Back in April of 2016, the Ottawa Senators won the bid with the National Capital Commission (NCC) to redevelop the downtown location of LeBreton Flats. It was a day that Senators owner Eugene Melnyk described as “his best day ever.”
Yet, over two and a half years later, no progress has been made on the relocation and now the organization faces losing out on the land. The RendezVous LeBreton Group, led by Melnyk and Ottawa developer John Ruddy, is the group behind the project. Last month, it was made public that the group has been going through “internal partnership issues” and that Melnyk was suing Ruddy for $700 million, claiming damages in the “failed joint venture.”
The NCC has set a deadline of January 2019 to solve the internal differences between the partners. The Gary Bettman and the NHL have offered help in the situation and the group that had the second-place bid, DevCore Group, has said they are willing to take over the project should RendezVous not fix their partnership. It’s important to note that the DevCore Group also had an NHL arena in their plans.
The Senators are in jeopardy of losing out on the move to LeBreton, and that’s a threat to the future of the organization remaining in the nation’s capital. For the future benefit of the organization, Melnyk needs to either resolve the dispute with Ruddy, which seems unlikely based on the lawsuit, or find a new partner. One thing is for sure, the Senators need to move downtown.
Attendance Issues Continue for Senators
The Senators are currently located in Kanata, about 20 to 30 minutes from the downtown core in Ottawa. That’s on a good day. If the weather is bad, traffic is bad, or the Senators are playing, that travel time can double. That, mixed with the increasing displeasure from fans toward Melnyk have resulted in the Senators having poor attendance, which has been an ongoing battle for the team for years.
When the Senators first came into the league in 1992-93, the average attendance was 10,485. That number slowly but surely increased over the years, with slight dips coming in 1994-95 (9,879) and 2001-02 (16,919). The peak came in 2007-08, the year after the run to the Stanley Cup Final, where attendance reached an average of 19,821. In the years that have followed, the team has only crossed an average of 19,000 twice, in 2011-12 and 2012-13, and has otherwise steadily dropped. This season, the average attendance is 15,046. This is the lowest average in over 20 years (1995-96 season average was 13, 252).
Based on these numbers, we know that people will make the trip to Canadian Tire Centre – if they like what they see on the ice. Over the seasons though, the team has made a series of moves that have seemed to be more impacted by team finances than what’s best for the team. Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara were allowed to walk into free agency, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson were traded away, and the team always leaves plenty of cap space. This is just the tip of the iceberg on questionable roster moves for the team.
While the move downtown won’t help fix roster decisions, it will make it easier to attend the Senators games through public transportation. Ottawa is currently building a light-rail train line which has two stops next to the proposed rink. It’s wouldn’t be a complete fix for attendance, but it’s a good place to start.
How Can Melnyk Make it Happen?
Melnyk Needs a New Partner
The largest issue in the potential move came forward in November, with the announcement that Melnyk is suing Ruddy. It appears that the two will not be able to mend their relationship before the January deadline. Could he find a new partner instead? In the fallout of the RendezVous Group lawsuit, the second place bidder for the downtown land has come forward saying they are willing to take over the redevelopment, including the NHL arena.
Plan to build new NHL arena in downtown Ottawa on verge of collapse as Senators owner sues development partner. Group was facing January deadline to resolve differences; $4B proposal also included residences, schools, public spaces. Background: https://t.co/PpKFhMUc8G
— CBC News Alerts (@CBCAlerts) November 23, 2018
The Devcore Canderel DLS (DCDLS) Group and Jean-Pierre Poulin have reached out to the NCC, letting them know they are “united” and ready to take over the project.
“We do not believe Ottawa or Canada should be held hostage one day longer,” Poulin stated. “We have a very solid team and [are] all unified. We have shovel in hand and [are] ready to roll. The placeholder [for an arena] is there, so it’s open. We believe our duty would be to make this project NHL-ready.”
It seems that DCDLS is inviting Melnyk to partner with them, but they have not yet spoken to him or the NHL. However, Melnyk said back in 2016 during the bidding process that the Senators would not play at LeBreton Flats if DCDLS won the bid. At the same time that the Senators owner said this, the rumours were that DCDLS had the NHL arena in their plan and were planning to make a pitch to buy the club. Melnyk has made it known that he won’t play in someone else’s building and believes that he can make Canadian Tire Centre work. Yet if DCDLS is willing to partner up with Melnyk, sucking up his pride and doing what’s best for the team should come first.
Senators Should Accept NHL’s Help
The other development after the lawsuit news came out is that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has offered the Senators assistance from the NHL. At the Board of Governors meeting earlier this month, which Melnyk did not attend, Bettman offered his views on the status of the downtown move.
