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Ton Anselmi Speaks: Outdoor Game, LeBreton Flats, More Resources for Dorion

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You know Tom Anselmi’s hit the big time when he’s getting the MS Paint red phone treatment on this blog.

The Senators’ new president and COO appeared Thursday morning on TSN 1200’s ‘TGOR’ to talk about his first week on the job.

Anselmi’s fresh to the job, so inevitably there was going a lot of non-answers, corporate spin and pumping of tires, but beyond the vanilla politician’esque takes, there were a few interesting nuggets of information being dropped throughout the interview.

To listen to the full thing, you can scroll to the bottom of this post for the embedded audio.

As always, my thoughts are in bold.

On how it’s going for the last two weeks…

“You know what, it’s terrific. I had a big staff meeting with everyone yesterday and I think it’s been day seven or day eight. When I first met with everyone two weeks ago, I said, ‘I’m really excited to be here,’ and that kind of thing. I told them yesterday now that I’ve been able to sort of absorb things for a couple of weeks, I’m more excited than ever. I really, really appreciate the opportunity and think the future is so, so bright here. It’s a great hockey town. We all know that. We’ve got a heck of a hockey club. (We’re) in second-place and a playoff run about to get going here, but the future, new arenas and just the upside that this brand has and this community has, it’s pretty exciting to be here.”

It’s no surprise that the new guy, who’s a week into his Senators career, is trying to sell his enthusiasm or championing how good his hockey team is to its fans. Considering their place in the standings, the organization has to be disappointing with how their attendance has suffered.

The attendance problem has been well-documented and there are a myriad of reasons why it is down, but it feels like the one that isn’t being given enough credit is how Senators fans, or at least the ones that I know, question this team’s philosophy and direction under its owner. Melnyk malaise feels real and maybe for the first time since he purchased the team in 2003, Senators fans are no longer buying what he’s selling because their confidence in his ability to deliver a Stanley Cup contender is shaken.

On getting the call from Eugene Melnyk and the initial thought on working with him…

“Well, my first reaction when I got the call was, ‘Leave me alone, I’m going snowmobiling,’ and then I stopped and thought about it for a second. Eugene and I had met once or twice at boardmeetings and stuff like that, but did not know him at all. And we went and met, so really we’ve got to know each other over the past month and a half. The first couple sit downs, we were seeing the opportunity the same way. We were seeing the potential the same way. That combined with Ottawa, the community of Ottawa really intrigued me: the capital of our country; the nation’s capital; the cradle of hockey where the game was first played; the 150th anniversary; the fact that it’s right between these two juggernauts of French Canadian hockey and English Canadian hockey in the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. I really love the potential of that, so that’s really what intrigued me and it’s been great. I think all owners are different. All owners get into this business for different reasons. I’ve worked for institutional owners, big companies like Bell and Rogers, teachers and the like. I’ve worked for private entrepreneurial owners like Eugene and the like. And I actually really enjoy this. They’re passionate about the team. They love what this is about. They love hockey. That’s why they’re in this, so it’s fun and the job is to help them realize their vision and their dream and that’s a pretty interesting opportunity and something you don’t take for granted. I mean, there’s 31 of these jobs out there and it’s a real honour when you’re asked to do, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Hopefully a few years from now, we won’t have to look back and say, “Shit, I really wish he went snowmobiling.”

The one aspect of the Melnyk/Anselmi relationship that I find quite interesting is that they’re both Toronto guys, but they don’t know each other very well.

In consideration of the rumours suggesting that Cyril Leeder did an excellent job putting out Melnyk’s fires, I wonder how well-suited Anselmi is for the job if he is required to do the same.   

On whether the LeBreton Flats project makes this job more attractive and whether he would look at this opportunity the same if the project did not exist…

“You know, it makes it interesting and different. I would have taken the job anyways. I’m pretty sure I would have. I really got turned on by the whole idea of Canada, the 150th anniversary, Ottawa and the nation’s capital and the brand potential because of that – where it can sit in sort of the world of hockey brands out there. So I really got turned on by the brand opportunity. The (LeBreton Flats) project just makes it even better. This project is going to be a world-class project. It’s going to transform this community. It’s going to transform the franchise and it’s going to be a game-changer in every way. So that’s pretty cool too and it creates all kinds of opportunity for the organization. It just makes the club a bigger and more important franchise. You know, we’ve got a great building here. We’ve got a great hockey club. It’s a great experience. It’s a little further out of town than most people would like, we all get that, but you know what, it’s still a terrific product. I am a believer in the downtown thing. Like I really believe hockey clubs are more than just a business or entertainment product, they are part of the DNA of a community. They are part of the… it’s because of that they should be geographically central as well as philosophically central. So this is going to be great and hopefully it’s four or five years away, but in the meantime, let’s get a playoff run going and have some fun.”

