in Kanata.

• The Senators want to be downtown.

• Whatever shape the new ownership takes will want to be downtown.

As a source with intimate knowledge of the situation told me, “any new owner is going to want the team at LeBreton for the long-term health and valuation of the club.”

Even if Melnyk’s daughters, Anna and Olivia, in their early 20s, decide to honour their father’s wishes by keeping the team in the family, a strong chance exists they would take on a significant minority partner; something their father showed no interest in doing.

Fresh ideas, fresh capital and a fresh opportunity to build new liaisons between the hockey club, the NHL and the broader Ottawa-Gatineau community, adds up to a great deal of potential for something special to happen.

“I can’t wait to build that stadium, very quick,” Melnyk said, back in 2016.

Building it, “quick” left the barn a few years ago.

Building it, period, is still very much on the table.

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