Column: Why the Ottawa Senators call Kanata home

Some critics say the decision to build a west-end arena is behind the Sens’ failure to sell out playoff games. As Bruce Firestone argues, the Senators would be playing in Anaheim if the then-Palladium wasn’t built in Kanata.
Canadian Tire Centre
Canadian Tire Centre (Photo by Aaron Toth / Flickr)

As the Ottawa Senators get ready to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday, there is considerable discussion about why the Sens are having so much difficulty filling their rink.

The woes started with the failure to sell-out the Canadian Tire Centre during the season opener against Ontario rivals Toronto, continued throughout the regular season and continued into the playoffs, including last night’s third-round game that included some 3,000 empty seats and led the team’s president to issue a plea on Twitter for fans to buy more tickets:

It may have something to do with a malaise in the local economy (although the unemployment rate in Ottawa-Gatineau is an astoundingly low 5.3 per cent), federal civil servants still not being allowed to accept free tickets or be guests at the rink, the high cost of going to a live game, the convenience of watching for free on television at home, the lack of belief that the Sens can actually win, or maybe a negative perception of team executives.

Additionally, there may be a sense among some to simply wait until the team relocates to a more central downtown arena.

So there is a great deal of blame being heaped on the team’s original founders who ultimately chose the suburban Kanata location for its current attendance woes. Why would anyone have been foolish enough to stick a major community facility like the Palladium (the arena’s original moniker) in the sticks?

Here’s one reason: If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have to worry about flagging attendance because the team wouldn’t be playing in Ottawa. It would be in Anaheim. That’s right. If the Ontario Municipal Board hadn’t approved its current location, there was no way the team could have survived playing in the Ottawa Civic Centre, a 10,000-seat arena.

The Sens had a standing offer to relocate to California to play out of a then Ogden-owned arena, which lacked a primary tenant. This was before the advent of the Mighty Ducks, now the Ducks, who play out of the Honda Center.

So here’s an excerpt from Don’t Back Down, The Real Story of the Founding of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and Why Big Leagues Matter, a version of which also appeared in OBJ in 2009. It explains why Canadian Tire Centre is where it is:

As one of the founders of the Ottawa Senators, I get asked why the Canadian Tire Centre (CTC) is in Kanata and not at (pick one): Lebreton Flats, Lansdowne Park, in Orléans somewhere along Highway 174, at South Keys, at Lac Leamy in Gatineau or right downtown like the Bell Centre in Montréal or the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

All of these locations were ones we looked at from 1987-89 before we decided on the current location for the Palladium—in Kanata along Highway 417 (the Queensway) with its “own” interchange.

First, here are a few observations that came primarily from Gino Rossetti, Detroit-based architect of record for the Palladium as well as the Palace of Auburn Hills where the NBA’s Pistons play. A city needs an arena site that has:

  • A large horizontal surface for parking
  • A site that is not less than 85 acres and preferably 100
  • Access to a major transportation corridor
  • Access to public transit
  • A site that would allow the structure to be half in the ground and half above grade to distribute guests more efficiently and to make the building more human scale.

Other things on our collective wish-list included:

  • Access at grade
  • Double-loaded storefronts at grade so that on days when the arena is dark, there is still be life in and around the facility
  • Opportunity for architectural signage to maximize that revenue stream
  • A curtain-wall entrance that left no doubt as to how to access the arena.

Let’s first look at some of the alternative sites. LeBreton Flats is owned by the National Capital Commission and the NCC informed us that they had a (very) long-term plan for the site that did not include an arena, even if was going to be a “very nice arena”, it was still just a rink to them. They felt that national priorities such as a new museum (which turned out to be the War Museum) or a new Supreme Court of Canada building should take precedence.

Now you might ask, “But how come the Sens and the NCC are today talking about moving the team to LeBreton?”

Good question.

The answer is simple: Over the last 25 years, the NCC has had a change of heart. They aren’t too impressed with the state of development at LeBreton today, and believe they need to find new ways to animate the site to make it more of a Toronto Distillery District and less like outer suburbia. Animation here means creating a live-work-play-entertain-learn-make-shop-walkable community, which requires an anchor like an arena and major league sports team.

We also looked at the Lac Leamy site where the Casino du Lac Leamy is now. It’s a beautiful site, next to water, close to a major highway and just five minutes from Parliament Hill. Better yet, it was for sale at that time. After all, you can’t build on a site that doesn’t belong to you (i.e., in the case of NCC ownership of LeBreton Flats).

But there were already two NHL teams in the province of Québec (unfortunately, les Nordiques have long since moved from Québec City to Denver) and the majority of the Senators potential fan base did not want to see a third team headquartered there while Ontario still only had one team.

What about locating a team at Lansdowne Park?

There were three significant issues with that choice. Firstly, the Civic Centre would be impossible to renovate for the reasons I dealt with above.

Secondly, there are more lawyers living in the Glebe than practically anywhere else in Ottawa. How would they and the Glebe community react to having another two million visitors descend on their neighbourhood? I can tell you from hard experience—not well. The planning for a new arena might have taken years to get approved, if ever.

Thirdly, we felt that the NCC (again) would never allow Ottawa’s transit operator, OC Transpo, to run buses on Queen Elizabeth Drive. Hence, the only way to get people in and out by public transit would be Bank Street. The maximum number of people that OC Transpo can run up and down Bank Street is about 2,500 people per hour.