Hmmm, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t know if it’s smart to get fans dreaming on the possibilities and awesomeness of a downtown arena when you still have to get these same fans to enthusiastically drive once or twice a week to Kanata to take in a game.

On the frustrations of fans that this organization has not been able to cut through or convert the Maple Leaf and Habs fans who exist in the nation’s capital…

“Well, I don’t know enough about it yet to know sort of where we do sit. Listen, one of things that I told our staff the first day I met them, I had the opportunity of watching this from the other end of the 401 for a lot of years and I was custodian of a lot of great sports brands, and I think what’s important is not being preoccupied with what you aren’t. It’s all about what you are. You know this franchise has been here 25 years, so we’ve seen a generation click over. I get that there’s lots of Leafs fans here and lots of Habs fans there and there’s this generational thing where parents pass (fan allegiances) on to kids. It’s great, no problem. Our job is to make sure that there’s a product here and an experience here that their kids or that next generation rally around and off we go. It’s the same thing in Calgary and Edmonton, there’s Leaf and Habs fans across the country. So be it, that’s okay. There’s lots of hockey fans in this country and only 20,000 seats. At the end of the day, Ottawa and this community, they’re going to rally around their own team first long-term. We saw it when we launched the Raptors. We were doing all kinds of stuff to build a fan base. Well here we are 20-something years later and those fans that were six years old and sort of getting used to us are now 26-years old, they’re buying tickets and passing it onto their kids. So, that’s what it’s about. Do we need to be the most important hockey club in this market? Absolutely. Are we there? I don’t know that yet, but absolutely, we need to be what this community is focused on and that will be a lot of fun.”

I love the part about accepting the reality of the reality of the circumstances in which you have to work under.

There’s too much emphasis and wasted energy complaining about how the owner doesn’t spend to the upper reaches of the cap ceiling like the Senators are a big market club. And if there’s no complaints about that, it’s the underlying insecurity over everything Toronto. From not receiving equal coverage on the major sports networks morning highlights shows to fans chanting ‘Leafs suck!’ during a mid-March Florida Panthers game at the CTC, this fan base often has a tendency to measure everything Ottawa does against the relative success (or lack thereof) of Toronto.

On whether the introduction of LeBreton Flats will mean that this team will have more revenue to put towards player personnel…

“Umm, you know, yeah. I mean, I’ve talked to Pierre (Dorion) a few times already and he’s kind of spending the money he wants to spend right now. So it’s not like he’s got handcuffs on him or anything like that. The product speaks for itself. We’re a second-place team and they’re clearly doing something right, which is about developing prospects through the system and that kind of thing. It’s a different league now than it was about 15 years ago when you needed to spend yourself to success, right? I haven’t looked at the history in some detail. I think Eugene has a pretty good track record of investing in the team when it made sense and did that. Clearly, the LeBreton project and a downtown arena changes the economic model for this franchise. It becomes a higher revenue franchise and one of the reasons to grow the business is so you can invest more in the business to keep growing it, right? So, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re going to want to be able to do that down the road, but right now listen, I look at this hockey club, it’s a second-place hockey club and it’s a real good hockey club. And it’s not just built for today, we’ve got good, young kids coming up and this is an exciting hockey team. We’ve got one of the top-five players in the league in Erik Karlsson and this is a great, great hockey club. We’re seeing it now at the ticket office. You can feel the momentum in the market. There’s a playoff run happening and it’s going to be exciting. It’s that tough time of year now where wins are hard to get as we all saw and teams like Dallas and St. Louis are coming in mad. Aww man, this is when it gets fun right now. It’s going to be good.”

It’s no shock to see the new president understand his mandate and downplay the significance of the budget or stoke the fire that Pierre Dorion doesn’t have the money he needs to make this club more competitive now. The last thing Anselmi wants to do is create more unrest in a fan base that is sensitive to the competitive disadvantages Ottawa faces relative to its peers.

