Outgoing Ottawa Senators president Leeder looking forward to ‘free agency’

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Cyril Leeder gave few hints about his future as he expressed his gratitude to the Senators executives, his family and local hockey fans in his first public comments since being dismissed as president of the Ottawa Senators.

The front-office veteran of the Senators expressed no ill-will towards his former team or owner Eugene Melnyk, who yesterday announced the shakeup and introduced Mr. Leeder’s replacement, Tom Anselmi, the former president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Mr. Leeder told a gathering of media at the Canadian Tire Centre – the Senators logo removed from the screens behind him – that he understood Mr. Melnyk’s desire to make a change at the top.

“I think everybody’s looking for a reason. In business, sometimes, you make a change. You don’t need a reason to make a change, you just make a change,” he said, comparing the circumstances to an NHL team changing coaches just to shake things up. “I’ve got no issue with that.”

Mr. Melnyk said yesterday that Mr. Anselmi’s experience in real estate development was a strong factor for the move as the Ottawa Senators prepare to redevelop LeBreton Flats and construct a new arena.

However, Mr. Leeder – who led the construction of the team’s current arena and was on the board of the Ottawa Convention Centre during its $169.1-million reconstruction – said today that he didn’t believe that the LeBreton Flats project was a key consideration behind his ouster.

“I could have delivered it for the organization and the city,” he said.

Mr. Leeder said he “saw signs” that such a move might be coming, but he was officially informed of the decision on Tuesday morning in a cordial meeting with Mr. Melnyk and Senators lawyer Sheldon Plener.

He said he offered to stay on until the end of the season to assist in the transition, but understands why Mr. Melnyk preferred a clean break.

“If you’re making a change, it’s hard to keep the other guy around. You haven’t really made a change,” he said.

Free agency

Mr. Leeder gave few indications of his next move as he discussed his transition into “free agency,” but said he was staying on as co-chair of the city’s 2021 Canada Summer Games bid and would retain his position on the board of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Leeder expressed a desire to stay in Ottawa, but acknowledged his skillset may be valuable to organizations in other cities.

“It’s scary, it’s exciting, I really haven’t thought about anything in any great detail,” he said, though he did dismiss any notions of running for political office such as mayor of Ottawa.

Upon hearing of Mr. Leeder’s dismissal yesterday, Mayor Jim Watson told reporters that he hopes somebody in Ottawa snaps up the venerable community leader.

“My hope is we don’t lose him to another city and he stays here and finds a new role,” he said.

In an interview with OBJ, Bruce Firestone – who co-founded the Senators with Mr. Leeder and Randy Sexton and said he spoke to Mr. Leeder yesterday – said his friend still “has a lot to contribute.”

“Cyril’s still young enough to do something extraordinary,” Mr. Firestone said. “I look forward to the next chapter.”

Hall of Fame career

Despite not landing a Stanley Cup, Mr. Leeder’s accomplishments with the organization and beyond have been vast.

Mr. Firestone said he believes Mr. Leeder saved the Senators three times.

First, he delivered the Canadian Tire Centre (then known as the Palladium) on time and on budget to secure unconditional team status in the NHL. Then, when the team went bankrupt, he negotiated closely with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to keep the team in Ottawa. And, most recently, Mr. Leeder secured Lebreton Flats as the next arena destination.

“Cyril has worked through some of the highest pressure situations you can imagine,” Mr. Firestone said.

In addition, Mr. Firestone said his longtime colleague did the job while making friends, asserting that Mr. Leeder is well-liked in the corporate community, by the team as well as the fans.

Bernie Ashe, CEO of Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, worked for the Senators alongside Mr. Leeder for much of the ’90s, and has sat on numerous boards with his colleague over the years. He says the ability to think bigger than the team was one of Mr. Leeder’s greatest strengths.

“Cyril set the standard that sports entertainment executives should all strive towards,” he said, highlighting his community outreach.

Mr. Ashe says efforts such as bringing in minor hockey tournaments and aggressively bidding for major events were crucial for keeping the Senators at the top of people’s minds.

“It helped the Senators and the Canadian Tire Centre, but it helped the community as well,” he said. “It was very strategic.”

Both Mr. Firestone and Mr. Ashe said they were sad to hear the news yesterday, but were confident that the former Sens president will find success wherever he goes.

Reflecting on his own journey today, Mr. Leeder was able to stand back at his press conference and see the team he had spent decades building as a complete product.

“Going from a dream, to now one of the entrenched, better-respected teams in the entire league, is something I’m really proud to have been a part of.”

The bulk of Mr. Leeder’s farewell address saw him give thanks to a number of individuals. Among them, Mr. Firestone, Mr. Sexton and Rod Bryden, the former owner of the Senators. He also thanked his executive team and expressed a fondness for their regular Tuesday morning meetings when they would hammer out the week’s challenges.

He had a few regrets to add, chiefly to the fans. He choked up in his apologies for never delivering a Stanley Cup during his tenure. Through tears, he thanked his family for their patience with him throughout what had been a demanding career with the team.

“You were always hoping I’d be around for a few extra hours a week. Be careful what you wish for,” he told them.