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Bruce Firestone, the guy responsible for bringing the Senators back to Ottawa, doesn’t consider himself a hero. Instead, he says he’s just a fan who has a difficult time getting to sleep on Senators’ game nights unless he knows the final score.
“The founding of the Ottawa Senators – everybody who bought a season ticket, every sponsor, the Ogden Corporation – there were thousands of people who helped us,” said Firestone. “It was a community effort and I was just one of those people.
“I’m not the Sens’ founder, I’m their mother. That’s my baby. I adore the team, I hope I live long enough to see a Stanley Cup parade. But I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my role . I still work for a living. I’m a real estate broker and I do some real estate coaching. I’m pretty focused on being a good family man and doing a good job for my clients so I don’t spend a lot of time looking back.”
But that doesn’t mean Senators’ fans don’t remember his crucial role.
Senators owner Bruce Firestone, league president John Ziegler and Lightning front man Phil Esposito trade congratulatory handshakes after the NHL announces the awarding of franchises to Ottawa and Tampa Bay on Dec. 6, 1990.
The original Senators NHL franchise had folded back in 1934. What Firestone dared to dream, then go out and do, helped shape the sports face of Ottawa. Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down became the theme song for the group bidding to bring an NHL franchise back to the capital, then later the basis for Firestone’s book, Don’t Back Down The Real Story Behind the Founding of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.
It began in 1988 in a dressing room, with Firestone, Cyril Leeder until recently the Senators’ president and Randy Sexton now the Buffalo Sabres’ assistant general manager sitting around after a game of pickup hockey at the old Lions Arena.
Here’s how Sexton remembers it, as told to reporter Chris Stevenson “ Firestone said to us, ‘I think the NHL is going to expand’ and we took another swig of beer and said, ‘Okay Bruce.’ Then he said, ‘And I think Ottawa would support a team’ and we nodded and said, ‘OK, Bruce.’ And then he said ‘I think we’re the guys to do it,’ and we spit our beer out on the floor.”
Over the next three years, Firestone and his real estate company, Terrace Investments, bought property and prepared a bid. They flew to almost every NHL city, meeting members of the NHL board of governors.
“I don’t think it’s very different than running for mayor,” recalled Firestone. “Instead of having tens of thousands of voters, you only have a couple dozen. There were no babies to kiss, but there was lots of handshaking and telling them good things about Ottawa.”
On Dec. 6, 1990, bidders – including Tampa Bay, Miami, St. Petersburg and Hamilton – gave a final presentation to the board of governors at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. Here’s how Firestone remembers it “Myself, Cyril, Randy, Gary Burns, then mayor Jim Durrell and Elliot Richardson were in the basement of the Breakers, thinking we had lost and the winners were on the main floor being told they had won. Here we are in the basement, close to the prep kitchen. There was garbage all over the place, the pipes were leaking on us http://www.senatorshockeygear.com/craig-anderson-jersey-c-28.html, it looked pretty bad.
Bruce Firestone, governor of the Ottawa Senators, and National Hockey League President John Ziegler sign an agreement to bring an NHL expansion team to Ottawa. Jan. 14, 1991 DAVID CANTOR
“We were taken upstairs to the boardroom. Marcel Aubut, representing the Québec Nordiques, came up to me and said, ‘Felicitations, mon ami.’ I thought he was congratulating us for a good try. Finally, I got to the front of the board room; there was the president of the National Hockey League, John Ziegler. Sure enough http://www.senatorshockeygear.com/dion-phaneuf-jersey-c-25.html, on a piece of a paper was written, ‘The NHL is pleased and proud to announce today that conditional memberships have been awarded to the cities of Ottawa and Tampa.’ That was the first moment all of us knew we’d actually won the thing.
“It was a great moment. Randy must have jumped 30 inches straight up. I didn’t know he had that kind of vertical.”
But the 50 million expansion fee to the NHL was just the start; many obstacles lay ahead. There was, for example, pushback from the provincial NDP government of Bob Rae, which decided Terrace should pay 30 million of its own money for a highway interchange to a new arena in Kanata. The business plan counted on a large development project on 600 acres of farmland owned by Terrace. Eight months after the NHL awarded Ottawa its conditional franchise, the Ontario Municipal Board rejected Firestone’s development vision. Ironically enough, that vision is now taking shape with Tanger Outlets, the Palladium Auto Park, offices and condos near the Canadian Tire Centre.
“Having the provincial government come down in opposition to what we were doing was pretty damaging Zack Smith Jersey,” said Firestone. “A few weeks after he got the Tampa Bay franchise, Phil Esposito called me and he was pretty excited. He said. ‘Hey http://www.senatorshockeygear.com/marc-methot-jersey-c-24.html, guess what, Bruce? I just got a call from the governor of the state of Florida congratulating me on bringing NHL hockey to the state.’ I said, ‘That’s great, Phil. Congratulations.’ He said, ‘How did your reception go?’ I said, ‘We got a lawsuit from the Ontario government .’ “
Rod Bryden, who was brought in to help finance the Senators and the new arena, then known as The Palladium, would take over as majority owner in 1993. Eugene Melnyk would later buy the team. But it survived thanks to the initial dream of Bruce Firestone.
A side note Firestone bought the Ottawa Rough Riders’ CFL franchise from Bernie Glieberman in 1994, then sold it to Horn Chen a year later.
There is no doubt what Firestone’s initial NHL dream meant to the city. Ottawa has embraced the Senators, come to love its stars, agonized when it suffered losses. And one day soon, planners hope to see an NHL arena on LeBreton Flats, on the edge of downtown.
“People laugh, but I say it was the most important thing that happened to Ottawa since we were named the capital,” Durrell told the Citizen. “It made Ottawa a major league city in every respect.”
Montreal Canadians captain Denis Savard shakes hands with Ottawa Senators founder Bruce Firestone during the ceremonial puck drop prior to the start of the 1992 season. ROD MACIVOR /
Today, it’s difficult to imagine the nation’s capital without a hockey team – one that took the city on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, right into the conference finals while their Battle of Ontario arch rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, were long gone less than two months ago.
What does it mean to have the NHL in Ottawa? Let’s hand the microphone over to Stompin’ Tom Connors “Oh, the good ol’ hockey game is the best game you can name. And the best game you can name is the good ol’ hockey game.” Go Sens.
27 July, 2017
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