Considering how the Senators aren’t selling out the building, it makes sense for Anselmi to push the competitiveness and seeding of his team as a way to entice fans out to the building, but it’s not like the Senators are resting comfortably in second-place in the Atlantic Division either.

Their recent lull has allowed teams to close some distance and with an extended bad stretch, this team could find itself on the outside looking in quite quickly.

As much as the organization may begrudge fans for not being quick to embrace the current iteration of the team, the challenge for the marketing and sales teams lies in convincing fans to buy tickets for a bubble team that is caught in a one-step forward, two-steps back cycle. It’s easy to sell to things in sports: hope and a winning product. The Senators don’t have enough of either, to really capture the collective imagination of this fan base and that’s a big problem.

On what’s important and what specific things or what shape the new modern arena should take when the project goes ahead…

“What’s important, to me, I guess it starts with, is it a great hockey experience for the fans and for the players? That’s kind of the objective and so then, what does that mean? We’ve seen the models evolve. I was talking to some of the guys yesterday about this building, which was being built when we were doing Vancouver, almost at the exact same time. Cyril (Leeder) and I used to compare notes all the time. The world’s changed: people are a little bit smaller, tighter, really intimate. A live experience in sports is about sharing a bit of sweat with each other – getting close, enjoying an experience together. It’s much more different than a media experience at home. Suites, I mean, we used to be building 20,000 seats and 200 suites. Well, suites are changing. People want to do to the Club Bell experience for instance and share the experience and share a more premium experience with other people. It’s changing. It starts, for me, with how good are the sightlines and the experience, the quality of the building? And that doesn’t mean you need to spend $600 to $700-million. I really believe you can build a great, great arena that is all about hockey in Canada without blowing your brains out. So that’s where we’re going to try and be. The objective I told everyone was: the best hockey arena in the world. That will be the objective.”

Detroit’s new rink is reportedly going to cost upwards of $733-million and Edmonton’s new arena cost approximately $601-million, even if the Senators’ new barn doesn’t approach those cost thresholds, I’m left still wondering how the organization plans on paying for it.

On mentioning Cyril Leeder there and whether there was ever any discussion with Eugene Melnyk about keeping Leeder onboard in some capacity…

“Umm, we sort of talked about maybe that’s a conversation we have down the road. I mean, I really don’t know… I’ve known Cyril for many years and we’ve traded a couple of texts since everything’s changed and we’ll continue to be friends and all that. He’s a gentleman and he’s just a wonderful guy. I don’t know what really transpired there. When I got the call, it was, ‘An opportunity is coming up. Would you be interested?’ So I think the most important thing for Cyril and for the organization is to sort of take some time and kind of figure out what’s next. And then if that makes some sense down the road, maybe it makes some sense. But, it’s not in the cards right now.”

Of course leaving the door open for one of the founding fathers and architects of this franchise is probably just lip service, but Leeder mentioned in his exit press conference that his offer to remain with the Senators to help Anselmi transition into his new role was politely rebuffed. I have a hard time believing that Leeder won’t find some high-profile job in Ottawa, but at the same time, I could definitely envision some reunion at some point down the road too.

On the LeBreton project being years away from being realized and what ideas he has to improve the experience now…

“Well, I don’t really know yet. It’s day seven, so I’m doing a lot of observing and looking and all that kind of thing. We’ve got a pretty full building, but we should be 100-percent full. So we’ve got work to do there. We’ve got a bunch of great people there and I’ve clearly figured that out already in seven days. So my job is to help them realize their potential, help them feel good about themselves, make sure that we’re led, make sure that we’ve got the resources that we need, let Pierre (Dorion) do his thing and stay out of his hair, but be a support for him and deliver the resources that he needs. That’s kind of how I look at the job, but right now, it’s a lot of learning and a lot of listening. But, I’m a believer in always doing your best. Whether you’re running a radio program or doing what I do, it’s about excellence. How do I be my absolute best? How do I be the best that I can be? And that’s what this organization needs to be. Is it right now? I don’t know that, but there are a lot of good people and so it’s a matter of unleashing them and letting them get at it.”

The trick for Anselmi is to get the most out of the limited resources that will be available to him. This isn’t MLSE where he had inexhaustible funds to back his club. Anselmi is going one going from end of the spectrum to another where a rich, faceless board is replaced by the demands of an entrepreneurial businessman owner in Melnyk.

