In an unprecedented bidding war, Ottawa Senators now valued at over a billion dollars

Bruce DowbigginIf ever there were a sign of the world turned upside down, it would have to be the bidding war currently driving the value of the Ottawa Senators over a billion dollars.

Granted, there is an arena involved, but the concept of the market in the Nation’s Capital being worth that much is stunning. A city of 935,000 with little or no industry besides I.T. and government lucre, no media impact and lying two hours away from the Montreal Canadiens’ heartland seems to defy economic reality.

But we are reading about Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds, rapper The Weeknd and Snoop Dog heading groups said to be interested in the team. (Reynolds’ recent success in buying English football club Wrexham and seeing it promoted to the next division has been the Ted Lasso story in real life.) Other prominent names are being mentioned daily.

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On the surface, this is good news for all seven Canadian NHL franchises, although the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Canucks are well-capitalized already. For owners of the other teams in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg, however, the notion that their owners could cash out and make substantial profits is tempting. Would they do it if they couldn’t see a championship in their lifetimes?

Contrary to what the public believes, owning an NHL franchise is not a barrel of laughs, hanging out with your hockey heroes and hobnobbing with Gary Bettman at the owners’ meetings. As the expression goes, success has a million fathers but losing is an orphan. So fans should not presume that Canadian NHL owners, faced with fans’ scorn and media sarcasm, might not look at the billion-dollar Senators deal as a good time to make for the door – especially those owners who long ago lost the lustre of fandom.

Being a Canadian owner is a worse torture. In my 2014 book Ice Storm, we recorded the advice Francesco Aquilini received from a friend with experience of the media when the Aquilini family dove into ownership of the Vancouver Canucks.

To paraphrase, the advice went something like, ‘If you don’t like having your name slurred, your judgment questioned and your intelligence doubted by people in grocery stores, don’t do it’. Alas, Aquilini went ahead and bought the Canucks. After almost reaching the Stanley Cup in 2011, it has been a long ride to the bottom for the team.

When things go poorly, owners are never sure who to trust. League sources all have agendas and don’t want you to improve. The media just want a hot story about despair and disillusionment. So invariably, they turn to the community, more specifically some former team hero, for advice. In Aqulini’s case, it was Vancouver legend Trevor Linden who helped convince the Canucks owner to abandon the established plan developed by president/GM Mike Gillis and adopt one from a player with experience in the optical and fitness world.

It went as well as you might expect. Recently, the Canucks learned that, despite a truly brutal season, they will not be in line at the draft lottery for Connor Bedard. This is not to pick on the Canucks. Many teams are experiencing the syndrome.

Certainly, some of their players may make for the door, heading to warmer climes in tax-free states where no one recognizes them outside the rink. For instance, what happens to pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Auston Matthews now that Toronto has face-planted this round? Will he stay in Toronto or head closer to his U.S. roots in a tax-free state? The Calgary Flames saw that happen in the case of UFA Johnny Gaudreau and coming UFA Matthew Tkachuk.

I recently wrote:

“As the July 1 free-agent deadline approached, Gaudreau announced that, despite an enormous eight-year $80M contract offer from the Flames, he would test free agency. The star winger claimed he wanted to go home so his wife could have their baby in the USA. As such, it was believed his preferred venues were Philadelphia or New Jersey or even the New York Islanders.

Calgary hoped against hope for a reversal of that decision, but Flames fans quietly fans resigned themselves that he wanted to be nearer to family. To their shock and surprise, Gaudreau would only travel as far as Columbus, Ohio, to find a new home, taking $15M less than Calgary’s offer to play on the Blue Jackets, a team with few real hopes of playoff contention.

Things were about to get worse for the Flames. Gaudreau’s linemate Matthew Tkachuk told (General Manager Brad) Treliving on July 20, 2022, that he would not sign long-term in Calgary after his contractual options were done in 2023. To buy time to create a deal for Tkachuk, the Flames announced they were taking him to salary arbitration.

It went for naught. Tkachuk phoned Treliving and told him he wanted out. “Matthew did not have an appetite and would not sign with the Calgary Flames long term,” Treliving said. “He outlined the reasons for this. … Ultimately (he) made the decision and informed us that being a Calgary Flame long term was not in his plans.” There were real concerns that the hole left in the Flames’ roster by the defections could be irreparable.”

Irreparable they were, despite a blockbuster trade for Jonathan Huberdeau and signing UFA Nazim Kadri. Huberdeau’s production collapsed, Kadri seemed lost, coach Darryl Sutter and GM Brad Treliving were fired, and Tkachuk has now led the Florida Panthers to a shock sweep of the Leafs in the second round of the playoffs.

How that shakes out in Calgary is up in the air. But if the Flames’ aging ownership group gets an offer from The Weeknd it can’t refuse, don’t be surprised if the club winds up under new ownership. And that ownership eventually ends up somewhere else.

Bruce Dowbiggin is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History, his new book with his son Evan, was voted the eighth best professional hockey book by His 2004 book Money Players was voted seventh best.

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