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Sens' founders together again in Sports Hall of Fame

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators

It long ago became the stuff of legend, the story of how a trio of young dreamers turned their "big and audacious" hockey idea into reality.

And it is a tale that no doubt will be recalled one more time tonight, when Bruce Firestone, Cyril Leeder and Randy Sexton — the "founding fathers" of the modern Senators franchise — along with former team owner Rod Bryden are formally inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Ottawa Convention Centre.

Leeder, who has risen over the last two decades into his current role as the president of an organization now known as Senators Sports and Entertainment, believes it's surely fitting that the group goes in together. All of them, in their own way, are responsible for the Senators being the major community asset that they are today.

"I really feel good about that," Leeder said in looking toward tonight's induction ceremony. "I have a lot of respect for the other three guys and I know that Bruce and Rod were the real owners. They were the guys that risked their own personal fortunes to bring the team here and keep it here.

"At first, I was a little bit surprised (to hear about the honour) and after it set in, I was pretty honoured that they would think of me in that context. I'm very proud of that fact and a bit humbled at the same time."

One might also suggest the timing for this ultimate honour is so right, given that the Senators are coming off their 20th anniversary season. It has also been a quarter century since that now famous gathering in 1987 at the old Lions Arena after a game of pickup hockey, when Firestone pitched his idea to Leeder and Sexton — that the moment was ripe to bring the National Hockey League back to the nation's capital. And they could be the ones to do it.

"He said to us 'I think the NHL is going to expand' and we took another swig of beer and said 'okay Bruce,'" Sexton recalled in a story by QMI Agency's Chris Stevenson, which was published in the team's 20th anniversary magazine last fall. "Then he said 'and I think Ottawa would support a team' and we nodded and said 'okay, Bruce.' And then he said: 'And I think we're the guys to do it,' and we spit our beer out on the floor."

Some 25 years later, Leeder credits Firestone's vision with starting the ball rolling.

"It certainly was one of those big and audacious ideas," said Leeder. "Bruce was a big thinker and wasn't afraid to dream big. My reaction was, that's going to be hard and that's a really big challenge, but I know Randy was gung ho and he wanted to take the challenge on right away. I was a little more reserved about it and wanted to figure out what are chances were and whether we had any chance of being successful.

"Credit goes to Bruce for thinking big. He knew the league had expanded on a regular basis, about every six or seven years, and it had been longer than that since they last expanded. He knew they were going to expand even before the league did."

What became the 'Bring Back the Senators' campaign became a labour of love, and then some, for the trio, with the payoff coming on Dec. 6, 1990, at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., when then-NHL president John Ziegler announced expansion franchises had been awarded to Ottawa and Tampa, Fla.

"We'd been at it for two years and it wasn't our only job — we were running a business and a company (Terrace Investments)," Leeder said in recalling the emotion among the group when they learned they'd succeeded. "But it was our sole preoccupation during those two years. We spent all of our time and a lot of our efforts and a lot of our money focused on a successful bid.

"So you can imagine the extreme, utter elation when we were told that we'd been given the franchise."

In his induction speech, Firestone recalled being asked to wait out the decision in the basement of the Breakers, thinking that it meant the moment of truth wouldn't be favourable for the Ottawa bid.

"What we didn't know and couldn't know was that the losers were upstairs and the winners were being hidden from the NHL in the basement," he said. "I met (then Quebec Nordiques owner) Marcel Aubut first when I came in that conference room. He said 'Felicitations, mon ami." I said a desultory 'thanks,' thinking that he was congratulating us on a good try.

"Then I came to the front of the room where John Ziegler and Phil Esposito (who was heading up the successful Tampa bid) were already standing. I looked down at a piece of paper which said, “The NHL is pleased and proud to announce today that it has granted conditional membership to the Cities of Ottawa and Tampa.” It was at that moment I realized we had done it. There were a few tears and I remember Randy had a vertical jump of about 30 inches."

Bryden would eventually take the ownership torch from Firestone and, during some dire financial times, keep the franchise going until 2003, when current owner Eugene Melnyk bought the team and the arena now known as Scotiabank Place.

"I think we should all recognize the efforts of (Bryden) ... without whom that building, Scotiabank Place, would never have been built," said Firestone. 

Over the years, the team grew from an expansion sad sack into a perennial playoff contender, the zenith of that rise coming in 2007, when the Senators reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time in modern franchise history. Staid old Ottawa went wild with hockey fever that spring and, if anyone associated with the team wondered about the connection between a team and a city, it was there for everyone to see in the celebrations on the streets of the capital that Saturday afternoon in May when Daniel Alfredsson's overtime goal in Buffalo put the Senators into the final.

"It reaffirmed (the connection) and took it to another level," said Leeder. "The casual hockey fan became a Senators fan and really adopted the team. At that point, we'd found a generation of Senators fans. It had been 15 years in the making and we really did solidify that generation of fans."

Leeder believes he and the organization are seeing more of the same again coming off a season in which an unheralded Ottawa team — predicted by many before the season to be a cellar dweller in the Eastern Conference — came within a goal of taking down the mighty New York Rangers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"There has been a real connection this year with this team," he said. "This team was maybe even more well-liked than the one that went to the final. That same feeling exists (now). When the season was over (in 2007), you wanted more. People now are looking forward to the start of next season and that's the way it was in '07 as well, I think.

"We got so close and everybody was saying 'gee, let's take another run at it next year.' I've got that same feeling now, that people are saying they can hardly wait to get back at it in the playoffs and see how we can do again."

That the Senators would become so deeply woven into the fabric of the city — that they'd have a charity arm, the Sens Foundation, which contributes greatly to its well-being every day — let's just say the 'founding fathers' likely never saw any of that coming.

"When we got into the 'Bring Back the Senators' campaign, we thought it would be really important to Ottawa," said Leeder. "We just didn't realize the extent of the things we would do for the community and how important it would become. It's exceeded all expectations on that front.

"That really evolved over time. As the team started playing, we realized that maybe we had opportunities that other businesses and individuals didn't have in the community to either give back to charities or somehow contribute back to the community. That's evolved, certainly, over the 20 years."

Only Leeder remains involved with the Senators organization today, but he still keeps in touch with Firestone, Sexton and Bryden, all of whom helped pave the road to where the team is today. While it's natural to do a little reminiscing at times, each of them spends more time looking forward than back.

"We're awfully proud of our involvement (in birthing the Senators)," said Leeder. "But we've moved on to 'what's the next chapter going to hold?'"

Sexton, who called the Hall of Fame honour 'a wonderful thrill,' now works for the Pittsburgh Penguins as their assistant director of amateur scouting. But the emotional ties to the Senators and what this group wrought aren't easily forgotten.

"I left the Sens years ago and I've worked for other NHL teams," he told the Ottawa Sun. "But make no mistake, the Sens are very near and dear to my heart. I track how they're doing and I watch what they're doing. I talk to Cyril and some of their other executives regularly. I'll have a special place in my heart for the Sens until the day I die."

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