Monday, June 04, 2007

Where the Stanley Cup still matters a great deal

Hockey is Canada and Canada is Hockey. It has been well documented that few Americans care about hockey and the National Hockey League. The first two games of the Stanley Cup televised on Versus the NHL’s American cable partner drew average viewership is 649,779 a game, compared with 863,206 in 2006. It’s a pretty safe bet when the ratings are released later today for Saturday’s nights game three on NBC when compared to TNT’s telecast of game six of the Cleveland Cavaliers – Detroit Pistons NBA eastern conference final game six the NBA game (on cable) will have a higher rating than the NHL game (on over-the-air television).

In Canada the Stanley Cup Finals continues to deliver solid ratings for the CBC, the NHL’s over-the-air partner and the longtime home of the larger than life (at least to Canadians) Hockey Night in Canada. The CBC drew 2.378 million viewers for the second game of the Stanley Cup final (Senators-Anaheim Ducks), up 9 per cent from the audience for the second game of the final last year (2.189 million, Edmonton Oilers-Carolina Hurricanes).

Ratings numbers are whatever those reporting and analyzing them make them out to be. Suffice to say the NHL’s television numbers in America will never be respectable. And in Southern California where Anaheim Ducks call home, except for those attending games in the Honda Center, it’s a pretty good bet no one care whether the Ducks win or lose the Stanley Cup. Three years ago (the year before the NHL lockout) the Tampa Bay Lightening beat the Calgary Flames in the seventh and deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s a pretty safe bet most Tampa area residents would trade ten Stanley Cups for one Super Bowl by their beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Three years later the Lightening are still selling tickets but any long-term impact left from winning a Stanley Cup has long left town.

Last year it was the Carolina Hurricanes defeating the Edmonton Oilers in the seventh game to claim the Stanley Cup. You can assume any long-term benefits of winning a Stanley Cup in Raleigh for the ‘Canes has long been forgotten. That’s not to take away anything from what the players on both teams accomplished but when all is said and done these are non-traditional hockey markets – glaring franchise locations the NHL will have to deal with in the not too distant future. The NHL appears to have a future in Tampa, but anyone who believes the NHL has any real future in Raleigh the heart of NASCAR country is only fooling themselves.

The same isn’t true needless to say in Calgary, Edmonton and now in Ottawa the three Canadian cities blessed to have experienced their teams make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Flames and Oilers fans came as close as hockey fans can get to enjoying that moment in time when their team wins a Stanley Cup, and with Anaheim still ahead 2-1 in the 2007 best of seven Stanley Cup finals, Senators fans may have to enjoy the role of bridesmaids, but there is one certainty fans in all three cities enjoyed – the experience of hosting games for hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup.

Saturday night the City of Ottawa hosted their first Stanley Cup final game in 80 years. Inside Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place more than 20,500 hockey fans jammed every space in the arena. Even more amazing, outside the arena another 20,000 fans enjoyed watching the game on several giant screen televisions. 20,000 hockey fans without any hope (or plans) of getting into the arena felt compelled to head down to the arena to soak in the Stanley Cup Finals. On Saturday May 19 when the Senators defeated the Buffalo Sabres in game five of the Eastern Conference finals to qualify for the Stanley Cup Finals close to 5,000 jammed Ottawa’s airport to welcome back the conquering heroes. Another 15,000 turned a ten block area of the cities downtown core into an impromptu party. On May 31 more than 15,000 jammed Ottawa’s City Hall Plaza for a Noon time pre-Stanley Cup rally -- an event where everyone knew the Senators were practicing and wouldn’t be making an appearance. That didn’t matter to Senators fans, what did matter, the Senators were in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Don’t think the reaction in the community hasn’t had an impact on the Senators.

“It was crazy. Even driving in there was traffic for us coming to the game because people were already here going crazy, partying.

“I mean you could just feel the energy coming out. We were getting ready. You could hear the crowd chanting already. There were probably, whatever, 14,000 people for warmup or something like that.

“So it was just awesome to play in a game like that.” Senators’ goaltender Ray Emery offered Sunday.

But then again the Ottawa Senators were born from a dream and little else.

The original Ottawa Senators existed from 1893 until 1934 (using various team names), winning ten Stanley Cups. The team lasted one more season (1934-35) as the St. Louis Eagles before folding. The modern day Senators have hung Stanley Cup banners honoring the championships won by the Senators of yesteryear first in the Civic Centre and then in the teams’ 20,000 seat arena (Scotiabank Place).

The NHL's planned 1992 expansion had several strong contenders, but starting in 1989, original owner Bruce Firestone put together a bid to revive NHL hockey in Ottawa, employing the last surviving original Senator to win a Stanley Cup, Frank Finnigan, as its public face. Firestone was President & CEO of Terrace Investments, a local commercial real estate development company. (Current Senators COO Cyril Leeder was President of Terrace, and Bell Sensplex Executive Director Randy Sexton was V-P).

