OTTAWA — Fan excitement over the Ottawa Senators' summer moves has translated to a big boost at the box office.
Once a strong performer at the gate, the Sens have fallen on hard times in recent years as losing teams, a pandemic and the collapse of a downtown arena plan added up to spiralling attendance.
While the team did not release 2021-22 figures, it’s a poorly-kept secret that the Senators had fewer than 5,000 season ticket holders last season, believed to be the lowest in franchise history. On average, the Senators drew a little more than 9,000 fans per game, dead last in the NHL. However, they had many games in which attendance was either limited or banned outright due to health restrictions, which killed any potential for gate momentum.
This summer, however, the Senators' ticket office has been busy (some numbers will be released this week) and the sales should rise throughout the season if the team plays as well as expected.
"I can tell you that the season ticket membership is the highest it’s been in years," Senators president Anthony LeBlanc, who will be part of a business and marketing presentation to media on Wednesday at the Canadian Tire Centre, says in an interview. "We’ve seen a significant, significant increase — and it all started, really, around the time when Pierre (Dorion, GM) started making some trades."
The hockey side of the Senators' operation has never had a bigger off-season, with trades to acquire forward Alex DeBrincat and goaltender Cam Talbot plus the free agent signing of centre Claude Giroux.
Beyond the excitement over a few new players, fans were already bullish on Ottawa’s bright and entertaining young core, led by captain Brady Tkachuk.
In fact, the hits just kept on coming for the organization, off the ice. During a five-day span in late June, former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame and a corporate team that included the Senators won the bid to build an arena on LeBreton Flats land west of Parliament Hill. The NCC and the Senators group plan to work out the details of a lease agreement by the fall of 2023.
New arena plans a big piece of puzzle
Though a Quebec native, LeBlanc has lived in Ottawa for most of his life and returned here from the Arizona Coyotes organization in April of 2020 to become the Senators' president of business operations. Considering he has presided over a pandemic-addled environment for most of his time here, it is as though the sun is just emerging from a bank of dark clouds.
"It’s just been a really positive summer," LeBlanc says. "I've been in this market off and on for the better part of 30 years. I've been a season seat member up until I moved to Arizona in 2013 and I haven't seen enthusiasm like this in the community."
LeBlanc doesn't discount the fact that the region is a lot more comfortable coming out of the COVID-19 cocoon as well, although the Senators will continue to do the right thing as far as mask advisories and league stipulations regarding COVID-19 cases that may arise this season.
Along with ticket packages and individual sales, corporate sponsorships are also way up from a year ago. Ticket holders and sponsors have this in common — both sectors are eying the possibility of a new, downtown arena and want to be in on the ground floor.
On the LeBreton file, LeBlanc and Erin Crowe, the Senators' chief financial officer, have been part of a contingent that includes representatives from the National Capital Commission and other consultants doing due diligence on potential arena design. The group has already visited recent arenas built in Seattle and Edmonton. The new Islanders rink in Queen's, TD Garden in Boston and Madison Square Garden in Manhattan are also on the agenda as new or upgraded venues to visit and study.
Seattle was an interesting comparison because the Climate Pledge Arena was built in a tight area, similar to Ottawa's situation.
"Our site is only six acres, and in Seattle it's amazing what they did with the old KeyArena," LeBlanc says. "They basically kept the roof and redid everything else. Edmonton, of course, has a lot more space, but it's interesting to see how these buildings are being built."
The size and configuration of suites will be another intriguing feature of the new rink here. When the original Palladium was built in Kanata in 1996 (today’s CTC), there were 180 corporate suites. Today there are 123. And yet, the newer rinks tend to have as few as 50.
The new venues have star attractions like Ottawa's 'Club Bell,' with top end dining and drink options, but also individual suites for smaller groups of fans than the old CTC suites with dozens of seats.
"It just shows you one aspect of the business that has completely changed," LeBlanc says. "The newer rinks have got so many of those loge-style suites. Unless you are a large corporation, those are a lot of seats (in the current CTC). People like that concept of having maybe just four seats and still have that premium experience."
Excitement about the Senators' developing roster dovetails nicely with plans to move out of suburban Kanata to a modern new arena closer to the centre of Ottawa and Gatineau. Fans and businesses are imagining a team that will be competitive now, but could be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in a couple of years. A few years down the road, there will be a suitable venue for a team headed down the same path as the earlier Senators, who reached the playoffs for the first time in 1997 and then ran off a string of 11 straight playoff appearances, including a Stanley Cup Final berth in 2007. The Senators' most recent playoff run was in 2017, a last hurrah that preceded a deep rebuild a year or two later.
The organization takes pride that a five-year plan to return to the "glory days" of good hockey and strong attendance is coming to fruition, about three years into it.
This week the Senators will unveil their marketing plan for the season, which will focus on a rising team marking the 30th anniversary of the inaugural 1992-93 Senators season. Expect a game-night viewing party to coincide with Alfredsson's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 14 and a night early in the season to honour late owner Eugene Melnyk. Senators alumni will be celebrated throughout the 2022-23 campaign.
Melnyk sisters considering options
Before he passed in the spring, Melnyk left the team in the hands of his daughters, Anna and Olivia, who own the team and monitor its operation via a board of directors. So far, they have been fully engaged in the organization, making positive suggestions about inclusivity on team social media platforms and continually communicating with management. They even attended the NHL Draft.
"One of the things I've respected so much about Anna and Olivia is that they want to understand the business," LeBlanc says. "They're super smart young ladies, they've spent a fair amount of time learning the business and — look, their dad passed away five months ago. So, they’re still trying to figure out what to do.
"So, the club isn't for sale, they're working with their mother (Laura), they're working with financial advisors to figure out what they do next. And all of us, up to Gary Bettman (NHL commissioner) have been very respectful. As Gary has said, there is a strong senior management team in place... a board that was handpicked by Eugene from day one."