For an arena with a 20,000 person capacity, it would take four hours to exit everyone from the building using buses, if you were to rely on public transit for, say, 50 per cent of attendance at a game or an event.

Now that tells you something about why the ACC and the Bell Centre are downtown arenas. We could have built the Palladium on a downtown site if Ottawa had a big-time peoplemover like the Métro in Montréal or the subway in Toronto. Those two systems can move between 20,000 and 30,000 people per hour - a huge increase from what OC Transpo can do.

But I can tell you that if we relied on buses, we would have had one sellout – opening night. After that, there would have been a fan revolt.

In fact, people coming from Orléans by car could have taken more time to get to Lansdowne Park than to get to CTC, considering the traffic issues around the site.

So why not build a big, multi-level parking garage? Well, for the reason discussed above, you can't actually park more than 7,000 vehicles vertically. Since everyone will leave at the same second the team loses in overtime to the Maple Leafs, a multi-level garage will simply not work.

So I knew we needed a site we could own, that would have enough room for 7,000 cars and 500-plus buses on one level. The soil conditions had to be right to bury half the building. There had to be room for a new interchange and there had to be more than one way to get to the site. It couldn't be imposed on existing communities who would react in NIMBY fashion.

(Communities are now being built around CTC by Mattamy, Minto, Richcraft and others, but the key difference here is that people who buy these homes are self-selecting to be near CTC.)

We looked for a long time for an appropriate site and didn't find one – the Central Canada Exhibition Association (CCEA) did that for us.

The association had thought about moving from Lansdowne Park for some time. Its board actually found the site where CTC is now; one day I read in a local newspaper that the CCEA had optioned a site of some 500 to 600 acres at Huntmar and the Queensway. I jumped in my car and drove to the Huntmar overpass, and I stood on the bridge looking east. I could see the homes of Kanata marching like ants over Moodie Hill and I knew that the CCEA had beaten me to a great site.

I silently saluted them and cursed them, too.

I told the guys at Terrace Investments Ltd., the first parent company of the Sens. We were all disappointed.

But only a couple of months later, for reasons known only to the CCEA, its board decided to release its options on these lands. By 10 a.m., Jim Steel (still vice-president of broadcast with the Sens) and I were sitting in one of the local farmer's homes drinking rye and trying to convince the family to sell their lands to us.

Fortunately, many of these fine people did. We ended up with 600 acres.

We told only a few people what we were doing – Des Adam, then mayor of Kanata and Jimmy Durrell, mayor of Ottawa and Andy Haydon, RMOC chair.

We told them and then-premier of Ontario, David Peterson, that they each had a magic wand and we wanted them to use it – private money would buy the team ($50 million) and build the building ($240 million), but we needed three things from the government. One, we needed the 100-acre Palladium site and the remaining lands (500 acres) rezoned for a major community facility and other uses. Two, we needed public monies to fund the $30-million interchange because the day the interchange was completed, it would have to be given to the Ministry of Transportation for Ontario for $2.

Three, we needed their support to sell Ottawa to the NHL.

We asked them to focus their wands on the Palladium lands and, presto, the lands (after due process) would be rezoned. The average price we paid for the lands was $12,000 per acre and we made no secret of the fact that, after rezoning, we hoped the value would increase to $112,000 per acre (lands in the area are now trading for $300,000 to as much as $546,000 per acre).

The $100,000-per-acre increase in value, multiplied by the 500 acres of surplus land we had bought and planned to resell would equal the $50-million purchase price of NHL expansion.

But we told the guys we wouldn't keep that money – we'd take it to the NHL and in return, would get a piece of paper called a NHL franchise under the NHL's "plan of sixth expansion." We would put Ottawa on the map and it wouldn't cost the City of Ottawa a dime.

We won local votes in Kanata and at the RMOC by a margin of 32 to one and obtained the agreement of the Ontario Liberal government to our three requests. Things were looking pretty good in the summer of 1990.

But for some reason, Mr. Peterson decided to call an election two and a half years early and, with a nearly impossible splitting of the vote, Bob Rae and the NDP came to power later that summer.

As a result, after we won a conditional franchise for Ottawa in December 1990, we knew that we faced a brutal Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing to face off with our own provincial government who would a) not support a franchise, b) use all their power to defeat the rezoning and c) not pay for any public infrastructure.

When our lawyer told us we were losing the hearing, I decided to make a public offer – if the OMB approved 100 acres for the Palladium, we would try to keep the other 500 acres in agricultural use for a generation. This would allow the NDP, hockey fans and Ottawa to find a win-win-win solution.

But the offer was rejected by the NDP and the matter was litigated to a conclusion – the board ruled that rezoning for the Palladium could proceed. But it was silent about the fate of the other 500 acres. Plus, we would have to pay for the new interchange. Consequently, we wrote down the value of our land holdings by $50 million and took another equity hit of $30 million (the value of the interchange).

That's why we have NHL hockey in Ottawa, why other people own those lands now and why yours truly is a real estate investment and business coach.

Bruce Firestone is a founder of the Ottawa Senators, Century 21 Explorer Realty broker and a real estate investment and business coach. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce or email him bruce.firestone@century21.ca