Firestone, Leeder and Sexton played in a recreational adult hockey league. One night after a game played in an Ottawa hockey rink (the Lions Arena) Firestone broached the possibility of applying for an NHL expansion franchise. Firestone believed the NHL was going to expand and was determined the league would expand to Canada and specifically to Ottawa. Everyone laughed when Firestone’s Terrace Investment Company sent out a simple fax to the local media announcing their intention to bid for an NHL expansion team. Firestone first talked to Leeder and Sexton early in 1989. Leeder and Sexton took Firestone’s dream and seemingly overcame impossible odds. 30 groups initially expressed interest early in 1990, that list was whittled down to 11. Those 11 groups made presentations to the NHL Board of Governors at West Palm Beach Breakers Hotel in December 1990. More than 250 supporters of Ottawa’s bid made the trip to Florida along with the Ottawa Fireman’s Marching Band – the only bidding group to have a group of supporters helping to make their case.

The revived Senators were awarded one of the two expansion slots (along with the Tampa Bay Lightning) and both would begin play in 1992. The Senators' bid had been considered something of a long-shot, and ran into financial trouble almost at once, as Firestone had trouble borrowing money to meet the $50-million expansion fee. Hockey Hall of Fame member Phil Esposito headed up Tampa Bay’s successful bid. Many believe both Firestone and Esposito were awarded NHL expansion franchises because they were ready to pay the NHL’s $50 million expansion fee.

"We had established that this was the price or we weren't going to expand," former NHL president John Ziegler told The Globe and Mail.

But as Ziegler suggested there was much more to the Ottawa bid than their decision to pay the NHL the $50 million the league wanted as an expansion fee.

"This was more than a hockey franchise," Ziegler offered The Globe and Mail from Florida. "This was a business opportunity."

And it wasn’t only Ziegler who understood Firestone’s vision.

"If you're assessing how these guys have handled expansion," Vancouver's Brian Burke (now general manager of the Anaheim Ducks) said at the time, "they should publish a textbook on it."

As stunned as most so-called experts were when the NHL awarded a franchise to Firestone and the city of Ottawa, Ziegler the NHL’s leader at the time believed Ottawa was the right choice as he told The Globe and Mail.

"I had confidence in them," said Mr. Ziegler of the three young men from Ottawa. "It turned out that some of the basis for that confidence was unfounded, but I just had this feeling that Canada would not let Ottawa fail.

"I'm just happy it all worked out."

Firestone had to pay for the whole arena and the streets and roads leading to the arena. In 1995-96, the Senators moved from the Ottawa Civic Centre to the Palladium (later renamed the Corel Centre and now Scotiabank Place), on January 15, 1996.

After a 60 year absence from the NHL, the Ottawa Senators returned to the NHL for the 1992-93 season. The Senators played their home games at the Ottawa Civic Centre while the team's new arena, The Palladium, was being constructed. In order to bring the Civic Centre up to NHL standards, a number of renovations had to be made.

In the summer of 1991, every seat in the arena was replaced, and later that year the press box renovations began, divisions being added to provide individual broadcasting booths. In early 1992, the roof was repainted, fire-proofed and insulated. New plexiglass, new players' benches as well as a new computerized ice plant to control temperature of the ice were installed in the summer of 1992. The City also painted all concourse areas and added television lights along the North Side.

Over and above these, the hockey club oversaw a number of improvements to the dressing room areas, building individual lockers and a medical room. The Club added seats in sections 19 and 20, renovated the South Side balconies, put in new sound system and installed new scoreclocks behind the private boxes.

Thirty-two private boxes were built by the Senators at a cost of $1.2 million, accommodating a further 300 fans, completing the NHL new look of the facility.

With the building renovations complete the focus changed to putting a team together. The first step was the 1992 NHL Expansion Draft held in Montreal on June 18, 1992. At the Expansion Draft the Senators selected 21 players from the other teams in the NHL. Next came the 1992 NHL Entry Draft held on June 20, 1992. The Senators selected Alexei Yashin with their first pick (2nd overall).

The Senators opened the season with a 5-3 victory over the visiting Montreal Canadiens on October 8, 1992. Neil Brady scored the first Senators' goal at 0:26 of the second period while Sylvain Turgeon scored what turned out to be the winner at 17:51 of the third period. Doug Smail added an empty net goal at 19:45 of the third to seal the victory.

