The Re-Birth of the Ottawa Senators

20 December 1991

Major league sports franchises have not always thrived in Ottawa, a relatively small market sandwiched between Toronto and Montreal, Canada’s two sporting giants. The city’s football team failed twice in recent decades, the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1996 and the Ottawa Renegades in 2002. The Red Blacks now take the field to uphold the Capital’s football honour in the Canadian Football League. Hockey too has had its challenges. After winning multiple Stanley Cups during the 1920s, the storied Ottawa Senators, collapsed in 1934. Barely profitable during good times, the team simply could not survive the ravages of the Great Depression. Decades later, a WHA franchise, the Ottawa Nationals, appeared and disappeared in a matter of months during the early 1970s.

Imagine the excitement, and the scepticism, when news broke in June 1989 that an Ottawa development company was not only attempting to restore NHL hockey to the nation’s capital after a break of close to 60 years, but it also planned to revive the old Ottawa Senators club, an honoured name that still resonated in Canadian hockey lore.

Ottawa senators original logo

Initial pre-launch Ottawa Senators logo used to fire up fan interest in 1989-90. This emblem was never official. Reportedly, the logo was rejected by the NHL for being too local. Team officials said that it was “the official logo of the campaign to bring back the Senators.” Fans who had bought Senators’ merchandise with this logo were not pleased when it was replaced by a Roman centurion. Sensnation.

That company was Terrace Investments Ltd, under the direction of its young president and chief executive officer, Bruce Firestone. Terrace Investments was no fly-by-night operation. The family-owned firm, established in 1956 by Bruce Firestone’s father, Jack Firestone, was well known, the developer of a number of commercial properties in the Ottawa region. However, bringing an NHL franchise to the city was a huge undertaking for the company, one that would require outside investors to bring it off as well as a lot of hard work and much good fortune. The price of admission was steep, a cool $US50 million. And that was before paying for players, building an arena, and covering all the ancillary costs associated with starting a hockey club from scratch, including putting together a convincing bid to the NHL’s board of governors.

A bid for an NHL franchise was not a wacky idea, however. The NHL was in the mood to expand after a decade of stability; it had previously added four new teams in 1979—Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets—former members of the World Hockey Association. Reportedly as many as thirty cities had expressed an interest in obtaining a hockey franchise. In addition to Terrace Investments’ bid for an Ottawa team, investors were interested in bringing major league teams to Halifax, Hamilton, Saskatoon and Kitchener-Waterloo. A number of US cities were also keen, including Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Seattle. As well, there was talk of European cities obtaining franchises in what would become a global hockey league. Cities like, Moscow, Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), Stockholm and Helsinki were mentioned as likely contenders. But did little Ottawa stand a chance? Many doubted it. The senior Firestone was sceptical of the idea. Ottawa Mayor Jim Durrell, while wishing Bruce Firestone well, thought his bid for an NHL franchise had little chance of success. Alan Eagleson, the former director of the NHL’s Players’ Association, said that Ottawa was a “long shot.”

Ottawa senators second logo

The first official emblem of the re-born Ottawa Senators (1991-1997). People criticized it for being “generic, derivative and unoriginal.” Some likened it to the Amex logo or the logo of the University of Southern California Trojans football team. Logopedia.

Firestone’s bold game plan was to build a 20,000-seat arena on agricultural land that Terrace Investments had purchased in West Carleton and Kanata. Around the arena would be constructed a mini-city of 9,000 residents to be called Terrace West. An adjacent, upscale hotel was also planned for the site. The cost of the franchise would be covered, at least in part, by Terrace reselling land for development, assuming the site was rezoned for commercial and residential use. This was a big assumption.

Firestone officially kicked off his bid for an NHL franchise at a news conference in early September 1989 with Frank “Finny” Finnegan at his side. Finnegan had been a member of the Ottawa Senators’ team that had won the club’s last Stanley Cup in 1927. Firestone also announced that plans for the new arena, to be called the “Palladium,” would be forthcoming shortly. Simultaneously, he launched a campaign for reservations for season tickets.

The words had hardly left his mouth when Firestone’s bid for a franchise hit the first of the many stumbling blocks that were to come. The Ottawa Senators of the Central Junior A Hockey League (CJHL) had launched a law suit over use of the name “Ottawa Senators.”

