People and Places

Exclusive: Excerpt from Bruce Firestone’s new book about the Senators

Bruce Firestone is the founder of the Senators and the author of a new book about his quest to bring the team to Ottawa, Don’t Back Down: The Real Story Behind the Founding of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.

In these edited excerpts, Firestone recalls how one of the original Sens helped make the pitch for the franchise’s return to pro hockey at NHL meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, the nailbiting moments when the club’s liquor licence wasn’t ready for opening night, and his thoughts on the future of the Canadian Tire Centre if the club moves to a new arena on LeBreton Flats.


For some reason, the Ottawa Fire Department Marching Band played loudly outside the huge Breakers boardroom where the NHL’s Board of Governors was meeting while every other city was making their presentations. But during ours, they fell strangely quiet.

When I walked into that room, Bruce McNall, then-owner of the Los Angeles Kings, asked me, “Is that your goddamned band?”

“No,” I answered, “it’s his,” pointing over my shoulder with my thumb to where Ottawa mayor Jim Durrell was following me in. Jim, along with employees Cyril Leeder and Randy Sexton, legal counsel, former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Peat Marwick Thorne accountant Gary Burns were part of our six-member inner cabinet responsible for our bid.

Everyone laughed.

Not only had the Ottawa fire department marching band, along with a horde of local media and fans joined us in Palm Beach, Frank Finnigan was there.

Frank “Shawville Express” Finnigan played on the last Sens team to win the Stanley Cup (in 1927). He helped land a modern-era team for Ottawa by joining us in Palm Beach in December 1990 at age 89.

He was the spirit of our group, and he and I had become friends. He was an old dude, but still had a great handshake (hockey hands never leave a player — they are big, thick, and very strong).

Frank took this opportunity to take (then NHL president) John Ziegler aside and say, while wagging one enormous finger in his face, “John, you give those boys from Ottawa a chance. You hear me?”

“Yes, Mr. Finnigan, I hear you,” John said. “Everyone is on the same playing field.”

That’s a lawyer’s answer. Frank pressed on, “A level playing field, John, with a real chance to win.”

There’s a reason why Mr. Finnigan’s No. 8 hangs in the rafters at Canadian Tire Centre — it isn’t just how hard he campaigned with us to get a team, that he was an inspiration to our group, and also willing to travel like he did (with his son, Frank Junior, helping him). No, it’s also how he died.

One thing that is not well understood by outsiders is how tight the NHL family is. There is genuine respect for the history of hockey that I think is comparable to the respect baseball gives its heroes — old and new. So when an elder who played in the league speaks, people — even the hardnosed businessmen who run it — listen.

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Frank’s No. 8 is retired in the Canadian Tire Centre’s rafters, but not for this alone. No, what happened a year later still ranks for me as one of the great moments of my association with the team.

As we inched closer to completing our transaction with the NHL, we were providing regular updates to Frank and Frank Junior.

A few weeks before Christmas 1991, Frank’s health took a turn for the worse — he was hospitalized. Still he refused to die.

Finally on Dec. 19, 1991, we fulfilled all the conditions of grant of franchise — to pay $50 million to the league, to sell 10,000 season tickets and to make significant progress on a new facility — as well as meet myriad other minor conditions. Once the escrow was broken, the league got the last tranche of their money and we received our grant of unconditional franchise.

One of the first calls we made was to Frank Junior to let him know, “We did it. We are now unconditional league members. Thank your father for all he has done for us. Tell him, OK?”

Right away, Frank Junior went into his dad’s hospital room and told him.

Dad then dictated a message, which reads, “Congratulations Bruce to you and all your dedicated staff. Your hard work has certainly paid off! I am proudly looking forward to the first Ottawa Senator NHL game in October ’92. Sincere best wishes to all, Frank Finnigan.”

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If you look at the (note) you’ll see that the body of the message is in one handwriting (Frank Junior’s) and the signature another (Frank Senior). Even though Frank couldn’t write out the whole thing, you can see his signature is still strong. Also, look at the date — Dec. 20, 1991.

It was Frank’s last mission on earth. After this, he felt he’d done all he could do, and now he was finally free to leave. He died Dec. 25, 1991. God rest his soul.

The day the Sens started playing in the no-account Civic Centre (Oct. 8, 1992), we were still having trouble with the provincial government.

