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Bring Back the Senators
Colonel E.R. Bradley was a self-described "speculator, raiser of race horses and gambler," so it was fitting that the saloon in West Palm Beach, Florida, that bore his name was where the supporters of the Bring Back the Senators campaign gathered on a sultry night — December 5, 1990.
Gamblers is a fitting word to describe the men behind the bid to bring NHL hockey back to Ottawa: Terrace Investments Inc.'s president, Bruce Firestone, a brash 39-year-old entrepreneur; vice president, Randy Sexton; and COO, Cyril Leeder.
Firestone had come up with the idea to bid for an NHL expansion franchise over a dressing room beer with Sexton and Leeder after a pickup game of hockey at the old Lions Arena in Westboro. "He said to us, 'I think the NHL is going to expand,' and we took another swig of beer and said, 'Okay, Bruce,'" Sexton told me a few years ago. He continued, "Then he said, 'And I think Ottawa would support a team,' and we nodded and said, 'Okay, Bruce.' And then he said, 'I think we're the guys to do it,' and we spit our beer out on the floor."
Going into stealth mode, Terrace Investments quietly went about assembling the land they needed for a rink. They announced their plans to Bring Back the Senators in a fax (I still have it) to newsrooms in Ottawa on a June day in 1989. The reaction was: "Who?"
So there we were on that night in Florida, in a saloon, on the 542 day after the Terrace bid, with excitement and anticipation high. The Terrace group had made their presentation earlier that day, spending 63 minutes in front of the NHL's board of governors at the posh and stuffy Breakers resort in Palm Beach. They had presented their case for why Ottawa should be chosen from the remaining field of seven candidate cities to be awarded an NHL expansion franchise to begin play in 1992–93.
Most people were still overwhelmingly skeptical about whether NHL hockey would return to Ottawa following a 58year absence after the original Ottawa Senators, pummeled by the Great Depression, had picked up and left for St. Louis. There remained legitimate questions about whether Terrace had the $50 million franchise fee and the wherewithal to build a state-of-the-art arena, to be called the Palladium. At that point the rink was nothing but 100 acres of cornfield in the city's West End that was, at that moment, getting dumped on in the winter's first major snowfall. Who knew if the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) would even allow the land to be rezoned to allow the building of a rink?
Nobody was even sure the NHL governors would get the answers they wanted from the bidders and award any franchises. "I have a lot of experience dealing with the board of governors," Cliff Fletcher of the Calgary Flames told me on the eve of the meetings. "When they meet, it's not like dealing with the board of directors of a big corporation. It's more like the meeting of an oil cartel. Everyone has his own distinct and separate associations and, quite frankly, everyone has his own particular ox to gore."
There were twists and turns in the hours before the presentations. The morning of the presentations it was announced the OMB had shuffled its schedule to allow for a quick hearing into the zoning for the Palladium, to be built in the West End community of Kanata. The average wait was 16 months. The Terrace request was fast-tracked to March. That was good news.
The Tampa bid, fronted by Hall of Famer Phil Esposito and backed by Japanese investors, was dealt a blow when it was announced Hillsborough County commissioners voted 5 — 2 against spending $30 million of public funds on a $96 million rink for Tampa. "I don't know what to say," said Esposito, for the first time in his life.
Houston had withdrawn the week before, and Seattle bowed out just before the board of governors was to meet. That left Hamilton, Miami, Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg, San Diego, and Anaheim in the mix. They made their presentations throughout that day.
The Terrace boys were confident. They had painstakingly worked the room. They had produced an impressive leather-bound bid book. They knew the names of every governor's wife, girlfriend, and child. Birthday cards were hand-delivered. The paying of respects had been done in trips across North America. They had a theme song — Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" — and the backing of Frank Finnigan, the last surviving member of the original Senators. These guys knew how to market and knew how to sell the sizzle, even if they didn't have any steak. "It's crunch time, and we're more prepared than any other bid," Sexton said. "We have more civic, corporate, and political support than anybody else."
About 100 people had gathered at E.R. Bradley's to assess Ottawa's chances over a drink and rehash the day's events. Ottawa had had by far the most visible and noisy support of the eight cities that remained from the 11 that had originally put in bids for the NHL's sixth plan of expansion.