For the next fifteen months, Firestone worked hard to put together a package that would convince John Zeigler, the president of the NHL, and the NHL’s Board of Governors that his Ottawa Senators bid was genuine, and that he had the financial backing to bring it off.  Things initially moved smoothly according to Firestone’s game plan. In January 1990, Terrance Investments came to an agreement with the CJHL Senators over the name as well as members of the Thomas P. Gorman family who also had a claim on the name. In March, Terrace put up an initial non-refundable US$5 payment, a down payment on the $50 million franchise fee. Three months later, Regional Council and the Kanata City Council agreed to rezone the agricultural land for the construction of the Palladium. In October, Milwaukee, a front-running city in the bidding for an NHL franchise, pulled out, improving Ottawa’ chances. Subsequently, Ottawa Mayor Durrell urged supporters of the Ottawa Senators to swamp Premier Bob Rae with letters demanding provincial support for Firestone’s bid. The Premier complied sending a letter of support to the NHL governors on behalf of Ottawa, but also for Hamilton whose bid was backed by Tim Horton’s Donuts. Kanata residents were urged to support Operation Blackout in which they were to turn off their electricity on one day in November in support of the team. An estimated 134,000 people took part.

In early December 1989, the NHL’s Board of Governors met in conclave at the tony Breakers resort in Palm Springs, Florida to consider competing bids for NHL franchises. Firestone provided them with an impressive black, leather bound bid book with gold trim. Outside in the street in front of the hotel, the Ottawa Fire Brigade band and enthusiastic, placard-waving Senators supporters did their best to sway governors’ opinions.

Two years of lobbying and US$3.5 million in bid preparation costs paid off. Just before noon on 6 December 1989, President Zeigler announced that Ottawa, along with Tampa Bay, had been awarded conditional franchises.

From that point, the really hard slogging began. It was not obvious that Firestone and Terrace Investments would be able to meet all of the NHL’s conditions. Most importantly, there was the matter of finding US$45 million of the franchise fee to be paid in two tranches, the first by June 1991 and the second by December 1991. Second, the NHL insisted that by December 1991, Terrace had to have a binding financial agreement for the construction of the Palladium.

Both conditions were problematic. Terrace did not have the cash to make the payments; it needed outside investors. But Canada was experiencing a deep recession in 1991, and money was not easy to find. As well, much of Terrace’s financial plan hinged on the rezoning of prime agricultural land on the outskirts of Kanata for the construction of the arena and surrounding hotel, retail and residential development. But a Carp farmer, later joined by others, had protested the rezoning to the Ontario Municipal Board, setting in motion a hearing into the rezoning decisions made by Kanata and the regional government.

One condition that was easily met was the number of season tickets sold. In a ten-day selling “blitz” late December 1990, 9,355 season tickets were reserved for the Senators’ first season in the Ottawa Civic Centre, their temporary home before the Palladium was built. This was essentially all the seats in the arena. Following a renovation in 1991, capacity was increased to 9,793 seats by reducing the width of seats to a standard 16 inches.

Through 1991, Firestone worked on both the financing and zoning issues. To help him, Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Durrell, now a convert to the Senators’ cause, became President of the club in late 1990. Shortly afterwards, he resigned from the mayor’s chair after there were complaints of his “moonlighting.”

Terrace Investments began selling limited partnerships in the new franchise, which were divided into Class A, B, and C units. Buyers did come in, but it was slow going. And it looked touch and go whether the June US$22.6 million payment could be met. In the event, Terrace placed the funds in escrow on the due date (which had been extended a week for both Ottawa and Tampa Bay). Reportedly, Terrace borrowed the necessary funds. Funding prospects improved with news that Paul Anka, the crooner from the 1950s and 1960s who had roots in Ottawa, had stepped forward and bought a significant interest in the team and the Palladium project. A television deal with Baton Broadcasting for CTV affiliates CJOH in Ottawa and CHRO in Pembroke also brought in much needed cash.

The Ontario Municipal Board hearing, held over an eleven-week period through the summer of 1991, was a close call. The Ministry of Agriculture and Food as well as twelve individuals opposed the rezoning of prime agricultural land for other purposes. If there was no rezoning, the Firestone’s NHL’s franchise bid would fail. The opposition of the Minister of Agriculture incensed Firestone. Firestone thought that the NDP government’s hostility to the rezoning reflected its preference for Hamilton to receive an NHL franchise as Hamilton was an NDP stronghold.