If you beat those SOBs, they never forgive or forget. If any politician ever tells you he doesn’t read his press, or it washes off him like water off a duck’s back, he is lying to you.

The clock was counting down to a 7 p.m. start time; gates were due to open around 6 p.m., and we still did not have a liquor permit.

How come? Did we forget?

Ha, ha.

No, we didn’t forget.

It so happened that in Ontario, you could serve beer at professional baseball games (let’s go Blue Jays!) but not at professional hockey games, which up to that point meant the Toronto Make Beliefs. But former Leaf owner Harold Ballard’s mom told him, “Harold, don’t you ever let the Devil into our building! I forbid it! You can never sell evil alcohol, the Devil’s own brew, never, never, never!”

Prohibition lives!

So like any good son, he listened to his mom. No beer at Leaf games.

Well, my mother’s parents came from Russia, and they’d been known to enjoy the occasional flagon of vodka; the more they consumed the better my grandfather played his balalaika, and the louder they sang.

So no such constraints existed in Ottawa.

But the frigging NDP government of Ontario was sitting on our liquor permit.

Think about this: thousands of fans and 125 (mainstream media) reporters and camera crews are about to enter your building. You have all the Molson beer in the world sitting in coolers that have to remain locked until you post your liquor license on a wall somewhere in your soon-to-be-licensed 12,000-seat bar, er, arena.

Lobbyist and political mastermind Rick Anderson was sitting in a Toronto reception room at Queen’s Park, waiting on the minister of consumer and corporate affairs to sign our liquor license. He was there the whole day.

Finally, the minister decided he wanted to go home, and preferring not to have to face Mr. Anderson or worse, have Rick follow him to his house, he signed our liquor license at 5 p.m. … in Toronto.

Rick made a 5:40 p.m. return flight to Ottawa, and we had Ottawa police form an escort bringing him to the Civic Centre. The license was posted just before 7 p.m. Everyone who got a beer between the gates’ opening and 7 got a phony one — you know, insipid dealcoholized versions.

Sorry about that.

Well, here is an opportunity to right a generational wrong. The NCC, under new leadership now, is willing to consider using part of their lands at LeBreton Flats for a new downtown building. They’ve come to realize that what they are producing with their private sector partner at LeBreton Flats is a catastrophe — another no-place. So to animate it, they are willing to look at adding the Sens and a new arena there.

Delicious irony, brothers and sisters.

So what will happen to CTC and Kanata if the Sens depart for downtown?

Well, firstly, it’s the NCC we are talking about. It’ll take years for them to make a decision like this.

Secondly, as you already know, Cyril (Leeder)’s view is that the engine of all these franchises is their fan base from 18 to 35 or maybe 40 or 45, and these folks want a downtown arena.

Thirdly, the city of Ottawa is finally building light rail, so moving people in and out of the downtown core will get easier…

OK then, let me ask you again, what will happen to CTC and Kanata? Will it be an economic disaster?

The simple answer is yes, and no.

Yes, in the sense that animation (i.e., more development) around Canadian Tire Centre will have to wait until uncertainty about future plans are settled —  either they are going to LeBreton Flats or they are not.

I mean, would you build a new hotel or condo next to an arena that might go dark in a few years — its lead tenant having absconded to greener pastures? No, you would not.

The answer is also, “No.” It will not be an economic disaster, and I can prove it to you.

Wal-Mart said that one of their biggest mistakes was not building bigger (much bigger) in Kanata. The repurposing of old Maple Leaf Gardens for a superstore (Loblaw) and Ryerson University’s MAC Centre has been a huge success. Something similar could be done with Canadian Tire Centre — at least the big box part.

I would really like it if (Eugene) Melnyk would call me up, and ask me to lease CTC for him to two or three superstores.

Basically, it’s my belief that Eugene might actually make more dough from having two superstores occupy his building than from having the Sens as his lead tenant.

And from west-end Ottawa’s viewpoint, it might make very little difference other than losing some prestige from hosting an NHL team.

Using Wal-Mart as an example, their total customer count each week is about 100 million people visiting one of their 4,255 stores. This works out to an average of 23,502 visitors a week, or 1.22 million people per year. If the other superstore sees the same kind of numbers, then total attendance at a new, rebranded CTC might be around 2.44 million people per annum.

That’s even more than visit the building now.

Kanata will be fine, maybe even better off economically than it already is.