Hamilton, backed by doughnut czar Ron Joyce and his Tim Horton's chain, was viewed as the favorite if the NHL decided to give another franchise to Canada. St. Petersburg, backed by the computer company Compuware (owned by future NHL owner Peter Karmanos) and fronted by Karmanos's hockey guy, Jim Rutherford, was also seen as a front-runner.
The sunny, warm day started ominously for the Ottawa bid. The red-clad Ottawa Fire Department Band broke into a brassy rendition of Canada's "Centennial Song" at 9:30 am outside the Breakers and moved into a bouncy version of "This Land Is Your Land" — the Canadian version, of course.
About 50 supporters hefted placards attached to hockey sticks and chanted, "We want a franchise," giving the gathering the feel of a political rally. It wasn't exactly the kind of noise the blue-rinse, polo-playing patrons of the Breakers were used to experiencing along with their morning coffee. "We were told by hotel security that if the band struck up one more tune, we'd be physically removed," said Gary Thom, an insurance broker who was part of Kanata's chamber of commerce. "We came here with the interest of showing our support for the bid. We were looking forward to giving Ottawa a good positive image. We're disappointed. We're not here trying to create a stir."
"We couldn't hear anything through the band playing," said Godfrey Wood, who was president of Miami Hockey Inc. "And I've got a pretty good idea whose band it was."
When Firestone walked into the meeting room, Bruce McNall, then the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, barked "Is that your goddamned band?" In his book Don't Back Down: The Real Story Behind the Founding of the NHL's Ottawa Senators, Firestone wrote that he replied, "No, it's his," and gestured with his thumb to Ottawa's mayor, Jim Durrell, who was following him in.
Security inside was tight. The NHL's director of security was positioned menacingly outside the men's room closest to the boardroom where the governors were meeting. He was poised to prevent any media types from getting a story through a leak.
In the boardroom, there were six members for the Ottawa bid: Firestone, Sexton, Leeder, Durrell, former U.S. attorney general Elliot Richardson, who was their U.S. lawyer, and accountant Gary Burns. They made their presentation, which included a six-minute video, and took questions.
In the evening, the governors and the bidders gathered at the home of Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. The Terrace bidders worked the room to get a sense of where their bid stood. They needed the support of 16 of the NHL's 21 governors. "You're close, but you're not there," they were told by governors who liked what they had heard from Firestone and his group. "Get out there and start lobbying."
A few hours later, Firestone and the rest of the Terrace bidders showed up at E.R. Bradley's. Firestone, characteristically optimistic earlier in the day, was now shockingly somber. A governor, who might have been the host, had walked up to him at the reception earlier and told him Ottawa would get an NHL franchise "over my dead body." A threat? Grim reality? A test to see how Firestone would react? Whatever it was, it had left Firestone shaken. "Bruce is kind of white, all this work down the drain," remembered Leeder. "Everybody is partying except us. We're freaked out."
"It doesn't look good," Firestone told me quietly against the noise of the bar. His canvassing revealed 12 governors supported the Ottawa bid, 3 didn't, and there were "2 maybes and 4 wafflers." The ominous words of the governor had cast a pall over the bid. Supporters went to sleep that night thinking an NHL franchise, which had seemed so close hours before, was now heartbreakingly beyond their grasp.CHAPTER 2
Ottawa and Tampa
After being told by NHL governor Jeremy Jacobs that their campaign to bring an NHL expansion franchise to Ottawa was on the rocks, bidders Bruce Firestone, Randy Sexton, and Cyril Leeder left a party for the bid's boosters in West Palm Beach, Florida, and headed back to their hotel.
Firestone, despondent that two years of work had brought them so close but appeared not to be enough, called a meeting with his lieutenants in his suite at midnight. "It's all Randy and I can do to talk him into not withdrawing. What he wanted to do was withdraw," Leeder remembered. "He said, 'We know there are going to be more [expansion] teams; we'll be ready for the next round.' We said, 'We came this far. What have we got to lose?'"