“I would say I’m more disappointed with how this played out, but these are complicated matters. Mr. Melnyk isn’t here, but I gave a brief update in terms of the lawsuit and where I thought things stood on the LeBreton project. But it was more of an update. No discussion.” (From: “‘Disappointed’ Bettman says NHL ready to help Senators move downtown” – Toronto Sun – 12/04/18).
Bettman the proceeded to touch on the NHL offering help to the club, to which Melnyk has not yet publicly responded.
“There are some places where we have been involved in and I think been very constructive. Edmonton, Pittsburgh, among others come to mind. There have been other places where we’ve been disinvited by one of the participants. We don’t like to go where we’re not welcome if it’s not going to be helpful.”
“I think for a whole host of reasons it would be nice [to be downtown], but Mr. Melnyk has said if he has to make Canadian Tire Centre work, he can do that. But again, let’s not draw any conclusions yet. This is a complicated situation, although in its original form, for a lot of reasons, some of which you’ve read in the complaint that’s been filed, the project as originally envisioned unfortunately isn’t viable.” (From: “‘Disappointed’ Bettman says NHL ready to help Senators move downtown” – Toronto Sun – 12/04/18).
The interesting part here is that while Bettman mentions that Melnyk thinks he can make the Canadian Tire Centre work, Bettman urges that no conclusions should be drawn. It’s obvious that the NHL wants the club to move down by Parliament Hill and them offering help is something Melnyk should not pass by. Similar to the Senators owner needing to accept a new partner, he should also accept the NHL’s help.
Oilers Move Should Be Template for Senators
Like Bettman pointed out, downtown arenas have helped other teams. The Edmonton Oilers are one of those teams, moving downtown in 2016. Bob Black, the Oilers’ chief project development officer, pointed out just why the move is so helpful, not just for the team but for the city as a whole.
“There’s clear evidence in my mind that cities with great sports and entertainment and cultural facilities in their downtown core disproportionately attract capital investment, corporate head offices, tourists and the best and brightest people. There’s little doubt in my mind that and I always say it, an arena done right (helps) — because there’s a tremendous amount that goes into that, not only with designs of the arena but creating the right circumstances for development around the arena.”
“An arena done right can be a tremendous catalyst to the downtown core. It can reverse what happens in so many major cities where with the passage of time the downtowns have been seeing underinvestment and, in some cases, dying away because of suburban living. Cities are measured by their downtowns. There’s an adage that goes, ‘So goes your downtown, so goes your city’ and I believe that to be so.” (From: “Oilers to Senators: Downtown is where you need to be” – Ottawa Citizen – 11/12/16).
Edmonton Oilers president Bob Nicholson touched on the potential move for Ottawa, “You look at Ottawa and they just need it,” says Nicholson. “Ottawa has such a great downtown already and this could take it to a whole other level.” (From: “Oilers to Senators: Downtown is where you need to be” – Ottawa Citizen – 11/12/16).
Future of Senators Could Depend on LeBreton Move
Melnyk and the Senators are on the clock to sort out the move to LeBreton. Bettman and the NHL want the team there. Melynk does too, but think he can make Kanata work. For the future of the club, they need to move downtown.
The Senators have until January to finalize plans for a new arena on the LeBreton Flats property.https://t.co/oafC6ET3rS
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 22, 2018
It was only one year ago that Melnyk angered the Senators fanbase on the eve of the 2017 Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. Talking to media, Melnyk held nothing back when discussing whether or not he would relocate the franchise, “I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team. It’s not gonna happen.”
“If it becomes a disaster, yes. If you start not seeing crowds showing up, yes,” he said. “But, for now, we are on the cusp of doing OK… Here, we’re fighting every day to sell a ticket, honest to God. When you get to the third round of the playoffs and you’re begging people to buy a ticket, something’s wrong with that picture.”
That’s not what you want to hear from a team owner. Melnyk pointed out in his rant that if the crowds stop showing up, the team could relocate. Well, the attendance is dropping to lows not seen in over two decades and now the downtown move is in trouble. If Melnyk still thinks how he did a year ago, how long will it be until he starts listening to offers or looking to relocate? Even after the Seattle expansion, there are still numerous cities looking for an NHL team, including Quebec City and Houston.
If Melnyk wants to keep the Senators in the city they’ve been since 1992-93, the move downtown is needed. It’s well-known that the fans don’t care for Melnyk, as many of the billboards around Ottawa have shown in the past, but an arena near Parliament Hill may be a step in the right direction to mend the broken relationship between Senators management and fans, and should be a crucial part of keeping the team in Canada’s capital.
Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.