Ottawa·Analysis

Hockey on Parliament Hill would break most of the protocols for activities there

The idea of having an outdoor NHL game on Parliament Hill has captured the imagination of many. But the plan is fraught with challenges, not least of which is that it would break most Hill protocols.

Lansdowne being passed over, even though clearly more appropriate venue

Clarke MacArthur celebrates after scoring a goal for the Ottawa Senators at the 2014 Heritage Classic against the Vancouver Canucks, held in BC Place. The Sens franchise is hoping to play another classic on the front lawn of Parliament Hill in 2017. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

The historical stars appear perfectly aligned to attract an NHL outdoor classic to Ottawa in 2017.

It will be the 100th anniversary of the first NHL game, which was played in Ottawa between the Senators and the Montreal Canadiens, the 25th anniversary of the modern Sens franchise, and, of course, the country's 150th anniversary.

What could be more poetic than celebrating Canada's game on the lawn of Canada's seat of government during the waning days of a touchstone year?

But the plan is also fraught with challenges, not least of which is that it would break most of the protocols for the use of Parliament Hill. Not that that's prevented the idea from capturing the imagination of many a hockey-mad fan in the capital, not to mention the city's politicians.

"That's obviously the No. 1 choice, certainly of myself, and all of the tourism leaders," said Mayor Jim Watson on Tuesday afternoon. "The iconic shot of playing hockey on the front lawn of Parliament Hill is really quite irreplacable."

It's also the top — and possibly only — pick for the Senators. Franchise president Cyril Leeder told radio sports station TSN1200 early this week that "there's really only one option we've been working on and that's to try to find a way to make that game work on Parliament Hill." 

But making shinny work in the Peace Tower's shadow won't be as easy as yoga Wednesdays on the Hill lawn.

Ottawa Senators president Cyril Leeder told TSN1200 earlier this week that an outdoor game on the Hill is the only option they've been working on. (CBC News)

Game plan breaks most of the rules

Activities on Parliament Hill are regulated to protect the security of the public, but also to "maintain the integrity of this National Historic Site, where general respect for Canadian society and its democratic institutions is essential."

There's a long list of activities that are prohibited, all of which would indicate that an NHL game wouldn't be permitted on the Hill. They include:

  • Organized sporting events.
  • Charging admission fees.
  • Selling alcohol.
  • Selling food.
  • Structures of any kind, props, billboards.
  • Commercial advertising.

An interdepartmental committee — which includes representatives from the speaker's offices of the House of Commons and the Senate, Canadian Heritage and the National Capital Commission — can overturn these rules at any time. And it does.

There's yoga on the Hill on Wednesdays in the summer, and a number of friendly sports games are played on the greensward every year. But these events require the suspension of a couple of rules, not most of them.

More to the point, all events on the Hill are free. Not so with hockey. 

The average ticket price for the 2016 NHL Winter Classic held in Boston topped more than $430. It is difficult to see how a money-making organization like the NHL, selling access to Parliament Hill — not to mention peddling overpriced beer — respects our democratic institutions.

Challenges from security to money to construction

According to Watson, engineers have measured and generally scoped out the Hill, declaring it feasible to erect stands for a crowd of 30,000. 

But almost anything is feasible with enough money.

Temporary stands, and even full-service stadiums, are set up all over North America. But they aren't cheap. A temporary stadium with seating for 27,500 was built in Vancouver in 2010 at a cost of $14.5 million. And it took four months.

So we need to ask if we are ready to have the front lawn of Parliament Hill be under construction for weeks, possibly months, during the fall of the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Then there are the costs and logistical nightmares of security and transportation management. The RCMP must be involved, as well as Ottawa police and scores and scores of city workers to close streets and manage the movement of tens of thousands of people.

Asked about costs, Watson said Canadian Heritage "would have to be involved." The city would pick up some of the costs through its Ottawa 2017 budget, and there are usually sponsorships associated with these games. And, of course, there's the ticket revenue.

And as a final gesture of surrender in the last days of our sesquicentennial year, the hockey set-up is almost sure to cover up the Centennial Flame, which was first lit on July 1, 1967.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says he understands that there are a lot of logistical and financial hurdles to cross to host an outdoor game on the Hill.

Remember Lansdowne?

Watson said that while there's "a lot of goodwill" to try to make the game on the Hill happen, he gets that there are plenty of hurdles before the puck is dropped there.

"There are concerns, obviously," said Watson. "And we have to be concerned about the institution of Parliament because at the end of the day, its role is to govern and make decisions as opposed to holding a hockey game."

While the mayor is certainly open to holding the game at TD Place Stadium at Lansdowne, the Sens — who are the ones leading this bid — are less enthusiastic. In fact, there is some question whether we'd get a hockey game at all if we don't get one on the Hill.

Maybe that's a bluff on the Sens' part. Or maybe that's just a hard-nosed decision.

As Ottawa taxpayers, we have already paid more than $130 million to refurbish the stadium. Why should we pour more public dollars into hosting the game at a venue that very likely isn't appropriate for a paid event?

Lansdowne is clearly the perfect place for an NHL Classic. Having hosted the Grey Cup a month earlier, there would already be additional stands set up, bringing the capacity of the stadium to 36,000. Infrastructure and transportation plans are already in place to handle large crowds.

And while it wouldn't be quite as spectacular as having the Peace Tower looming over the home team net, the Rideau Canal doesn't make too shabby a backdrop for an outdoor game.

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.

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