The decision of the three-person Board hinged on six points. These comprised: the appropriateness of using agricultural land for commercial purposes, specifically a hockey area; whether Terrace Investments had made an adequate search for alternate sites; the size of the economic benefits to the project; the need for commercial development around the proposed arena, i.e. the proposed hotel and the homes and retail spaces; traffic congestion in the area; and the integrity of the municipal planning process.

While critical of Firestone’s approach to the rezoning issue, the Board agreed that 220 acres of land could be rezoned to permit the building of the Palladium arena. However, it required Terrace Investments to pay for all the required infrastructure, including the interchange linking road access to the arena to the Queensway. Moreover, the Board denied permission to rezone additional agricultural land for a hotel and the Terrace West “mini-city.”

It was enough. Construction on an NHL-size arena to house the re-born Ottawa Senators could begin. A key condition of the franchise had been met. Now that this major hurdle had been crossed, investor money was easier to raise. Terrace Investments paid the second US$22.5 million installment into the escrow account in mid-December 1991. On 20 December 1991, following the completion of the necessary paperwork, an excited Bruce Firestone held up a framed NHL franchise certificate. The Ottawa Senators had been reborn. Firestone said “The Senators will never leave town again.”

The re-born Sens were back in action at the start of the 1992-93 season. Bruce Firestone, however, didn’t stay around beyond that first year. In August 1993, he sold his and his family’s interest in Terrace Investments to his partner, Rod Bryden. The financial and emotional toll of bringing an NHL franchise to Ottawa had been too great.

Sources:

NHL, 2016. From six teams to 31: History of NHL Expansion, https://www.nhl.com/news/nhl-expansion-history/c-281005106

Ottawa Citizen, “20,000 seat arena, hotel part of NHL franchise bid,” 23 June.

——————, 1989. “Inside Bruce Firestone,” 5 December.

——————, 1990. “The Rocky Road To An NHL Franchise,” 7 December.

——————, 1991. “SRO for Senators’ seats, 2 January.

——————, 1991. “The Opposition Mounts,” 4 January.

——————, 1991. “It’s pay day: NHL to receive $5m down payment,” 14 January.

——————, 1991. “Hockey controversy hurting city hall, says O’Neil,” 15 January.

——————, 1991. “The Last Act,” 7 February.

——————, 1991. “Terrace looking for investors,” 28 February.

——————, 1991. “Terrae’s brilliant selling job,” 2 March.

——————, 1991. “Firestone’s vision remains true despite the many questions,” 7 March.

——————, 1991. “Citizen’s (sic) group shows support for Senators,” 19 March.

——————, 1991. “Anka wants quick return on Senators,” 23 March.

——————, 1991. CJOH, CHRO win TV deal with Senators,” 27 April.

——————, 1991. “Anka to be Senators’ landlord,” 14 May.

——————, 1991. “The logo they love to hate,” 18 May.

——————, 1991. “Arena site crucial, hearing told,” 22 May.

——————, 1991. “Bring back the Peace Tower,” 23 May.

——————, 1991. “Arena would defy city plan,” 28 May.

——————, 1991. “Developer gains Kanata approval for town centre shopping mall,” 30 May.

—————–, 1991. “Senators in a ‘war’ to survive,” 15 June.

—————–, 1991. “All is rosy for Senators on pay day,” 16 June.

—————–, 1991. “NDP’s obstinate opposition,” 24 June.

—————–, 1991. “Crunch time for the Senators,” 20 July.

—————–, 1991. Race against time at Civic Centre,” 1 August.

—————–, 1991. “Finding himself: Anka’s deal is oh so sweet,” 23 August.

—————–, 1991. “Major victory for the team,” 27 August.

—————–, 1991. “Now for the cash…” 29 August.

—————–, 1991. “Senators have sold $37m in shares.

—————–, 1991. “NHL says Senators financing in place,” 17 December.

—————-, 1991. “Its Official,” 21 December.

Red Deer Advocate, 1989. “Pro hockey on way to Saskatoon: report,” 24 November.

Star-Phoenix, 1989. “NHL expansion plan outlined by Shenkarow,” 11 November.

