Civic milestone: Senators staffers recall a wild opening night 30 years later

Ottawa Senators team president Cyril Leeder addresses a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk urgently needs a liver transplant and the NHL club has put out a call for a potential "live donor." (Adrian Wyd/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Saturday, October 8 marks the 30th anniversary of the first game played by the modern-era Ottawa Senators.

Those of us who were there, and thousands who weren’t but say they were, have retold much of the yarn over and over — the one about the plucky expansion team that knocked off the Montreal Canadiens 5-3 in Ottawa’s franchise opener.

Neil Brady scored the first goal for the Senators and a capacity crowd of 10,500 at the old Civic Centre went crazy. Yes, the redoubtable Senators won on Oct. 8 and then reeled off a 21-game winless string en route to a 10-70-4 record, including one lonely road win against Glenn Healy and the New York Islanders on April 10.

Senators captain Laurie Boschman, who scored a hat trick in that only road victory, was at a loss to express his joy on the ice at the moment, until this leapt into his head: “We’re going to Disney World! we’re going to Disney World!” he shouted to his Ottawa teammates. Such joy from so few wins.

Occasionally, a story ekes out about opening night that has rarely been told. Such was the case this week when I spoke with former Senators president Cyril Leeder, the man who co-founded the franchise along with original owner Bruce Firestone and early general manager Randy Sexton.

Leeder shared a tale about a back-flipping Brian Orser, a concerned Habs head coach Jacques Demers, and a threat by CBC TV to cancel a 30-minute pre-game feature on the Senators because of a last-minute snafu involving Demers’ demand to have a flood following a figure skating exhibition that was supposed to lead into the big game.

At first, Demers was probably as awestruck as anyone by Orser’s backflip, as the Canadian skating star was one of the first to perform the feat. This was following the game-day morning skate, when Orser was practising his routine and a member of the Canadiens’ staff called out Demers, saying, “you’ve got to see this.”

Of course, to launch the backflip, Orser dug his skate picks deep into the ice, chipping it, and Demers let the Senators know — hey, if Orser is doing that before our game, we want a flood. To fix the ice. Certainly a reasonable request.

Dave Dakers, a Senators staffer, was the liaison between the team and the city of Ottawa, as the Civic Centre was owned by the city. Dakers had to co-ordinate the pre-game program with all involved, including CBC, which was broadcasting the game and had a lengthy Senators feature ready to air, leading up to Orser’s skate with a group of amateur skaters. The game was scheduled to follow that skate.

Dakers called the network to say that they needed an extra 15 minutes to flood the ice after Orser and was instantly rebuffed. “We’re not doing 15 minutes of dead air from the Civic Centre. Skip the flood or we cancel the pre-game show altogether,” a producer told Dakers.

So Dakers called Sexton, the GM, who was up to his ears with last-minute details prior to game one. He explained the dilemma. If we skip the flood, Demers is threatening not to put the team on the ice. If we flood, we could lose the pre-game show.

Sexton said, ‘Dave, I have a thousand things to do. What I really want is to see the backflip. AND the pre-game show. Figure it out.’

And so Dakers went double agent. He told the Habs that Orser would skip the backflip, and told the network, no flood. Of course, Orser did the backflip, there was no flood, but the game went on. All involved had bigger fish to fry at that point.

“The Canadiens weren’t happy about it,” Leeder says, “but they went on to win the Stanley Cup that year (1993), so I think they were OK.”

That’s right. The last Canadian-based team to win a Cup began its season with a loss to one of the most poorly stocked expansion teams in league history. If the Habs needed an early wakeup call, they got it in Ottawa that Oct. 8.

Got real when first goal was scored

It’s easy to forget that the first game in October of 1992 was the culmination of a long, drawn-out process. That famous pickup hockey gathering at old Lions Arena in Ottawa, where Firestone proposed the idea of an NHL team to Leeder and Sexton, had taken place in 1987. By the time all the approvals were in place and Ottawa was preparing for the inaugural game, about five years had passed.

“It was a big buildup and a lot of effort,” Leeder says. “Like anything else, the more effort you put into it, the more you appreciate it. You enjoy it when it actually happens. So it was a pretty exciting day for sure.”

Last-minute logistics were intense. Everyone wanted to be part of history, wanted tickets for that game, and so the pressure on Senators management was intense just regarding ticket demands. It didn’t help that the Civic Centre was about half the size of most NHL rinks.

Frank Finnigan, who was a member of the early-era Senators, was to have his No. 8 retired on opening night. Sadly, Finnigan passed away less than a year before game one, so his son Frank Jr. was there to observe the honour in his father’s place.

Alanis Morissette, 18 at the time, sang the national anthem.

“We thought we were doing her a big favour by allowing her to sing the anthem,” Leeder says. “As it turned out, she was doing us a favour.”

Three years later, the Ottawa-born Morrissette released Jagged Little Pill and became a pop star.

The game itself was as much of an event as it was a hockey game. People were giddy with the thought that the NHL had returned to Ottawa after a 58-year hiatus. The anticipation was palpable. Following a scoreless first period, Brady broke the deadlock with a goal just 26 seconds into period two, on a power play.

“For me, the game didn’t happen until we scored a goal,” Leeder recalls. “There was this buildup to us scoring a goal, and the place went crazy.”

Later, many people told Leeder they had arrived at the game as longtime Habs fans and left as fans of this new upstart team from Ottawa.

Buzz from fans helped players: Boschman

Boschman, captain of the 1992-93 Senators, believes the buzz in the community helped the players to that improbable victory.

“I think it was just the excitement of opening up the season with a new team, an expansion team,” Boschman says. “And I think what happened, as the year went on, some teams would take us for granted, right? And so for two periods we competed, and then all of a sudden they would step it up in the third period and score two or three goals.

“But we felt a tremendous amount of support in Ottawa. Even though we weren’t that good, people in the community were just glad they had an NHL team. And now a whole generation has grown up with the team. My boys, who were raised here, are in their 30s and they’re big Ottawa Senators fans.”

Rome built in a day?

That the Senators defied the odds surprised everyone, including headline writers. Then-Citizen sports editor Graham Parley had his pages laid out, with a headline that read: ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.’ It was the perfect head, hinting at the patience that was going to be required to follow an expansion team, and also touching on the Roman Centurion theme of the Senators. There was only one problem. By the third period, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Ottawa was about to stun the Canadiens with an upset win.

Without missing a beat, Parley adjusted his headline to read: ‘Maybe Rome Was Built in a Day.’

In retrospect, perhaps not a single day, exactly. In 30 years, the Senators have been to one Stanley Cup Final, three conference finals, and continue to pursue the elusive Cup. On the eve of their 30th anniversary season, the Senators are gearing up for another run as a team to be reckoned with.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.