A rendering of the proposed LeBreton Flats Arena. Photo courtesy of Rendezvous LeBreton Group

INSIGHT: Senators need to score LeBreton Flats stadium

By Micaal Ahmed
Low attendance, poor performance, trade rumours — will Erik Karlsson be back next year? — and other troubles have made this a season the Ottawa Senators would love to forget.

There was even a petition from angry fans urging Sens owner Eugene Melnyk to walk away and spend his money elsewhere.

But could the team’s planned move to a new downtown stadium be the light at the end of the past year’s dark tunnel? No. Could the move at least be a step in the right direction, one that needs to be taken as soon as possible? Yes.

In 2016, the National Capital Commission’s board of directors voted to begin negotiations with RendezVous LeBreton — the group backed by the Sens that aims to redevelop a huge part of LeBreton Flats around a new NHL arena.  For more than a year, zero progress was made.  But in January, the Senators and their partners finally reached an agreement-in-principle with the federal agency — and it seems that construction could begin a year from now.

Melnyk, meanwhile, recently wrote a letter to Senators’ fans, perhaps in a bid to soothe feelings hurt by the businessman’s ill-chosen words in December that seemed to blame the citizens of Ottawa for poor ticket sales and the potential loss of the franchise to another city.

“The passion of our fans in the Ottawa community is unlike any other in the NHL,” Melnyk wrote in his open letter last month. “As an owner, that is the most important thing of all. That’s why we are looking to improve every aspect of the Ottawa fan experience.

“And, of course, we continue to work towards realizing our vision for LeBreton Flats.”

The agreement-in-principle and Melnyk’s letter were good signs that the Senators are turning the page on a nightmarish time in the team’s history. It was only a few months ago when hockey know-it-all Don Cherry was predicting that if the Sens don’t move downtown, the team would soon be gone from Ottawa altogether.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, too, had stated that the Sens need a downtown arena for long-term stability as a franchise. And Melnyk, just when the city should have been revelling in an outdoor classic against the Montreal Canadiens and celebrating the NHL’s 100th birthday just before Christmas, spoke recklessly about taking the Senators out of Ottawa if bigger crowds didn’t start showing up.

Before the agreement-in-principle was struck, the Sens’ dismal on-ice performance, financial woes and weak ticket sales did seem like bad omens of an ominous future.

In Edmonton, after the Oilers opened the doors of a new $600-million rink in the heart of the city, it became a showpiece and a tourist attraction. The new arena also spurred economic growth in Edmonton’s downtown, with a spate of new developments in the vicinity of Rogers Place.

If a lesson is to be learned from Edmonton, it’s that building a downtown arena would benefit not only the Ottawa Senators, but the entire city.

Getting to this point hasn’t been smooth sailing, nor does it look like an easy journey ahead in the Sens’ quest for a downtown stadium. Just two of many possible obstacles — First Nations concerns with the planned development and the need to decontaminate a huge swath of LeBreton Flats soil —  are the subject of other stories in this issue of Centretown News.

Getting the arena built might be an uphill battle, but it’s one that the Senators need to win.