Building Parliament

20 December 1859

In early May 1859, roughly a year after the Canadian Parliament had ratified Queen Victoria’s selection of Ottawa as the permanent capital of the United Province of Canada, steps were taken to turn the regal decision into reality. John Rose, the provincial Commissioner of Public Works, announced an architectural competition for four government buildings to be constructed in Ottawa, still a rough-and-tumble lumber town that lacked the facilities and amenities of a capital city. Three were slated to be built on Barrack Hill, a spectacular 25-acre plot of land overlooking the Ottawa River. These comprised a new Provincial Legislature, and two Departmental buildings to house civil servants. A fourth, called Government House, was planned for nearby Major’s Hill, and was to be the official residence of the Governor General. Submissions were anonymous, with entries identified solely by a motto; the name(s) of the entrants were submitted in sealed envelopes that were opened only after the winning designs had been selected. The first and second-placed entries received prize money: £250 and £100 for the Parliament building, £250 and £100 for the two departmental buildings, and £100 and £50 for Government House.

The scale of the project was monumental, far larger than anything previously commissioned in British North America. Arguably, the buildings and their expected grandeur were out of keeping with both the size of Ottawa, and the population of the Province of Canada, which totalled only 2.5 million in 1860. But as was the case with the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, people were planning for the future.

The government specified that the Legislature building was to contain a Council Chamber and a Hall of Assembly for the upper and lower houses of Parliament, a lobby, a semi-detached library, a picture gallery, and 85 reading rooms, wardrobes, Speakers’ apartments, committee rooms, and clerk rooms, totalling 55,000 square feet.  The two Departmental buildings, which together amounted to roughly the same square footage as the Legislature building, required 170 offices to house the entire Canadian public service, including space for the Governor General, the Executive Council, the Indian Department, Provincial Secretary, Crown Law Offices, the Adjutant General for the Militia, Agriculture, Public Works, Crown Lands, Finance, Customs, Audit, the Receiver General, and the Postmaster General. Specifications for the Governor General’s residence called for a 27,000 square foot mansion with 75 rooms, of which 40 would consist of staterooms, a ball room, dining room, private apartments, and a library, with the remainder taken up with domestic offices. In keeping with Victorian sensibilities, there was no direct reference to washrooms in any of the buildings. Presumably, they came under “&c., &c.” in the specifications. The most detailed requirements were stipulated for the Parliamentary Library for which the Parliamentary Librarian, Alpheus Todd, had insisted on state-of-the-art facilities, and rigorous fire precautions. These latter measures spared the Library the centre block’s fate when the main building was gutted by fire in 1916.

The government call for submissions did not specify any particular architectural style for the buildings beyond saying that it should be “plain” and “substantial,” with “hammer-dressed masonry, with neatly-pointed joints, and cut stone quoits, window dressings, cornices and entablatures,” and that the materials for construction should be found locally. The budget for the buildings was set at $300,000 for Parliament House, $240,000 for the two Departmental buildings which were to flank the Legislature building, and $100,000 for Government House.

Despite the size and complexity of the government’s requirements, architects were given little time to design and draw detailed architectural drawings; completed plans had to be submitted by the following 1 August. The competition had two judges, Samuel Keefer, Deputy Commissioner of Public Works, and Frederick Rubridge. Both were engineers.  Rubridge was also a trained surveyor and architect.

Thirty-two designs and 298 drawings for the four buildings were submitted in a variety of styles, including Civil Gothic, Classical, Norman, Tudor, and Italian.  They were judged on the basis of ten criteria: fitness of the plan and interior arrangement, economy of construction, beauty of design, adaptation to site, climate, and materials available locally, economy of heating and ventilation, conformity with required conditions, and safety against fire. Of the sixteen proposals submitted for the Parliament building and library, a Civic Gothic design by “Semper Paratus,” the nom de plume of Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones of Toronto, emerged victorious. Of the seven designs submitted for the departmental buildings that were to flank the Legislature building, the Civic Gothic proposal of “Stat nomen in umbra,” (Ottawa architects Thomas Stent and Augustus Lever), took first place. Frederic Cumberland and W. George Storm’s Venetian-style design, submitted under the name “Odahwah,” won the contest for Government House.

