Ottawa·Analysis

If Ottawa misses out on an outdoor NHL game in 2017, there'll be only 1 person to blame

It's not Sens owner Eugene Melnyk's fault that hockey on the Hill failed. But if the Senators deny Ottawa an outdoor game in 2017, there will be only one person to blame.

An outdoor game is in the Senators' best interests — and is completely in the hands of the team's owner

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk isn't saying whether he'll try to get an outdoor game at Lansdowne Park in 2017, now that his bid for a game on Parliament Hill has failed. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

For years there's been chatter about an outdoor NHL game to top off the 2017 celebrations here in the capital.

As early as 2012, Mayor Jim Watson was dreaming publicly about hosting a Grey Cup and then, a month later, an outdoor NHL game at the newly refurbished Lansdowne Park.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman knew that far back about Watson's hopes for the game at TD Place stadium. And there were reports four years ago that the Senators themselves were looking into playing the Montreal Canadiens at Lansdowne to mark the two teams' first NHL meeting a century earlier, in 1917.

In 2012, the Senators were looking at an outdoor game at Lansdowne Park in 2017. It's time to revisit that plan. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

So to hear lately that the Senators have only had eyes for Parliament Hill as a venue for the outdoor game is an interesting bit of revisionism.

Now, it's understandable that when someone got the bright idea that the Sens could conceivably hold a game right on the front lawn of the Hill, with the Peace Tower as its backdrop, the team — backed by NHL brass — would press single-mindedly on to get it done.

Forget that the plan was impractical in so many ways, would have required a whack of taxpayer money and would have broken virtually every rule governing what sort of activities are allowed on the Hill. The Canadian-ness of the idea was too overwhelming to ignore.

The Sens tried their best, but in the end, reason prevailed. On Nov. 4, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly officially iced the idea

Time to move on

Having had more than a week to lick their wounds, hockey fans across the capital are hoping that a disappointed Sens franchise — and its owner, Eugene Melnyk — can now move on.

While it's clear that holding an outdoor game at Lansdowne's TD Place is eminently practical, the hockey leadership is now playing coy, refusing to say whether they are even interested in another local venue.

And just this week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the league hasn't heard a peep from the team signalling interest in an alternate venue.

"So we're going to see if we want to play a game on Founders Day somewhere else, and by that I mean in a different city," Bettman is quoted as telling NHL.com.

Mixed messages

There are a lot of mixed messages here. Listening to Bettman, it seems clear the NHL has written Ottawa off.

But City Hall insiders characterized Thursday's meeting between Watson and Melnyk — cut short when news broke of an accident in the LRT tunnel — as "very, very positive," and believe a decision will be made in the coming weeks.

If that's the case, what is Bettman talking about? Is he trying to pressure Melnyk to make a move? Or does he want to lend the team leverage in its negotiations to bring a game to Lansdowne?

Melnyk's reticence to settle for Lansdowne is not completely unreasonable. The Canadian Tire Centre is in direct competition for concerts and other large events with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which runs Lansdowne, including the stadium. It's not in the Senators' interest to help a rival venue make money.

Game could generate $10M

But it's hard to believe the Senators can afford not to have an outdoor game.

Given what NHL outdoor game tickets usually cost, this single match can easily gross $10 million — and that's just ticket sales. Of course, not all that money will go to the franchise, but some of it will. 

An outdoor game could also help the Sens sell season tickets for 2017, since season ticket holders will get first dibs on seats for a popular outdoor match.

In a broader sense, the Sens also need the game to foster goodwill in their hometown. The team isn't exactly selling out games at its arena in Kanata, and if Melnyk refuses to hold a game at Lansdowne he risks tossing a wet blanket over the already dampened mood of the Sens Army.

The Ottawa Senators are at the centre of a winning bid to redevelop LeBreton Flats. (Image supplied by RendezVous LeBreton Group)

His way, or no way at all?

Remember that Melnyk is a key member of a team currently negotiating with the National Capital Commission to redevelop LeBreton Flats.

Considering the scope of that project, how much confidence can we be expected to have in a business leader who can't even arrive at a compromise on a one-off hockey game? One whose concern for the citizens and hockey fans of this city is so capricious that, when denied a game done his way, he may well opt for no game at all?

It is certainly not Melnyk's fault that hockey on the Hill failed, although the hurdles were so huge that it seemed a long shot from the start.

But if the Senators deny Ottawa an outdoor game during the city's 150th celebrations, on the centenary of the first NHL game the team ever played, there will be only one person to blame.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.