Less than 24 hours after Ottawa’s exceptional win over the Eastern Conference leading Washington Capitals, the Senators called a press conference for 11 am yesterday to announce a major shakeup within the organization’s hierarchy.
Gone is one of the team’s founding fathers.
After spending 25 years with the organization, not including the years spent pre-ll, Cyril Leeder stepped down immediately as the team’s president.
Leeder had been with the organization for each of its 25 years and his involvement goes back years earlier when Bruce Firestone approached Randy Sexton and Cyril Leeder to help spearhead his efforts to bring an NHL hockey team back to the nation’s capital.
Not only did Leeder outlast his founding contemporaries with the Senators, but amidst the chaos of Eugene Melnyk’s absentee ownership, Leeder was the face of the franchise. A man whose connections and understanding of this community not only helped pacify this fan base, but helped grow the sport and strengthen this franchise’s roots within Ottawa. Firestone credits Leeder for saving this franchise on three separate occasions.
Postmedia’s Wayne Scanlan eloquently outlined all of Leeder’s triumphs and accomplishments before rightly asserting that Leeder deserved a better send off than this.
Replacing Leeder is former MLSE executive Tom Anselmi, who has been appointed as the hockey club’s new president and chief executive officer.
Speaking from today’s press conference, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk admitted that once the Senators’ RendezVous at LeBreton proposal was named as the NCCs’s preferred bid last April, the idea of hiring a new team president donned on him. Seven months later, he sent feelers out to Anselmi in early December to gauge his interest in the position.
Despite these kinds of timelines, Leeder found out he was being replaced this past Tuesday – just one day before yesterday’s press conference.
“Thanks for your time and years of service, Cyril. You can pack your belongings in this cardboard box, but leave those Senators pens on your desk for the next guy.”
It hasn’t been all unicorns and blow jobs under Leeder’s watch however.
Attendance this season is down and not only is the organization’s brand stale, their disregard and unwillingness to embrace tradition or their small market status permeates this organization.
From the continued use of their home and away sweaters, to the advertisements and marketing campaigns designed to spur interest in this franchise feels minor league.
The sad reality is that this organization has beautiful original designs and fan-created alternate sweaters that it could easily just roll with, but for whatever reason, the organization has doubled-down on their uninspiring current design. At the time, it seemed a bit petty to ridicule the organization’s decision to redo the team’s commemorative Stanley Cup banners from the early 1900’s, but their remodeling or even the inclusion of the current logo on Daniel Alfredsson’s jersey banner are simply microcosms of the disdain that Senators fans have for the team’s logo and brand.
It is also hard to ignore the apathy that exists within this fan base.
Since their 2007 Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the Senators have won playoff round in the past 10 years.
When the window of contention closed, the organization’s willful blindness to that occurrence and their reckless pursuit of their short-term interests set the team back.
Coupled with ownership’s dwindling resources and inability or unwillingness to invest as much capital into his roster and hockey operations department, the dream of seeing this organization go from a have-not to a have was dead.
Despite the return to their small market reality, the organization repeatedly erred in its allocation of resources, preferring to continue its investment in short-term results. The problem was that the Senators never got any which helped create a pattern of taking one-step forward and two back, the Senators have failed to eclipse or move beyond a state in which the team struggles to move past its playoff contender status.
Yesterday Melnyk spoke to the organization’s pressing need to transform its brand and to bring someone into the fold who could bring significant land development experience to the Senators’ LeBreton Flats arena project.
On that front, it’s important to realize that Alsemi played a prominent role in the development of sports venues like the Rogers Centre (then Sky Dome), Rogers Arena in Vancouver and the Air Canada Centre. With his connections and experience as an engineer and landscape architect, maybe he is better suited to help lead this large-scale LeBreton Flats project.
“I think Tom will go cross-country to get people to join us in Ottawa and there’s talent in Ottawa but just the kind of construction projects that they have in Toronto, Montreal and New York are humongous,” Melnyk said from yesterday’s press conference. “That’s what you need.”
Anselmi also has experience being in “charge of broadcast media, ticket sales, marketing and sports brands, corporate sales and partnerships, communications, Internet activities, community development, human resources and Leafs alumni.”
Anselmi had the background that Melnyk sought, but it’s not like his record is unblemished either.
It’s hard to ignore how the Maple Leafs, TFC and Raptors properties have all excelled in the years following Anselmi’s departure.
In particular, it was Anselmi’s stewardship of the TFC property that ultimately cost him his opportunity at filling the MLSE chief operating officer position that Richard Peddie vacated.
Upon Anselmi’s resignation from MLSE, Jeff Blair painted an interesting picture of Anselmi’s shortcomings:
“Anselmi remained the personification of the lost hope that is TFC. Despite the sizable amount of currency he had among MLSE employees, whispers were he had no chance of being the permanent successor to Peddie. Anselmi, it was thought, was an okay technician but not a big-picture guy.
History will not be entirely fair to Anselmi, just as it won’t be fair to Peddie: They had a hand in building MLSE into an economic powerhouse, replete with real estate properties, and made fistfuls of money for the owners – but that matters naught to fans interested in championships and banners.”
It’s going to be challenging for Anselmi to make fistfuls of money in Ottawa, but that he has a reputation for doing so probably appeals to Melnyk.
For me, it feels like this changing of the guard is a decision that is not only fueled by ticket sales, but because Melnyk wanted a more experienced hand for the negotiations with the NCC because the process and negotiations aren’t unfolding as quickly as he would like.
Since being announced as the preferred LeBreton Flats proposal, the intent was for shovels to be in the ground soon and have the arena be ready for play in 2021. Whether those timelines remain intact is unknown, but it’s not like the NCC is renowned for its timely and efficient operations.
As exciting as a shakeup of this magnitude can be and what Anselmi could mean or do for this organization in terms of branding and the ushering in a new era at LeBreton Flats, there’s a part of me that views this through a cynical prism that focuses on ownership.
Eugene Melnyk is still present in this scenario and as Wayne Scanlan mentioned in his aforementioned article, “three different chief financial officers have worked under Melnyk in the past two years, and Peter O’Leary, marketing and ticket VP, a former Citizen executive, was fired recently.”
Cyril Leeder was someone who put out a lot of Melnyk’s fires and Anselmi doesn’t have much of a working relationship with Melnyk. As an owner who refuses to accept or admit responsibility for this organization’s situation, the pressure is going to be on Anselmi to have the skills and patience to work under Melnyk and fulfill his boss’ mandate. If he’s incapable or doesn’t have the patience, how long will he last when Melnyk’s looking for someone else to take the fall for this organization’s misfortunes?
Leeder was the one constant under Melnyk in an organization where front office stability ceases to exist.
Where they go from here is uncharted territory: it’s equal parts terrifying and exciting.