It was perhaps no surprise that the two judges, Keefer and Rubridge, selected the Gothic style for the three most important buildings. This was the architectural style chosen for the British Houses of Parliament built during the 1830s. In contrast, the classical style, chosen for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., was associated with U.S. republicanism. The Gothic style, symbolic of ties with Britain, was enthusiastically embraced by Canadians who used it extensively over the next fifty years.

West Block

West Block under construction, 1861, by Samuel McLaughlin

Site preparation on Barrack Hill for the Legislature building and the Departmental buildings began promptly, with the official ground-breaking ceremony taking place on Tuesday, 20 December 1859.  It was a low-key affair, and little advertised. Nonetheless, thousands of Ottawa citizens walked to the construction site at noon to be part of the historic event. Mr Rose, the Commissioner of Public Works, the government department responsible for the buildings’ construction, turned the first sod for the Legislature building. In a short speech, he reflected on how laws would be enacted on this spot for the benefit of future generations. He also referred to the acrimonious debate surrounding the selection of Ottawa as the capital of Canada. While ostensibly expressing no opinion on the subject, he contended that the very continuance of the Canadian Union depended on Parliament being in Ottawa. Foreshadowing future constitutional debates, he expressed a “sincere hope that the cries of disunion, which is as yet but faintly heard, may never find an echo in the breasts of any considerable number of Canadian people.” He added that in light of the “moral and material progress made since the Union of Upper and Lower Canada, he could not reconcile himself to the idea that a desire for separation is prompted by…any sentiment of true patriotism.” At the conclusion of his speech, a cannon salute was fired.

Mr Keefer, the Deputy Commissioner and one of the two judges in the architectural competition for the Parliament buildings, was supposed to turn the first sod for the flanking departmental buildings. However, given the cold, and with people already drifting away after Rose’s speech, that part of the ceremony was dropped. Instead the official party, which include Ottawa’s mayor, Edward McGillivray, members of city council, the architects, and contractors, retired to Doran’s Hotel for refreshments.

Within weeks, Barrack Hill, later known as Parliament Hill, was a beehive of activity, employing thousands of labourers, representing a huge portion of Ottawa’s workforce—the city’s entire population numbered less than 15,000. Construction almost immediately ran into trouble leading to cost overruns and delays, though the foundations were sufficiently advanced for the Prince of Wales to lay the cornerstone of the Legislative building at the beginning of September 1860. But by October 1861, despite more than $1.4 million having been spent, the project was far from complete. Work was halted, and some 3,000 men lost their jobs, at least temporarily. To save money, the government also dropped the idea of building Government House.

Centre Block

Centre Block under construction, 1865,  by Samuel McLaughlin

In June 1862, the government appointed a commission to look into charges of financial mismanagement. Reporting back in January 1863, the commission concluded that the excessive costs were due to a number of factors including: a failure of Public Works to assess the depth of the bedrock on the site prior to signing contracts, the improper awarding of the construction contract to Thomas McGreevy, the principal building contractor, who received the job on the basis of patronage rather than price, and a failure to adequately factor in the cost of heating and ventilating the buildings.  The architects were also taken to task for inadequately monitoring the progress of the construction. Samuel Keefer, the Deputy Commissioner, took the blame for the fiasco, and was fired.

Construction resumed in 1863 under the general supervision of Frederick Rubridge, the other judge in the architectural contest. By the fall of 1865, the East and West Blocks were sufficiently ready for civil servants to move from Quebec City into their new quarters. The Legislature building (Centre Block) was officially opened on 6 June 1866, roughly a year before Confederation. Construction on the Victoria Tower in the Centre block continued until 1873, while work on the Library lasted until 1877. The final cost of the three buildings was $2.9 million, four times the original budget.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 2001-15. A Virtual Exhibit: Ottawa Becomes the Capital, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/building-physical-reality.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1859. “Breaking Ground for the Commencement of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa,” 23 December.

Gowans, Alan, 2012, “Parliament Buildings,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/parliament-buildings/.

Young, Carolyn A., 1995. The Glory of Ottawa: Canada’s First Parliament Buildings, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston.

Images: West Block under construction, 1861, Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, C-018354, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/building-physical-reality.

Centre Block under construction, 1865, Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, C-003039, http://ottawa.ca/en/residents/arts-culture-and-community/museums-and-heritage/building-physical-reality.