After the Senators won that opening night the cities largest daily The Ottawa Citizen proclaimed the following day “Maybe Rome was Built in a Day”. Needless to say the Senators managed to win only 9 more games their entire inaugural season. But Saturday night was a night the three original dreamers must have imagined might take place one day in the city they all call home. Leeder remains with the Senators as the organizations COO, Sexton the teams’ second president and later the teams’ second general manager is now the Florida Panthers assistant general manager. And Firestone – he teaches at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

"I'm living and dying with every shift," Sexton told The Ottawa Citizen. "I love the Senators. Of course, I love the Panthers, and I love my job. But when you're a founder, it's like being a parent. You get to sit back and watch your child perform.

''And regardless of what they do, you're proud of them."

"Big kids' dreams," is how Leeder describes the inspiration for the bid.

"We weren't going to play in the NHL, so this was the next best thing. Get the team, build the building, win the Stanley Cup." So while the first home game of the final will be special, it is not the ultimate goal.

"It's great to get to the final," said Firestone in an Ottawa Citizen report, "but you have to win. It's a huge step for the franchise, but it's nothing compared to if the Senators win the Stanley Cup." Firestone will be watching from his private suite, Sexton says he will likely be in the stands, but Leeder may spend a good portion of the game away from the action.

"I haven't made it through a single playoff game yet," Leeder says, "without walking around for a significant portion of the game." He doesn't just pace back and forth in a corporate suite. Leeder walks around the concourse, goes out to the parking lot, wanders down to his office. And we're not talking about a five-minute break.

"I miss anywhere from a third to half the game," Leeder says, "depending on how we're doing and how I'm feeling." When the Senators visited Buffalo two weeks ago in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference final, Leeder was at the game. But he got up and left halfway through the second period, when the Sabres were leading. Ottawa scored two quick goals in his absence. In the second intermission, he decided not to mess with the karma, so he walked around the concourse for the entire third period as well.

"For some reason, I felt pretty good about watching the overtime," he says. So he was there when Daniel Alfredsson scored to put Ottawa in the final.

"You're supposed to enjoy these games," Leeder says. "But sometimes they're just too tight to watch."

Ironically as Firestone told The Ottawa Citizen he knew the second he realized his dream had come true he’d have to watch someone else make it happen.

"I knew the moment I received the letter that I was finished as owner," Firestone says. "I never told anyone. I felt that we could still get an NHL team and that it would be good for Ottawa, but I knew that day that someone else would be owning it."

As is so often the case with dreamers – they dream big dreams and they never let anyone get in their way.

"You would have gotten pretty good odds on that in Vegas," Leeder says. "If we'd known all the obstacles that were going to happen, you might never have started it. But we were naive enough to never even consider them." Since then, Firestone, Leeder and Sexton have all dreamed of Ottawa winning the Stanley Cup. But what none of them pictured was how the city would respond.

"Did I ever expect we'd be here?" Leeder muses. "The answer is yes. You don't go into the NHL unless you're serious about getting to the Stanley Cup final. But to think about how the city is going crazy. Just to see the level of excitement. I don't think anybody could have predicted that." The defining moment for Sexton was the rally at city hall last Thursday.

"It used to piss us off that everyone said Ottawa was a sleepy government town and that the fans won't support the team," Sexton says. "We believed the fans would support us. The rally was just awe-inspiring. This was a city swept up and in love with the Senators. I've never seen anything quite like that in Ottawa. It was like the dream had come true." A few days ago, Sexton says, a local executive told him he walked into a business meeting wearing a suit. Everyone else in the meeting was wearing a Senators jersey.

"They looked at him and said where the hell is your Senators jersey," Sexton says. "He said, 'I was so embarrassed.' '' While the ultimate goal is still four wins away, there's still something special for Sexton in seeing the Senators play for the Stanley Cup on home ice.

"I suspect I will be fairly emotional," Sexton told The Ottawa Citizen. "It's been a long time coming. There were a lot of obstacles and a lot of hardships and a lot of pain.

"When the three of us dropped the puck at the first exhibition game in 1992, it was beyond what I had expected. If history is an indicator, (tonight) will be beyond anything any of us ever imagined." His voice rising, Sexton described what has kept him close to the Senators and to hockey for almost 20 years.

"For me personally, there is nothing more exhilarating than going into an arena and the arena is absolutely full and the crowd is revved up and the players are revved up and you played a part in making that happen."

The Ottawa Senators may not win the 2007 Stanley Cup (they had better win tonight or they’ll be all but finished), but it’s thanks to Firestone, Leeder and Sexton the dream lives in Ottawa. Be very sure of this, if the Ottawa Senators somehow manage to climb that mountain and claim the cities first Stanley Cup in 80 years, the City of Ottawa will change forever. Passion, excitement it’s all in Ottawa right now, where winning a Stanley Cup matters to each and every person who lives in Canada’s capital.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail.

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