In a major executive shakeup with implications for the city’s tourism industry, the Ottawa Senators have replaced team president Cyril Leeder with Tom Anselmi, the former president and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
The team made the announcement Wednesday morning, saying Mr. Leeder would be immediately stepping down.
At a press conference, owner Eugene Melnyk said the decision to replace Mr. Leeder wasn’t a reflection on his performance, but rather about “reinvigorating the brand.”
“Cyril was here for 25 years. It was simply time for a change," he said.
Mr. Anselmi previously worked with MLSE, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, and Toronto FC. He spent 16 years as the company’s chief operating officer and served an additional year as president until he was replaced by current president and CEO Tim Leiweke.
Mr. Anselmi received criticism from some Toronto sports fans for failing to build teams that reached the playoffs, but the CV of the incoming Senators president bodes well for the construction of a new home for the Senators on LeBreton Flats.
Mr. Melnyk said that considerations for a new president began as soon as the Senators-backed Rendez-Vous LeBreton was selected as the NCC’s preferred proponent to redevelop the Flats.
“Looking, for the next 10 years, who’s going to do all this stuff? … You’re talking about a mini-city that you’re responsible for. I wouldn’t want his job.”
Mr. Melnyk went on to say that Mr. Anselmi’s background as a builder had “a lot” to do with the decision.
During his time with MLSE, Mr. Anselmi oversaw the construction of arenas including the Air Canada Centre and BMO Field, in addition to the Maple Leaf Square complex. Prior to that, he was involved in building the Skydome (now Rogers Centre).
However, Mr. Leeder was no stranger to large construction projects during his tenure with the Senators.
He oversaw the building of the team’s Kanata arena, originally known as the Palladium, and later won praise for his role on the board of the Ottawa Convention Centre during its $169.1-million reconstruction.
"His input on the board and the guidance was great in terms of keeping the project on line, and we did complete the project on time and on schedule. A lot of that had to do with Cyril," Pat Kelly, then the OCC’s president, told OBJ in 2011.
Mr. Anselmi says his long-term goal is to “build the best arena in the world,” with short-term plans of securing an outdoor game next season and a potential international game in Sweden.
“My job is to make sure this organization is the absolute best it can be … and start setting up for the future that’s going to unfold,” he says.
On the potential of an outdoor game, Mr. Melnyk says the team is still trying to secure one but the primary “hiccup” has been securing attendance to pack a stadium.
Despite a winning record that currently has the Ottawa Senators in second place in the Atlantic division, the team has struggled to fill the Canadian Tire Centre this season.
According to ESPN, Ottawa sits 21st out of the league’s 30 teams in average home game attendance, typically drawing around 16,100 spectators.
Senators owner Mr. Melnyk was quoted last month as calling the team’s attendance figures “unfortunate,” but expressed optimism that a competitive on-ice product would encourage fans to return.
Loss of a Leeder
Mr. Melnyk says Mr. Leeder was informed of the decision the day before it was announced, and took the news “like a pro.” On whether Mr. Leeder was considered for any other roles with the Senators, Mr. Melnyk says both men agreed there was “no opportunity for him” in the organization, but added that he hopes for a “cordial relationship” between Mr. Leeder and the team going forward.
Mr. Leeder’s tenure with the Ottawa Senators started even before the team returned to the ice in the 1992-93 season.
He helped secure the NHL expansion franchise alongside Bruce Firestone and Randy Sexton, later launching the Bell Capital Cup - a youth hockey tournament that attracts teams from around the globe - and becoming the team’s chief operating officer in 2002.
He was named president in 2009, replacing Roy Mlakar.
Mr. Leeder is a central figure in Ottawa’s tourism industry and has played a major role in attracting large events to the nation’s capital, including the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship and this year’s Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings curling competition, which will determine which teams will represent Canada in the 2018 Olympics.
“We used to bid for events 10 and 12 years ago and we didn’t do it very well and we just got tired of losing,” Mr. Leeder said in a 2013 speech to Ottawa’s business community. “So we made a focus on it to get good at it … Rather than just reacting to a bid when it came up, we had a group put together that pursues them in advance of the bids actually coming up.”
Mr. Leeder is also the co-chair of Ottawa’s bid committee to host the 2021 Canada Summer Games.
His departure is the latest personnel shakeup in the Senator’s front office in recent weeks.
The team’s chief marketing officer, Peter O’Leary, left the organization in December after slightly more than two years with the team, according to his LinkedIn profile.
More recently, the Senators said last week that they had hired Shiv Raj, a former manager in the prime minister’s office under Stephen Harper, as corporate development director.
And, in August, the Senators hired Stephen Brooks, a former Toronto Blue Jays executive, as chief financial officer.
He replaced Ken Taylor, who spent less than two years as the team's CFO after holding a series of executive positions in Ottawa's tech sector over nearly 25 years.
- With files from Peter Kovessy