Senators' founder gratified by growth of his vision
Firestone remains huge fan of team, proud of its deep connection to nation's capital
|Original Senators owner and founder Bruce Firestone was honoured earlier this week at the Ottawa Convention Centre with his induction into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame in the builders' category (Photo by Mike Latimer).
Like the proudest of papas, Bruce Firestone positively beams as he speaks about an offspring that has matured and grown just the way he'd always hoped.
But in this case, at least, the 60-year-old Ottawa entrepreneur isn't speaking about any of his five children. Rather, the subject is the National Hockey League team he helped birth more than two decades ago, and one he still follows ardently to this day.
"I've got to be the Sens' No. 1 fan," Firestone, the original owner of the Ottawa Senators, said a few days after being inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame in the builders' category. "Even if they're playing on the West Coast, I can't really sleep until I find out what the final score is. I was talking (recently) to a friend of mine and she's a really special person. I told her about my feelings for the team and she says to me — and it's quite profound — 'you're not really the founder of this team, Bruce. You're its mother.' And I think that's the way I feel about it.
"I've got five kids and I love my kids. But she knows this kind of stuff and she's got that sense (about it). Now, I've never been a mother, but she said 'that's how mothers feel (about a child).' It happens to be true. You can say I'll never be a mother, so how can I know? But she's right."
The Hall of Fame ceremony, which also honoured co-founders Cyril Leeder (the Senators' current president) and Randy Sexton along with former owner Rod Bryden, was indeed a night of nostalgia for Firestone. And he couldn't have been happier to share the spotlight with three other people he believes were integral to the story of the Senators.
"They call me the founder of the team but really, I'm the co-founder," said Firestone. "Randy and Cyril are certainly equal in every way. We wouldn't have had the team without Cyril, we wouldn't have had the team without Randy and we wouldn't have had the team without Rod."
But it was Firestone who had idea, the vision that the time was right to bring the NHL back to Ottawa. Not that he'll admit to any 'eureka' moment of inspiration, mind you.
"I wish it was something glorious and fabulous like a burning bush," he said. "But it wasn't anything so glorious as that. What was really in my mind was it was coming toward the end of the 1980s and Ottawa might be ready to do something different and might be ready for something different. Cyril, Randy and I had built the original parent company of the Senators, Terrace Investments, to the point where you could do something special."
Firestone cast his eyes toward Ottawa's bigger Ontario cousin, Toronto. And after considering and discarding a few options, he zeroed his attention in on hockey and the NHL.
"I thought 'wait a second, they have an NHL team' and maybe the NHL is getting ready to expand again," he said. "If they do, maybe Ottawa's big enough. And if Ottawa's big enough, maybe we should be the bidder."
The wheels started to turn for real in 1987 — "that's when the idea was first discussed between Cyril and I" — and it was five long years before the puck finally dropped for the first time on Oct. 8, 1992, at the Ottawa Civic Centre. Much as there were plenty of struggles in the early years, Firestone said the 'founding fathers' always believed the team could become the community icon that it is today.
"It might sound a little presumptuous, but I think we all did (believe that)," said Firestone. "Ottawa was changing, even back then ... after making most of its history as a government town. Back then, I think we had 30,000 independent businesses and today, many more. We have a populaton in Ottawa-Gatineau of 1.3 million.
"All of us had a vision from Day 1 that if we could wait a generation, which has now gone by ... those kids (from back then) are the prime ticket-buying public now. They're in their 20s and 30s and a lot of them can't remember this town not having NHL hockey, and they live, breathe and die NHL hockey."
All those years later, Firestone says he is gratified by the fact some of the staff from the early days of the franchise are now key players in the organization's success today.
"I have to give credit to Eugene (Melnyk, the Senators' current owner)," said Firestone. "He's kept a lot of people. Jimmy Steel, Mark Bonneau and Jeff Kyle, and of course, Cyril Leeder ... and many others are still there from the founding of the team. It's a great credit to Eugene and to Rod, as the second owner, that they had confidence in these executives, many of whom I trained.
"So I feel very good about that, having trained some pretty elite executives. Cyril is an elite executive (in the NHL). You don't get to be among the top seven to 12 teams in the league in terms of revenue streams because you sit around, smoke cigars and drink beer. You work pretty hard."
It also warms Firestone's heart to see the deep connection that has developed over time between a city and its NHL team. The vision, it is obvious now, was right on the mark.
"It's very gratifying to see (the Senators) are embedded in the community," he said. "The fans are great and there's really a love affair between the fans and the team. They're in love. It's like when you met a girl and you fell in love ... it's the same feeling.
"Can you imagine what will happen if the Sens win (the Stanley Cup). We'll have a party that will go on for three days. Nobody will show up at work. You'll have to close the city down. And that's when we win it, not if we win it."