They had made their presentation to the board of governors that day — December 5, 1990 — and Sexton had arranged a breakfast meeting for the next morning with Winnipeg Jets governor Barry Shenkarow and Ronald Corey of the Montreal Canadiens. The Terrace group wanted to get a feel for where they stood and to make one last appeal for Ottawa's candidacy.
The word from the governors over bacon and eggs: don't throw in the napkin just yet. "'You've done everything you can; just see what happens,' they said," remembered Leeder. "'Let the governors run their course. You have lots of friends on the inside, lots of people that believe in you guys.' We went back and told Bruce we had to stay in there. That's when he said, 'I'm going to go for a run.'" A little later, the word came down: the NHL wanted to see them. They had to wait for Firestone to come back from his run.
Jim Steel and some other Terrace executives were on the golf course at the Breakers. Everybody was rounded up for what they thought was going to be bad news. The group — Firestone, Sexton, Leeder, Ottawa mayor Jim Durrell, accountant Gary Burns, and former U.S. attorney general Elliot Richardson — was led through the basement at the Breakers and through a kitchen ("The pipes were leaking on us," said Firestone), and finally into a boardroom.
"It had to be a 10,000-square-foot ballroom," Leeder said. "Six of us standing there, and we don't know what's going on. The doors open after what seemed like an hour but was probably 10 minutes, and it's Esposito and the Tampa guys."
Phil Esposito, a Hall of Famer as a player and as a smooth-talking front man for the Tampa Bay bid, had been working to convince people hockey in Florida could work. It was an improbable proposition: hockey in the sunbelt backed by a Japanese golf course operator (don't forget, the Los Angeles Kings were the most southerly franchise at the time). Esposito's bid was viewed skeptically.
"The rumor down there was we had done a good job and Ottawa may be turning some heads," Leeder said. "Espo looks at us and says, 'It's Ottawa! This is the winners' room!' We looked at him and said, '(Bleep), it's Esposito. This is the losers' room.' "He said, 'It's Ottawa. We're getting a franchise,' and we said, 'No, no, we think this is the losers' room, buddy.'"
After standing around, Leeder needed a bathroom break and went down the hall to the men's room. Montreal Canadiens general manager Serge Savard got there at the same time. "We're in there having a leak, and he looks at me, winks at me, and says, 'Way to go. Well done. Congratulations.' I went back to the ballroom, and before I can say anything, they're wheeling us into the room," Leeder said.
As Firestone wrote in his book Don't Back Down, "The result was that on December 6th, 1990, I stood next to John Ziegler in the boardroom of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach shortly after 1 pm to read on a piece of paper: 'The NHL is pleased and proud to announce today that conditional memberships have been awarded to the cities of Ottawa and Tampa ...'"
Over the years, the story has been that the Terrace bidders and the Esposito group got their franchises because they were the only groups that didn't try to change the terms of the expansion deal. They answered yes to every question: "Will you pay $50 million on our terms?" "Yes." "Will you build an 18,000-seat rink?" "Yes."
Ron Joyce, the front man for the Hamilton bid, and other bidders were rumored to have tried to negotiate the terms of payment of the franchise fee, which was two payments of $22.5 million to go with the nonrefundable $5 million deposit. Firestone and his guys didn't blink.
As for the "over my dead body" comment made by the governor, Firestone wrote of a later conversation with that same man:
[That governor said,] "You see me and three members of the board got together. We decided to go up to each bidder and say, 'You will never, ever, ever get a franchise in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Houston, Portland, Ottawa, Seattle, Milwaukee, Hamilton ... "
"You did that?"
"We did. And the only two bidders who didn't quit, who kept going, were you and Phil. So we gave the franchises to Ottawa and Tampa. It was a character test."
The Senators passed.
The First to Know
You might have thought the first outside the NHL to know officially that Ottawa had won an expansion franchise was founder Bruce Firestone. You'd be wrong. He looked down and saw the paper NHL president John Ziegler was about to read from at a press conference at the Breakers Hotel; it announced Ottawa and Tampa as the winners. He was at least the second person to know.
