Much of the circus has died down around the Ottawa Senators after a courting process that saw Canadian business moguls, Hollywood icons and rap royalty vie for a chance to own an NHL team in the nation’s capital.
But with Toronto-based billionaire Michael Andlauer’s group close to locking down the deal to take over the Sens, conversations lately have turned to where the hockey franchise should call home ice.
Buzz is growing — thanks in no small part to the mayor of Ottawa himself — about making room downtown for a new arena as a way to inject some life back into the core of the nation’s capital.
The talk comes amid heated conversations about public funding for new sports arenas and the environmental footprint of such projects, but observers who spoke to Global News say such a move could be an “absolute game-changer” not only for the Senators, but for the entire city.
The Ottawa Senators currently play at the Canadian Tire Centre in the suburb of Kanata, roughly a half-hour drive from the city’s downtown core.
For years, there have been talks of moving the team to a more central area called LeBreton Flats as the crown jewel of a wider development of the vacant federally-owned plot of land. The move almost happened under former owner Eugene Melnyk, whose passing last year spurred the recent sale of the Sens, but those talks fell apart.
The Ottawa Senators currently have negotiation rights for a major events venue as part of renewed efforts to build out LeBreton Flats.
But with no formal plans for such a development as the new ownership group finalizes the agreement to purchase the team, Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe wants to broaden the conversation for a new arena.
“Before we make a huge decision, a decision of this magnitude, that is a decision for the next 50 or 60 years, we should make sure we’re going to put the arena in the absolute best spot possible for the city,” he told Global News in an interview earlier this week.
For Sutcliffe, a new arena could be a lifeline of sorts for a downtown core that has struggled to recapture its energy since the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2022, the so-called “Freedom Convoy” occupied multiple blocks in front of Parliament Hill as part of a weeks-long demonstration protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other federal government policies.
Public servants, who make up a healthy proportion of downtown office workers in Ottawa, have since returned to the office but for only a few days a week in a new hybrid arrangement. The federal government also recently announced plans to offload some buildings from its portfolio of properties in downtown Ottawa.
The dwindling of public servants — once the lifeblood for businesses in the downtown core — is troubling to Sutcliffe.
“I think, more than ever, the future of downtown Ottawa is in doubt,” he said. “If there’s an opportunity to find a spot for an arena, that could be a major attraction that would bring people downtown, that would be good for businesses in the downtown core, then I think we should at least consider it.”
Ottawa city council would have to sign off on such a development, as would the Government of Canada and National Capital Commission if federal land were used for the deal.
Sutcliffe did not rule out LeBreton Flats as a viable alternative, though NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a trip to Ottawa in March that he felt the parcel of land set aside for a possible arena “struck (him) as a little bit small.”
Ever since Sutcliffe floated the idea of a downtown arena in interviews with media last week, the capital’s business community has been buzzing about whether there’s even enough space in the core to make such a pitch into reality.
Shawn Hamilton, principal of Proveras Commercial Realty in Ottawa, tells Global News that there’s “100 per cent” space for the Sens downtown.
As an example, Hamilton says he recently took a look at the site of the old Ottawa Technical High School on Alberta Street and compared it to arenas in downtown Toronto and Montreal — the land there would be a fit for such an arena, in his estimation, with good access to the city’s light-rail transit system nearby.
While Hamilton believes LeBreton Flats is still a “solid alternative” if the Sens end up playing there, he agrees with Sutcliffe that the context for a new arena has changed in the past three years since the pandemic began.
While businesses need support in the form of a new reason for people to come downtown, he says there’s a wider city-building lens. A major events centre could spur new residential development and bring amenities that previously didn’t exist in an area first built primarily to cater to public servants, he says.
“Ottawa really is in need of a shot in the arm to sort of establish and reinvigorate the whole downtown core,” Hamilton says.
“Really, an arena in our downtown core is really the answer … I think it would be an absolute game-changer.”
Sutcliffe told Global News on Tuesday that he hadn’t had the chance to speak with Andlauer about prospects for the Sens new arena, adding that the ideas are “very preliminary” and he’s there to “facilitate” talks between the many parties that need to align on the vision for such a project.
“I think with a new owner now, it’s a new chapter for the Ottawa Senators,” he said.
Global News also reached out to the Ottawa Senators to ask if Andlauer would weigh in on the matter, but were told the owner-to-be is not taking media questions yet.
But Ann Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph, says it makes sense that the new owners would want to build a fresh arena for the team — and one as centrally located as possible.
