OTTAWA – This was no average Monday meeting in March between the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators.
This was theatre. Two teams still clinging to playoff hopes, with the Tkachuk brothers in peak form, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in town to take the temperature on talks to have the Senators team sold and a new arena built.
Not exactly “March Madness” but something close. Meaningful March Meetings, at the very least.
When the chips settled in a spirited game, the Senators pulled to within two points of Florida with a 5-2 win. The Senators are five points behind Pittsburgh for the last wild-card spot, with eight games remaining for Ottawa. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a game in hand.
Brady Tkachuk got the better of his brother Matthew and got the party started by scoring on a one-timer in the first period to give his Senators a 1-0 lead. Erik Brannstrom added a power-play goal to extend the lead to two, before Gustav Forsling got one back for the Panthers in the second period.
A power-play goal by Alex DeBrincat in the final minute of the second period set the Sens up for the win. Forsling had another goal in the third, but a critical faceoff violation penalty by Anton Lundell cost Florida a chance to tie the game late in the third. Tim Stützle blasted a power-play goal past Sergei Bobrovsky and Shane Pinto added an empty-net goal as Florida’s playoff hopes suffered another blow.
In the third period, after Matthew Tkachuk mixed it up in front of the Sens net, a chant went up from the crowd: “Brady’s better!!” The chant had legs, as it rang out again.
“I thought it was pretty funny,” said Senators goaltender Mads Sogaard, who stopped 32 of 34 Florida shots. “I know Brady is a super-competitive guy. I don’t know Matthew, but I expect it’s the same for him. I think it probably made them want to compete even harder. I was just watching, listening and laughing a little.”
Brady was having none of it, of course, deferring to Matthew’s fine season.
“Love the passion from the fans, it means a lot to me,” Tkachuk said. “But in saying that, it’s tough to beat a guy (like Matthew) who’s almost at 100 points, who’s been an established superstar. He’s always been my motivation and role model. If I could be like him one day, I’ll be super thrilled.”
Memo to Brady: fans in Ottawa adore you already and wouldn’t trade you for anyone – your brother included.
Where to now? The embers still burn on the fire pit of playoff dreams, but the margin for error is gone. Even running the table might not be enough, so the Sens will just think about the next opponent: Philadelphia here on Thursday, and go from there.
“Win the next game, and you’re alive,” said Senators head coach D.J. Smith. “All we wanted to do was get in the pack and stay alive … these guys continue to claw.”
Tkachuk clan gathers
Walking into the stands for the morning skate, Keith “Walt” Tkachuk couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. He was talking to reporters about the family in tow, including his father and father-in-law, at the Canadian Tire Centre to see the latest Tkachuk showdown between older brother Matthew and “little” brother Brady.
For Brady, it never gets old, playing against his brother, although he admits it did wear a little during the high-COVID, North Division season when the Senators and Calgary Flames met nine times.
Now, with Matthew over in the Atlantic, the brothers still meet often enough to keep it interesting. Naturally, the Tkachuk family got together for dinner on Sunday.
“It’s always fun to see him, but you know, it’s almost an excuse for our whole family to come and watch and support (us) … but now these are huge games. It’s beyond just seeing him and playing him, these are big, big points for both our teams. So, it’s all business from here on out.”
And they get to do it all over again next week, when the Senators are in Florida.
Bettman: ‘Constructive’ meetings
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told Ottawa media before the game that his meetings with National Capital Commission executives Toby Nussbaum and Marc Seaman and Ottawa mayor Mark Sutcliffe were “constructive” as the process continues along the path to new Senators ownership and potentially a new arena closer to downtown Ottawa.
Bettman was visiting Ottawa Monday as part of his NHL tour of cities, but with particular interest in the developing story in the Nation’s Capital.
Before an ownership group is in place, a critical component will be the real estate deal involving a new arena, and potentially other development to go along with it. The Senators sale has been said to be a real estate deal first, a media deal second and hockey sale, third.
On that score, it is vital that any potential owner(s) know how much land they have to work with. The parcel of land set aside by the NCC for a hockey rink is only about six acres. So, it is very likely Bettman was asking the NCC today if there was flexibility with this parcel of land – potential to have a bigger footprint.
“I don’t know if 6.3 or 6.9 acres is enough,” Bettman said. “It struck me as being a little small, because you want to do things around the remaining (parcel). Parking. You want to make sure you can build the ramp big enough to have all the loading docks and TV hookups that make the building accessible.
“But again, we weren’t here to negotiate. It was really, in both meetings, an opportunity to get acquainted to make sure the lines of communication are open.”
For a site comparison, the existing CTC building and surrounding lots comprise 75 to 80 acres. That’s the luxury of building in the suburbs.
Bettman and mayor Sutcliffe have both commented recently about the “other options” around the city, if an owner should decide to cast eyes beyond LeBreton. Bettman referred to these options as “downtown” but sites like Hurdman Station and the Ottawa baseball stadium (RCGT Park) are not exactly at the corner of Elgin and Wellington streets.
In other words, LeBreton, just west of Parliament Hill, is the best location, if all sides can agree on a deal. Talk of other sites is meant to coax more land from the NCC.
Sutcliffe, speaking to reporters after Bettman’s conference, said that while the Senators’ management group has a memorandum of understanding in place with the NCC at LeBreton, it is far from a done deal.
“I’m just stating a fact that the team could stay here (in Kanata),” Sutcliffe said. “The team could build on the parking lot here and tear down the (CTC) building, as many sports franchises have done. There are other sites in Ottawa that if the new owners decided LeBreton Flats wasn’t for them, or if they couldn’t work out an agreement with the NCC – I don’t want people, including the new owners, to think that it’s an all-or-nothing scenario. I think there are lots of options and it’s healthy for us to look at it that way.”
Sutcliffe reiterated that it is far too early in the process to talk in a meaningful way about public versus private funding for an arena. He is on the record as being opposed to public money being used, but adds that he is just one vote on council.
Six bidders for Senators
Bettman confirmed that as many as six bidders are trying to buy the NHL team, describing the ownership pursuit as “among the most vibrant processes I’ve ever seen.” One of the bid groups, based in Toronto, has aligned itself with celebrity Ryan Reynolds.
It’s a far cry from 20 years ago, when Bettman leaned on Eugene Melnyk to buy the team when there was little other interest. Bettman noted that the league is in a different place today, as are the Senators, now a competitive team with a rebounding fan base. He credited the late Melnyk for laying the foundation for the current high-stakes sale.
The breadth of interest is translating into a bucket of money.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who accompanied Bettman to Ottawa, has already said the sale price could reach $1 billion before the deal is done. This second phase of bidding is expected to be completed in about six weeks time, Bettman said, adding that the sale could be wrapped up by the summer.
Asked how much the dollar figure will factor in the decision, Bettman described it as a “most material consideration.” He does have a way with words.
The sale process is being run by Galatioto Sports Partners and they are representing the Senators current owners, Melnyk’s daughters, Olivia and Anna Melnyk. Their father died one year ago, on March 28.
Bettman noted that while the investment banker and the Melnyk estate can make their selected choice, it ultimately requires approval by three-quarters of the NHL board of governors.
In other words, Bettman and his board have the final say.
Tkachuk: Excited for the city
Tkachuk, the Senators captain, doesn’t know a lot about the pending team sale, but will be tuned in for the outcome.
“I can be as interested as everybody else,” Tkachuk said. “It’s exciting, so I’m excited for the whole city, the whole fan base. Whatever happens, it’s going to be meant to be, but in the locker room, the full focus is just on finishing strong here.”