In the lead-up to the bid, the guys at Terrace Investments got a call from a fellow named Dave Saunders from Brockville, Ontario, the hometown of Terrace executives Randy Sexton and Cyril Leeder. Saunders was looking for a job. They didn't have anything at that point but offered him a job helping with the then-upcoming bid presentation at the Breakers in Florida.
Here's Cyril Leeder, one of the three men who won the bid, with the story:
We needed guys to go down to Florida as part of the bid at the Breakers, just to help out, move stuff around. We asked him if he would be interested in going down to Florida. We told him, "We can't pay you much, but if we get the team, you'll be on the inside."
Dave goes into the board of governors' room to help set up our video for the presentation. He goes in, does what he has to do, works with the IT guys from the Breakers, gets everything set up. We go in, it's all working perfectly. Bang, bang, we do the presentation. That night, Saunders goes back to get all our gear out of the room. He goes back in, and there's nobody around. He goes into the room and starts getting our stuff. He looks up on the board and it's got all the cities on the board, the cities that had made their presentations. There's lines through them all, except Ottawa and Tampa are circled and it says "1:00 press conference," so he knew.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "100 Things Senators Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die"
Copyright © 2018 Chris Stevenson.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Bring Back the Senators,
2. Ottawa and Tampa,
3. Maybe Rome Was Built in a Day,
4. By the Book,
5. Thank the Smartest Guy in the Room,
6. The House That Rod Built,
8. The Best Goal in Senators History,
9. Opening Night Part II,
10. A Star-Studded Weekend,
11. Alfie's Night,
12. Senators and Habs Take It Outside,
13. Stop and Gaze upon the Mighty Carp River,
14. A Valley Boy Comes Home,
15. A Sour Note: Paul Anka and the Senators,
16. The Ghost,
17. Bloody Domi,
18. The Bald Wayne Gretzky,
19. Wing It in Buffalo,
20. Ottawa Apologizes,
21. The Brawl on Broad Street,
22. The First Star,
23. Lace 'Em Up on the Rideau Canal,
24. The View from the Alfredsson Deck,
25. The Joker,
26. A Beautiful Night,
27. Worst Senators Trade Ever,
28. We Have a Trade to Announce,
29. Bryan's Battle,
30. The Hamburglar,
31. A Game Puck for Nicholle,
32. The Franchise Kid,
33. Pucks, Poutine, and Party,
34. Tanks for Nothing,
35. Is There Anything Better Than a Good Goaltending Fight?,
36. That Time Darcy Tucker Could Have Been a Senator,
38. Marshall Law,
39. Bosch's World,
40. Shake It Off,
41. A Cruel End,
42. The White Whale,
43. A Bus, Barbed Wire, and Bones,
44. Four Goals for No. 44,
45. Have a Pint at the Big Rig,
46. The Lion Is Born: The Bizarre Story,
48. To Lift or Not to Lift,
49. A Long Way from Gothenburg,
50. The Perfect Senator,
51. Wonder Y,
52. "So You're an Expert",
53. Buddha Power,
55. A Legend Steps Down,
56. Turn Back the Clock at the Cattle Castle,
57. "We're Gonna Kill 'Em",
58. Full Circle,
61. Hit Hogtown,
62. Watch Your Step,
63. Player 61,
65. Tuckered Out,
66. And a Sixth-Round Pick ...,
67. Rate the GMs,
68. "It's Alexei Yashin!",
69. The White Monster,
70. A Last Game of Keep-Away,
71. Hit the Road,
72. The Captains,
73. Crazy Night in Buffalo,
74. Dean and Gord Part I,
75. Dean and Gord Part II,
76. Go Back to 1927,
77. No Pun Intended,
78. One for the Rhodes,
81. "Maybe Friday",
82. The Game Changer,
83. "Stop Looking at the Clock",
84. "Crooks with Taste",
85. Hoss and the Heater,
88. A Gift of Life,
89. Three $2,000 Pies,
91. The Shawville Express,
92. Paging Dr. Chow,
93. He Said What?,
94. Marshy's Big Night,
95. Visit Lord Stanley's Gift,
96. Ryan's Dog Days,
97. Get to Know T.P. Gorman,
98. That Time Chris Kelly Saved Alfie's Career,
99. One Last Great Night,
100. On Top of the Hill,