Pegoraro says there’s typically a “honeymoon period” for professional sports organizations after migrating to a new arena that nets a bump in ticket sales and revenue from fresh sponsorships. That boost in cash can then flow back into the team and improve the club’s prospects in turn, hopefully fuelling a winning cycle for the new owners.
Downtown arenas used to be the norm for professional sports clubs, but a wave of building in recent decades saw venues relocate to the suburbs, Pegoraro explains, with the belief that fans would drive out and park at a stadium closer to their homes.
Momentum has swung back towards centrally located arenas, however, in an effort to offer fans a more complete experience when they head to the game or a concert in the same venue, she says. The Arizona Coyotes have played in the suburbs for years and have long struggled to secure a suitable downtown venue for the franchise, for example.
With a more fulsome “sports and entertainment district,” she notes, fans can head out for an afternoon of shopping, grab dinner and a drink before or after the game and take public transit back home — all the while, visiting a series of local businesses and livening up the core.
“They become this sort-of drawing point where even if there isn’t a game on, there are restaurants, there are social avenues, there are outside parts to this that people could congregate around,” Pegoraro says.
Conversations about the sustainability of massive sports arenas have also shifted recently, Pegoraro says.
Instead of a focus on sustainable materials and alternative forms of energy, she says that the location of the arena — and whether fans are driving and parking cars there or walking and taking public transit — has become a much bigger focus when weighing a project’s overall carbon footprint.
For all the talk of upsides to putting a major events centre in downtown Ottawa, the cost of such a project would not be cheap.
A final agreement is expected this summer on a new home for the Calgary Flames, with the current cost estimated at $1.22 billion.
While the Flames ownership is expected to put up $356 million for the project, the City of Calgary and Alberta are currently on tap to foot the rest of the bill, including transit and infrastructure connections.
The issue of using taxpayer money to finance a sports team’s arena became a sticking point in the recent Alberta election, with Premier Danielle Smith championing the use of public dollars.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, meanwhile, pointed to a 2019 deal that saw the Calgary Flames and the city put up $275 million each before costs began to rise and the project was ultimately scrapped. Governments should not commit to arena deals only to see final costs balloon and stick taxpayers with the bill, the federation argued.
Sutcliffe told Global News on Tuesday that he is “not in favour of the City of Ottawa giving cash to the owners of a professional sports team to build a new arena.”
He added there are “ways the city can participate potentially in a new development of some kind,” but said it would depend on many variables and that it’s “impossible to speculate about at this point.”
Hamilton, for one, believes the city shouldn’t be “myopic” about the opportunities for Ottawa to invest in itself with a new arena.
Some of Ottawa’s aging office buildings are facing an existential crisis as higher interest rates put pressure on commercial landlords — but the sudden addition of a downtown arena could give some of these structures new life as hotly desired office space near the Sens or be repurposed into hotels or downtown apartments.
“I think we’ve got to look at the concept of greater good here,” Hamilton says. “If we, as a city, bring a bigger tax base, bring more affordable housing, bring a sense of community, bring tourism dollars, all with a smart investment of funds — then we should do that.”
Pegoraro says that the economics of public funding for sports venues don’t necessarily work well when looking at a dollar-to-dollar return on investment. She argues it’s wiser to take a “broader view” of what impact a new arena can have on sustainability goals and knock-on effects for a city before deciding whether public funding is warranted.
That said, with a new owner almost installed in Ottawa, the next step for a new arena is likely turning to conversations about funding, Pegoraro says. She notes that having real estate players behind Claridge Homes among Andlauer’s ownership group increases the odds that a business case can be built for development.
While the nation’s capital is short on professional sports teams that play on the level of the Sens — the CFL’s Redblacks and professional soccer club Atletico Ottawa play a few blocks south of downtown at Lansdowne Park — Pegoraro floats that another tenant to share costs and recruit investors such as a WNBA team could help sweeten the deal for an arena.
If all parties align quickly, Hamilton believes shovels could be in the ground on a new downtown arena within five years.
Sutcliffe, who began his four-year term in November, told Global News he has no such timeframe in mind for when he’d like to see the Sens take the ice in a new arena. He recalls back to this past spring, driving all the way out to the Canadian Tire Centre with an excited crowd attempting to cheer the team to a playoff berth, and says the future home of the Sens is a prospect worth waiting to get right.
“We have time. We have options,” he said. “If there’s a great opportunity and we can make something happen quickly, that’d be wonderful. But we don’t have to be in a huge rush.
“And I think we just need to make the right decision for the City of Ottawa.”