The story of how the Senators came to be has been told and retold, and for those who relish NHL hockey in this town, it doesn’t get old.
On Wednesday, the story gets etched a little deeper into the Ottawa sports consciousness, sort of like a footprint in Hollywood’s walk of fame.
The Senators original three amigos — Bruce Firestone, Cyril Leeder and Randy Sexton, plus Rod Bryden, who refinanced the franchise and became its owner, are being inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.
Well deserved. And the timing could not be better, with the Senators celebrating the 20th anniversary of the October, 1992 return to the NHL after a 58-year absence.
They were all pleasantly surprised by the call to the hall. Well, in Sexton’s case, a bit concerned at first.
“I was out on the west coast when I get an email saying, ‘hey Randy, it’s Mike Flanagan from the Ottawa Police, can you give me a call,” Sexton was recalling on Tuesday.
“I went, holy geez. I call home and there’s no answer. I was worried. I finally call Mike, and I talk to him for two minutes and I think he could sense a little stress in my voice and finally he says, oh, this is a good call. Everything’s good.”
Couldn’t be better, actually, now that Sexton understands it was in Flanagan’s capacity as chairman of the Ottawa sports hall that he was contacting Sexton about this group induction.
The original story of the original three, of course, dates back to 1987, when Firestone asked his then-kid employees with Terrace Investments to stick around after a game of pickup hockey at the old Lions Arena. Leeder and Sexton were both 28. Sexton nearly spit out his beer when Firestone told them they were going to pursue an NHL expansion team for Ottawa.
And so it began. As Sexton says, they were probably too naive to know what they were getting into, how impossible the task, how long the odds. At various times, the cause appeared hopeless — trying to pull together the financing for a modern NHL arena and a franchise to live in it.
Firestone recalls waiting in the basement of the Breakers Hotel to be called in for the expansion announcement.
“Standing next to garbage and their prep kitchen with pipes leaking on us, it didn’t look too promising.
I told the guys, “Look I am so proud of all of you. We couldn’t have done anything more. It doesn’t look like we’ve been successful. If that is the case, we’ll still thank the NHL for letting us be a part of this.”
The first hint of good news came when Marcel Aubut, owner of the Quebec Nordiques, said “felicitations, mon ami.” Even then, Firestone thought he might have meant, ‘nice try.’
After the first miracle of league acceptance, the $50 million franchise fee was only the beginning of the money hurdles.
“One thing I probably haven’t shared with anyone until now, but I will share with you, was that I really felt, right from the day we got the franchise, Dec. 6, 1990, no one really owns these franchises and especially the Senators franchise. The city, the community, the fans really own it.”
“Bill Wirtz told me before we even got the franchise, the key to running a successful NHL franchise is to sell 15,000 season tickets. That’s it. From that comes everything else.”
While Firestone was the original owner, the torch was passed to Bryden, who pulled together financing so complicated it could make the head spin, even for an accountant like Leeder.
“Every time a deal would die, there was a possibility we might not go ahead with the team and the building,” Leeder says. “But Rod just kept pushing on.
“When one door would close, he would just go on to the next one, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Ultimately, Bryden relinquished ownership of the team, as Firestone had before him. Today, the team is – relatively speaking — the picture of stability under Eugene Melnyk, coming off a handsome and profitable rebuilding season. Leeder says there is a chance the club could reach the goal of 13,000 season ticket holders, although it will require a mighty summer push.
Before Melnyk arrived in 2003 to assume ownership of a completely restructured organization emerging from a bankruptcy, there were real fears the team could move.
“That was the toughest period,” Leeder said. “Rod was looking for a financial strucure that would work, and if the team was being sold, he wanted it kept here, even if he couldn’t be the owner.”
Credit Firestone with the dream and the original push, Bryden then taking the handoff.
“Rod kept it alive during tough times, but it might never have had the chance to be alive without his involvement,” Sexton says.
Each is so proud of the others, they could use a night to reflect and toast a glass. Leeder suspects it’s been more than 10 years, before Bryden sold the club, that the four have been in the same room together. Bryden is busy turning waste into energy as CEO of Plasco Energy Group. Firestone writes about entrepeneurship with EQJournal.org, after “Professor Bruce’s” lengthy career teaching architecture at Carleton University and at the Telfer School of Management, the University of Ottawa. Once a Senators general manager, Sexton is assistant director of amateur scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins, under former Senators assistant GM Ray Shero, now a fixture as Pittsburgh’s GM.
Leeder, of course, remains with the Senators, as president and alternate governor.
“We’re all kind of humbled about the whole process,” Leeder says. “It’s a real honour and going in together makes it even more special for the four of us.