The Curiosities of Hockey History
You're going to read a lot about the history of the Ottawa Senators this week as the team prepares for the return of the Stanley Cup final to the nation's capital for the first time in 80 years.
Since the modern Senators are only 15 years old, however, it's not quite waxing nostaligic.
It's more about looking back and marvelling at how the Sens landed their franchise in the first place.
|After becoming an NHL expansion team in 1990, the Ottawa Senators reached the Stanley Cup final in 2007.|
And probably how they didn't deserve to. I'll never forget being there on Dec. 6, 1990 at the plush Breaker's Hotel in West Palm Beach as then NHL president John Ziegler sat at a press conference with Bruce Firestone of Ottawa on one side and Phil Esposito of the successful Tampa bidder on the other, announcing the NHL's two newest teams.
Esposito was all wisecracks and smiles, having somehow convinced the NHL board of governors to give him a team. The phlegmatic Firestone looked mostly surprised. Stunned, really, as he should have been. He knew he'd just pulled a fast one.
No one has ever proven anything, of course, but it's reasonable to assume that the undying greed of the Maple Leafs - then owned by Harold Ballard - was largely responsible for helping Ottawa get a team, an intriguing happenstance given that the Sens have now managed to supercede the Leafs as the province's top NHL team, at least in terms of on-ice achievements.
Back in August, 1990, Ottawa was one of 11 initial bidders for two NHL franchises during the final days of John Ziegler's rather unimpressive run as NHL boss. The other bidders were Hamilton, Milwaukee, St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay, Houston, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, San Diego and Seattle. Milwaukee - failed suitors for Pittsburgh this year - and Phoenix - which eventually landed the Winnipeg Jets - soon dropped out.
The St. Petersburg bid was backed by Peter Karmanos, who eventually got his mitts on the Hartford Whalers and moved them to Raleigh, with Jim Rutherford set to operate the hockey team. The Miami bid was fronted by John Henry, current owner of the Boston Red Sox.
Hamilton, however, became recognized as the front runner because it was the only city that came even close to meeting all the NHL's "requirements" for a team, including an arena, a lease, 10,000 season tickets and a wealthy owner. Tim Hortons king Ron Joyce was the money man.
Ottawa brought a marching band to the final meeting in West Palm Beach, but didn't have the money or an arena. Firestone headed Terrace Investments, and the bid for an NHL team was largely a cover for a multi-million dollar real estate play in Kanata.
The biggest problem for Hamilton was that it would have to pay indemnification fees to Toronto and Buffalo, but the NHL refused to allow negotiations on a figure before the franchises were awarded.
That left Joyce in a tough spot. Without being able to budget his total costs, he suggested to the NHL board that he would pay his $50 million franchise fee in pieces - $5 million that day, $25 million the next year and the rest over the following seven years.
That gave the NHL governors their out. They instead took the two bids that agreed to pay the $50 million up front, Ottawa and Tampa Bay, even though neither had the money nor would ultimately be able to adhere to the payment schedule. The NHL wanted to be in the Sunshine State, so clearly Ottawa got the nod ahead of Hamilton.
The Leafs, on the other hand, didn't want Hamilton, just as more than a decade later they didn't want Eugene Melnyk, the current owner of the Sens, to buy Maple Leaf Gardens as a home for his St. Mike's Majors. The Leafs didn't have to formally "block" Hamilton - every other NHL team knew going in what the deal was.
On the basis of quality and meeting the league's criteria, the two winning bids should have been St. Petersburg, with Karmanos, and Hamilton. But they were denied. Screwed, really. Karmanos eventually got the Whalers, while Joyce for a time owned a piece of the Calgary Flames before getting out of the hockey business again.
Would Hamilton have been more successful than Ottawa or Tampa Bay? Certainly, Hamilton would have caused far fewer headaches for the league in the initial seven or eight years after expansion. That said, rising salaries in the late 1990s might well have driven Hamilton out of business, and it's not clear whether the city would have been able to replace Copps Coliseum over time with the top quality rinks both Ottawa and Tampa enjoy today. Maybe yes, maybe no.
That said, desperation, both financially and competitively, forced both the Senators and Lightning to eventually work out their problems and succeed. In both cases, quality ownership eventually arrived, and economic uncertainty meant both had to work a little harder at putting a good team on the ice. Sinking so low in the standings, it's also worth pointing out, allowed both teams to add good young players over time.
The fact that the Leafs have always been terrified of competition, on the other hand, is why they've been able to live such a cushy existence and have never faced the urgency to win in order to stay alive.
That's a big part of the reason why the Leafs haven't hosted a Stanley Cup final game in 40 years, while the Lightning already have a Cup and the Sens will be the home team for Game 3 of the 2007 Stanley Cup final in 10 days.