It is going be a sobering challenge, but I hope Anselmi’s up for it.

There’s no question that the Ottawa Senators were desperately in need of a fresh voice who invigorate this team’s brand, but in saying that, it’s going to take some time for Anselmi to put his stamp on this franchise and give the fans something to judge him by.

In looking at his handling of the TFC portfolio and how mismanaged it was or how other MLSE sports franchises have taken off after his departure, I’m a little bit guarded on the hire. Then again, all we can do as fans is hope that he has learned from the missteps of his past and will be better in his current role.

It’s going to take some time for him to put his stamp on this franchise, but I hope he does a great job.

On whether there’s one small thing that he’s noticed that he’d like to change right away…

“The walls in the office are yellow and I’m going to paint them white. I have no idea why they’re yellow. It’s kind of dark and dusty down there, but we’ll fix that. Listen, I’m still looking. I’ve talked to our game ops guy already, I’ve talked to the sponsorship folks, I’ve talked to our ticketing guys now, Pierre (Dorion) and I have talked a lot. He’s got a very small group. If we could bring more resources to the table, would that help him? I don’t know. I’m looking at the building, it’s a pretty good building. It’s clean. We have a nice staff. Everyone’s really friendly. My wife walked around the building last night and she’s been around a lot of arenas in her day and she was blown away by how friendly everyone was. Well, that’s a great start, right? I’m sure there are a million little things (to look at improving). I don’t think there’s any magic bullet here. I think it’s a whole lot of little things to take everything up just one notch and it all starts with the product. If the team is good, you can sell a good product anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are.”

Once you’re done with the walls, Tom, focus on the jerseys next. A return to the original 2-D logo using Jacob Barrette’s designs would be a great start.

It’s interesting to see Anselmi mention the size of Ottawa’s hockey operations departments and the implication that it puts the Senators at a significant disadvantage. If the resources were available to make the staff larger, one would assume that Dorion would already be exhausting these resources to the best of his ability. And if they aren’t, why not?

This past summer, when it came to the subject of hiring a new head coach. Dorion promoted the notion that money was no object and ownership would commit whatever money was necessary for him to hire the best person for the job. Later, Melnyk downplayed this notion by stating that the overall budget had not changed. Whatever excess money would be used on a head coach had to come from somewhere else within the team’s operating budget (ie. player personnel). 

On coming from Toronto to Ottawa and whether there is a different message from Gary Bettman on selling the game in a big market versus a smaller one…

“I’ve only talked to Gary (Bettman) a couple of times before I took the job and then I saw him at the All-Star (Game). He really encouraged me to (take the job) and I know Eugene called him about me beforehand and all those sort of things. Gary’s got the toughest job in the world. Over the years, he’s one of those guys who’s given me some of the best advice I’ve ever had. He’s very much about doing the right thing, just being yourself, being the best you can be in the community and those kinds of things. The league’s job really is to take 31 different owners that all have different markets, different agendas, different objectives and create an environment where they all can succeed. I think they’ve done a terrific job. For instance, we’re talking to them right now about the outdoor game and how does that work? And they’re approaching it very differently with us versus how they might in another market. So they’ve been terrific and I know they’re going to be great partners going forward. They’re very committed to the nation’s capital, as am I. It’s a big reason why I’m here, so we’re going to have some fun.”

Anselmi has Bettman’s stamp of approval. That’s comforting?

On whether there’s any update on the outdoor game since an update was supposed to come in mid-January…

“Yeah, mid-January is just a couple of days away (laughs). No, no, no. (An outdoor game) is going to happen. We’re down to the (finer details). We’re just crossing ‘t’s’ and dotting ‘i’s’ that kind of stuff. So I feel pretty good that it’s going to happen and it probably got delayed a bit because of my arrival. It was kind of on the burner and all of a sudden, it got stalled a little bit. But with a little bit of luck, we’re hopefully going to be able to announce something in the next week or two.”

It never really felt like that an outdoor game was ever in jeopardy, but now there are reports that Ottawa and Montreal may be playing an outdoor at Molson Stadium earlier during the 2017-18 schedule as well. If the NHL agrees to send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics and the Senators agree to play a two-game set in Sweden against the Colorado Avalanche next season, it’s going to make for a ridiculously tough schedule.